“But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?”
When Laurence Olivier decided to film Henry V, he understood that he was defying the conventional wisdom that Shakespeare didn’t translate well to the movies. With a multi-million dollar budget and a cast of hundreds, you could reenact the Battle of Agincourt, but that by no means guaranteed that you’d capture the excitement of the famous English military victory any better than the Lord Chamberlain’s men did in 1600 with a cast of dozens. William Shakespeare knew that what limited his ability to stage the history of Henry V also freed his imagination. The more he was required to to make up for the Globe Theater’s lack of realism, the more he would have the opportunity to display his poetic genius. Laurence Olivier understood Shakespeare intuitively. He decided not to film Henry V as a Hollywood epic. Rather, he would use the tools film gave him to translate the language of the Elizabethan theater into the language of cinema.
Henry V opens with a panoramic view of London in 1600. There it is, old London Bridge, old St. Paul’s, the full skyline of the medieval English capitol. Surely this would have been a powerful image for any British theatergoer in 1944. Olivier’s inspired approach to filming a close, almost literal translation of Henry V from the Elizabethan stage to the movie theaters of 1944 was to film, along with Henry V itself, a recreation of how Henry V would have been staged in 1600. Felix Aylmer and Robert Helpmann, therefore, not only play the Archbishops of Canterbury and Ely. They play actors playing the archbishops of Canterbury and Ely. Laurence Oliver not only plays Prince Hal. He plays an actor playing Prince Hal. As the two archbishops manipulate the King into invading France — a war that will head off any possibility that the crown will try to confiscate church property — we realize that we are watching the opening of Henry V along with a 16th century audience. They laugh. They cheer. They make the actor playing the actor playing the Archbishop of Ely so nervous that he drops a handful of documents on the floor. He has to pick them up to read his lines. He drops them again.
By this method, Olivier can stop and start the play at his convenience. He can slow down and break up the famously convoluted reading of the Law Salique, dish it out in bites small enough for a modern audience to swallow. By the time Henry is ready to cross the English channel to invade France, we understand both the legal justification for the invasion and how contrived this legal justification probably was. It doesn’t matter. These funny little churchman aren’t manipulating King Henry. He’s already decided on his course of action. What’s more, we no more question Henry’s decision to invade France than we question the coming invasion of Normandy. Henry is the man to restore a just order to western Europe, a Churchill in Elizabethan clothing. Olivier’s reading of Henry V is both nationalist and true to its original intent. William Shakespeare knew war was terrible. He was also a patriotic Englishman. War is hell. Go team Britannia.
If Laurence Olivier’s decision to stage a play within a film solved the problem of how to translate the language of theater into the language of film, he’s now faced with the challenge of how to make full use of the tools cinema provides him. How would William Shakespeare himself stage Henry V if he had cameras and hundreds of extras, if he could control the lighting, stop and start the film as he successfully builds new stage after new stage, if he could leave the “cockpit” and film on location in the “vasty fields of France?” An abrupt introduction of “nature,” a rainstorm, into the play within the film signals the beginning of the transformation from the theater to the movies, from the play within the film to the highly stylized, yet still more cinematic than Elizabethan recreation of the Battle of Agincourt. We hear a thunderclap. A boy with a placard that says “The Boar’s Tavern” indicates a possible change in venue, but the “groundlings,” the common people in the cheap seats, stay on. It’s their moment, the introduction of “Pistol,” who was a great favorite of the working class in Elizabethan England, Nym, and Bardolph. We here about Sir John Falstaff’s illness, and remember how Prince Hal rejected Falstaff and all his old friends when he became king. The groundings laugh at Pistol’s every word, every gesture. The actors get soaking wet but continue. Whether or not the “gentlemen” in the audience have gone to the Boar’s Tavern is never made clear, but we don’t see any sign of them. This is the London mob having fun.
When Nym, Bardolph and Pistol decide to follow King Henry to France, we remember that the English army at Agincourt, like the British and American army that would hit the beaches at Normandy depended on the working-class, those English long bowman who would defeat French chivalry, those British and American factory workers and shopkeepers who would drive Hitler’s master race back across the Rhine. The transition to France now quickly proceeds, first to the French court, then to the siege of Harfleur.
“Thus with imagined wing our swift scene flies
In motion of no less celerity
Than that of thought. Suppose that you have seen
The well-appointed king at Hampton pier
Embark his royalty; and his brave fleet
With silken streamers the young Phoebus fanning:
Play with your fancies, and in them behold
Upon the hempen tackle ship-boys climbing;
Hear the shrill whistle which doth order give
To sounds confused; behold the threaden sails,
Borne with the invisible and creeping wind,
Draw the huge bottoms through the furrow’d sea,
Breasting the lofty surge: O, do but think
You stand upon the ravage and behold
A city on the inconstant billows dancing;
For so appears this fleet majestical,
Holding due course to Harfleur.”
Harfleur, like Normandy, falls. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,” Henry declaims, leading the charge. “Or close the wall up with our English dead.” Nym, Bardolph and Pistol are now in France, having participated in the successful attack. The Globe Theater is gone. We know we’re not really in France. The scene is stylized, ritualistic, dramatic, not realistic, but it’s no longer a film of a play, but, rather, a cinematic dramatization of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Every Englishman (and woman) in 1944 would have known what happened next. The English army is cornered by vastly superior French numbers. The French crown has paid an enormous sum of money to recruit and outfit a army, which now outnumbers the English anywhere from 4:3 to 6:1. By all rights the English should have lost. Henry should have gone back to England in disgrace with most of his soldiers lying dead in the “vasty fields of France.” Agincourt was a decisive English victory against the odds, as unlikely as it would have been had the British not gotten on their ships at Dunkirk, but turned and smashed Hitler and the Wehrmacht once and for all.
