The Presentation of King Henry V in the Film Versions of Henry V

Article by Mark Dujsik

Studying the character of King Harry in Henry V unfolds a string of moral ambiguities that any actor would love to have the chance to shape into their own.  In his 1944 film version of the play, Laurence Olivier's molding of the character was heavily influenced by his film's aim as a morale booster for troops during World War II.  Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version, on the other hand, is the result of post-Vietnam cynicism and mistrust with government and allows Harry's less admirable qualities to show through.  The differences in character presentation are both a sign of each film's respective time and a choice as to what is important to the development of the character and, as a result, the overall thrust of the play.  While the general approach to the character is almost entirely in the hands of the actor/director in question, both films take licenses with Shakespeare's text to affect the nature of Harry.  The resulting central difference between the two portrayals is that Olivier's Harry comes across a hero while Branagh's comes across a human being.  We see this distinction in Harry's introductory scene, the presentation of Harry's past with his former company especially Sir John Falstaff, the scene of Harry's threat to the town of Harfleur, Harry's night of doubt before the Battle of Agincourt, and the wooing of Catherine.

A character's entrance should always make some initial impact upon the audience as to what to expect from him or her, and both Olivier and Branagh give Harry a grand entrance—albeit in different senses.  Olivier uses the contrivance of a theatrical production throughout his film, and we first catch a glimpse of Harry as the actor playing him about to enter the stage.  He clears his throat and walks on stage to the roar of tumultuous applause.  By subtly downplaying the image of the actor, Olivier heightens the effect of Harry's persona; this is a regular man in the shoes of a legend.  Branagh's entrance as Harry is far more intimidating and uneasy.  He walks through the doors of his throne room hidden in shadow, and we are not allowed a clear view of him until he first speaks.  It sets up the tone of the rest of scene, in which Branagh's Harry speaks quietly and deliberately; he is a man who is conscious of the repercussions of the war he is being moved toward.  Conversely, Olivier speaks in a public voice, which is both the result of performing for a live audience and the decision to make Harry a larger-than-life personality.  While Branagh's threat to the Dauphin is biting, Olivier's is a downright public chastising.

One of the interesting problems presented by performing Henry V on its own is the way in which to handle Harry's past, especially his all important banishment of Falstaff.  Both Olivier and Branagh give time to Falstaff, and both directors have those in his company reacting sorrowfully to his death.  Neither eliminate the fact that Harry removed Falstaff from his presence, although Branagh does a much better job at presenting the back story to a potentially uninformed audience by recreating vital scenes from 1 Henry IV as flashbacks.  Olivier has Falstaff remembering his denouncement in 2 Henry IV on his deathbed, but then his fellow tavern-dwellers are content (or at least feel obligated) to go off to war.  Olivier eliminates two important scenes in showing Harry's character that involve the elimination of past acquaintances in the name of his title that Branagh maintains.  First is the scene with the three traitors.  In it, Branagh plays up Harry's friendship with Scrope to serve as a parallel to the banishment of Falstaff.  Second is the scene in which Harry upholds Bardolph's punishment to be hung.  This scene is important to Harry's character as it continues his decision to push aside his past in the name of his role as king.  Branagh plays Harry's reaction to the hanging with remorse, reiterating Harry's humanity even in the midst of betraying loyalty.

There are certain places, though, that neither Olivier nor Branagh thought would be wise to bring Harry.  In the middle of the Battle of Agincourt, there is a scene in the play in which Harry orders the French prisoners of war to be killed.  Neither film version contains this scene, which only stands to reason on a dramatic level considering the fact that it happens during the height of the point when the audience's sympathies must lie entirely with Harry and the English.  There is another borderline scene that Olivier excised and Branagh kept.  In it, Harry stands outside of the gates to the French town of Harfleur and threatens that, if he continues with his assault, he will not be responsible for the potentially brutal actions of his soldiers.  The speech is graphic in describing the atrocities of war, so it stands to reason that it would not exist in a piece of propaganda.  Branagh rationalizes the threat by his reaction to the governor of Harfleur's surrender.   Harry is relieved by the announcement and proceeds to immediately toss aside his role as soldier and show his exhaustion after the preceding battle.  Branagh's Harry seems heroic only when it is necessary.

Whether Harry's heroism is seen as a guise or genuine, a scene in which he has some doubt about his role as a king is played in both versions as a moment of comparative weakness.  As Harry wanders the camp in disguise, he comes across three soldiers who also have some doubt.  They wonder about the legitimacy of the war and the future punishment of the king who brought them there.  Olivier treats these three men and their debate as a whimsical thought; Branagh takes it as a declaration of protest.  The soliloquy that follows has Harry questioning what makes a king different from a common man.  The answer is ceremony.  Olivier plays the monologue in voiceover, while Branagh says it aloud.  The difference in tone is more important, though.  Olivier's Harry is curious as to why his men don't understand that he is essentially one of them.  He's a martyr in this scene, and when he is reduced to his knees at the end of the scene, it is to pray for his men's courage.  Branagh has another take.  As Harry sits framed among a group of sleeping soldiers—an image which gives the impression that he is among the dead—his interpretation of the speech is desperate as he prays that God may overlook the sins of his family.

The war itself is played out entirely different as well, with Olivier going for heroics (except in showing the slaughter of the boys of the army) and Branagh portraying it as gritty and bloody as possible, but afterwards, the tension is relieved in the courtship scene between Harry and Catherine.  The Olivier version plays this scene for purely romantic effect and for the humor of the separation by language.  By the end, Harry and Catherine have interlocked hands and the rings on their fingers (red representing England, blue representing France) have been connected, symbolizing the union of England and France.  During their wedding, Harry and Catherine are dressed in white, and Harry wears a crown of red and blue jewels.  The scene returns to the stage, and all is well.  However, Branagh allows a bit of uncertainty in this scene.  Harry is incredibly awkward with Catherine to the point of appearing and acting like a boy at times.  This gives him more humanity, of course, but the real question lies in his intentions in wooing her.  After King Charles agrees to the terms of surrender and consequently gives his daughter's hand to Harry in marriage, Branagh gives an ambiguous look that makes us question whether this is romance or politics.  Similarly, Branagh assigns Queen Isabel's wedding vows to Harry, which gives them a tinge of political expectation and motivation.

Both versions of Henry V make Shakespeare's text accessible, but Branagh's decision to humanize Harry seems more in tune with the Bard's ability to create real, complex characters out of archetypes.  Olivier is perfectly content with the archetype, and it suits the time in which he made the film perfectly.  What sets the final tone for the film as equally as Harry's first entrance set the pace for his characterization is the final Chorus speech.  In Olivier's film, the Chorus does not state what happens after the events in the play.  Harry dies young, and his son takes the crown as a child.  As a result, England loses control over France.  During World War II, it would not have been wise to say that a war was fought in vain, but after Vietnam, it seems perfectly natural.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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