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In 1944 Laurence Olivier brought "caviare to the general" and made them like it. His adaptation of Henry V, William Shakespeare's epic tale of England's defeat of France in the Battle of Agincourt, was the first film version of the Bard's plays to achieve both critical and popular acclaim. It set the stage for Olivier's future as a film director while also putting the British film industry into a dominant position in the international market just as the nation was coming out of World War II.
Bringing Shakespeare to the screen was far from Olivier's mind in 1943, when he was serving as a flight instructor for the Royal Air Force during World War II. He had had a terrible experience filming As You Like It opposite German star Elisabeth Bergner in 1936, which had led him to turn down the lead in MGM's all-star production of Romeo and Juliet the same year. In his opinion, Shakespeare simply couldn't be filmed. Nor was a sincere adaptation of Henry V high on his list of projects. In fact, before World War II, he had considered a less reverential production of it as a lampoon of flag-waving militarism.
BBC producer Dallas Bower first felt the need for a straightforward rendition of the play as a rallying cry for the English during World War II, but he had been unable to secure financing. Instead, he got Olivier to perform the famous "Once more unto the breach" speech on a radio broadcast. Among those inspired by his reading was Italian expatriate Filippo Del Giudice, who had previously produced another paean to the British military, In Which We Serve (1942). He raised the capitol and got England's Ministry of Information to request that Olivier be assigned to the film.
Initially, Olivier was only supposed to star in the film, but he had trouble finding a suitable director. There are several stories about how he came to direct it himself. Olivier always credited William Wyler, who had directed him in Wuthering Heights (1939), with the idea. When he approached Wyler about directing the film, the director insisted Olivier was the only one who could do it. Director Carol Reed said much the same thing, as did Olivier's friend and frequent co-star Ralph Richardson. There are also records to indicate that director Terence Young, who would later helm such James Bond films as Dr. No (1962) and Goldfinger (1964), was initially assigned to direct. When he failed to get anything on film before his required return to military service, Olivier finally took over the directing reins.
But from the first, he had been supervising every aspect of the film. He enlisted Shakespearean scholar Alan Dent to help him prepare the screenplay, which he knew would require some judicious cuts in the original (rumors suggest that Winston Churchill may have suggested cuts of material he thought would undermine the film's patriotic message). He also had to solve the problems he thought had plagued earlier film versions of Shakespeare. After screening George Cukor's Romeo and Juliet (1936), he realized that the standard Hollywood camera style, which included moving in for a close up at climactic moments, didn't work for Shakespeare. In one scene, the close up had forced Norma Shearer to whisper one of her most passionate lines. Instead, he decided to film long speeches starting in close up and then moving the camera back as the actor's intensity grew. He also decided to treat the soliloquies not as direct addresses to the audience, but as interior monologues, playing them in voiceover.
Olivier was still concerned with how to handle the play's theatricality on film. In particular, he had to decide how to present the Chorus, a narrator who appears throughout the play to set the scene and underline the action's importance. The Chorus' speeches were too famous to cut or assign to other characters. Initially he planned to use them as voiceovers. Then he came up with the idea of ending the film by introducing the Chorus as an Elizabethan actor on the stage of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, thus revealing the entire film had taken place in the minds of the play's original audience. This led to another logical choice: he would start the film in the Globe Theatre, with the Chorus and other actors on stage until the action carried them out into the world. They would return to the stage for the final scene, in which a boy would play Henry's betrothed, Princess Anne, since boys had played women's roles in Shakespeare's time.
One thing Olivier wanted for the film eluded him, however. He had hoped to cast his wife, Vivien Leigh, in the relatively small role of Princess Katharine, and had even looked for ways to build the role up for her. But American film producer David O. Selznick, who had put her under personal contract when he cast her as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939), refused to let her play such a small role and even threatened legal action. Instead, the role went to Renee Asherson, who would later freely admit that she got the part because she could fit into the costumes that had already been made for Leigh.
Although many of Henry V's scenes were stylized, based on the illustrations in a medieval French prayer book, Olivier wanted to use actual locations for the Battle of Agincourt. With no suitable expanse of land in England itself, he finally settled on a location in Ireland, where the many extras he needed (about 700) would be relatively inexpensive, and they could find locations free of any hint of modern development. Since Ireland was a neutral power during World War II, it also meant their outdoor shooting would not be disturbed by aerial warfare, though there was one day during which the imaginary war had to be put on hold as an RAF squadron flew overhead on their way to battle.
Early in the location shoot, Olivier tried to get the inexperienced extras on his side by telling them he wouldn't ask them to do any stunts he wasn't willing to do himself. That claim backfired when he had to demonstrate to one extra how to drop out of a tree and land on an enemy soldier's horse. Olivier took the 20-foot drop, landed poorly and severely sprained his ankle. Rather than scare the extra, he acted as though nothing was wrong until he could hobble out of sight behind a tree. Then he called for medical help. While trying to get a threatening shot of a soldier on horseback, he told the rider to head straight for the camera, trusting that the horse would turn at the last minute. Instead, the steed charged the camera, with Olivier behind it checking the shot through the viewfinder. The camera fell, dislocating his shoulder, while the viewfinder pierced his lip, leaving him with a lifelong scar. At the time, however, the main concern was the camera. It was the only Technicolor camera in England, and they couldn't risk damaging it.
Olivier shot for six weeks in Ireland to create the 10-minute battle scene, then returned to England to shoot the rest of the film in the studio. In all, he spent almost a year filming, followed by more time supervising the editing and William Walton's score. The latter was one of the film's special triumphs, with Walton seeming to adjust his music to the cadences of the actors' line readings,
Henry V opened in London in November 1944 to surprisingly lackluster reviews. As a result, it performed poorly at the box office for its first three weeks. By then, however, positive word of mouth had spread and performances started selling out. It would run 11 months in London alone, a record for a British film. It did not play the U.S. until June of 1946, when United Artists created an astute release pattern to build word of mouth and turn the picture into an event. They only circulated five prints, allowing the film to build business in the major U.S. cities before hitting smaller towns. It played six months in Boston and almost a year in New York. And the reviews were mostly ecstatic, hailing it as one of the screen's first great works of art and the most impressive directing debut since Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941). Olivier won Best Actor awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Review, also capturing the latter's Best Picture award and coming within a few votes of beating The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) for the New York Film Critics Award in that category. It received Oscar® nominations for Olivier as Best Actor, for Best Picture and for Art Direction and Score. Although it didn't win any Academy Awards®, Olivier was voted an Honorary Oscar® for his work as actor, producer and director.
Beyond immediate awards, Henry V brought the British film industry back with a bang after the deprivations of World War II, becoming the top-grossing English film at that time. It also made it possible for Olivier to get future Shakespeare projects filmed, including Hamlet (1948), which would bring him Oscars® for Best Actor and Best Picture. It also inspired new generations of filmmakers, including director Franco Zeffirelli, who would later credit Henry V with inspiring him to defy his family and go into the theatre, and Kenneth Branagh, who would make his big-screen directing debut with a new version of Shakespeare's play in 1989.
Producer: Laurence Olivier, Filippo Del Giudice
Director: Laurence Olivier, Reginald Beck
Art Direction: Paul Sheriff, Carmen DillonMusic: William Walton
Cast: Laurence Olivier (King Henry V), Robert Newton (Ancient Pistol), Leslie Banks (Chorus), Renee Asherson (Princess Katharine), Leo Genn (Constable of France), Felix Aylmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), Harcourt Williams (King Charles VI of France), Ernest Thesiger (Duke of Berri), Max Adrian (The Dauphin), Robert Helpmann (Bishop of Ely).
by Frank Miller