Compared to pageantry and unapologetic patriotism of Olivier’s film, Kenneth Branagh’s revisionist, post-Vietnam reading of Henry V is intelligent, competently acted, thought provoking, and humanistic, but, ultimately, dull and uninspired. Laurence Olivier’s St. Crispians Day speech makes me want to jump once more into the breach right along with Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol. Branagh’s makes me wonder what exactly such a ringing call to battle is doing in a film that,if a misreading of Shakespeare’s play for a good cause is still a pretty blatant misreading. The film’s most powerful scene, Henry ordering his old friend Bardolph hanged for looting, is so well done that it short circuits the victory at Agincourt. Is Henry a hero or just a ruthless dictator? In Olivier’s play, Henry is a shimmering democratic warrior angel, an athletic Churchill in the prime of his youth. In Branagh’s film, he’s an opportunistic social climber who hangs an old friend on the way to marry his French Princess — a magnificent young Emma Thompson speaking perfect French and bad English.
But as laudable as Branagh’s liberal, anti-war vision is, he undercuts it with the way he stages the Battle of Agincourt. The battle, which is filmed largely in close ups, might be more realistic than Olivier’s. The mud, gore, and brutal hand to hand combat is probably what the Hundred Years War did look like to the common soldier, but neither Shakespeare nor Branagh has the consistent anti-war, anti-authoritarian vision of, say, a Leo Tolstoy. For Shakespeare, it’s intentional. He wrote a play to glorify Henry V and the Tudors. Branagh, on the other hand, rudely pushes a post-Vietnam sensibility into the play’s patriotic Elizabethan myth making. What’s more, shortly after we see Henry order Bardolph’s hanging, we then get to see the horror of war visualized as the brutality of the common soldier. That might work as an anti-war message. War reduces us to beasts. But it also detracts from message Branagh had sent when he dwelt on Bardolph’s brutal execution. Is this a straight staging of Henry V or a deconstruction of the legend of Prince Hal? It’s both, obviously, and it’s not bad as far as cinema goes, but it’s not Shakespeare either. It’s a realistic war movie weighted down by Shakespeare’s language.
Anthony Mann’s El Cid is something quite different. If Olivier overcomes the limitations of the cinema of his day by his oblique, stylized approach to the Battle of Agincourt, and if Kenneth Branagh gives us a realistic, big budget Henry V that’s neither true to the source material nor grand enough to be genuinely realistic — Agincourt was, after all, the biggest, bloodiest battle of the Middle Ages — then Anthony Mann, up until then best known for low-budget westerns, makes a bold dramatic choice and stays with it with so much crazy determination that it works. El Cid is the biggest, loudest, grandest, most patriotic, most romantic historical epic ever made. Mann has thousands of extras, not hundreds. He films on location at four of the biggest, most imposing castles in all of Spain. What’s more, having worked in the American southwest, he knows how to make good use of the Spanish landscape, the deep blue, sun drenched Mediterranean, the forbidding light, space, and beauty of the Iberian peninsula. Charleton Heston may be wooden, but he’s larger than life wooden. Sophia Loren may not be a great actress, but she is able to convey the broad, operatic quality of her character Doña Ximena. Genevieve Page, as Princess Donna Urraca of Zamora, has more regal, female authority in one glance than you can find in all nine hours of Peter Jackson’s execrable Lord of the Rings saga. The over the top drama, the incestuous love of Donna Urraca for her brother Alphonso, Alphonso’s betrayal of their other brother Sancho, Cid’s blatantly oedipal dual with Doña Ximena’s father Count Gormaz, the Muslims, both good, Cid’s friend Al-Mu’tamin the Emir of Zaragosa, or comically, B-movie evil, the Osama Bin Laden like Ben Yusef, Doña Ximena’s attempt to revenge herself on the man she loves for having killed her father, everything right up to the climatic battle on the beaches in front of Valencia, where Cid leads his troops into battle even after he’s dead, serves up the kind of blood and thunder, the romantic melodrama an Elizabethan poet like William Shakespeare or Christopher Marlowe surely would have appreciated better than any of us.
The very best scene by far in this relentless, driving, noisy, colorful, out-sized, overly long, over the top medieval epic follows the inspired method Laurence Olivier invented for Henry V. As good as the climatic battle scenes are — and they’re better than anything in the infantile Lord of the Rings — the most exciting battle scene is a fake, or more accurately, a staged battle scene, a tournament staged by the film’s characters within the film. We are in front of Castle Bellmonte in Southern Spain, here standing in for the ancient Spanish city of Callahora. Callahora is disputed territory, claimed by both the King of Aragon and the King of Castile. Cid, who’s under arrest for treason — he defied a royal decree by sparing Al-Mu’tamin’s life — has taken up the gauntlet as Ferdinand, the King of Castile’s champion. Since Cid had killed Count Gormaz under suspicious circumstances, the King of Aragon thinks it’s an opportune moment to lay claim. He’s certain his champion, Don Martin, who’s killed 27 other men in single combat, can beat anything Ferdinand can send against him. Ferdinand, with good reason, is skeptical himself. Cid is a young man. Don Martin is a legendary knight.
What follows is as realistic a staging of a medieval trial by combat as you’re likely to see, yet a realistic staging that uses the full panoply of cinematic technique available in 1961. Olivier’s staging of the Battle of Agincourt, Sergei Eisenstein’s staging of the Battle of Lake Peipus are among the best battle scenes ever filmed, but they are limited by their size and scope. Olivier couldn’t put the 30,000 men he would have needed on stage. Nevsky couldn’t show the real carnage of the battle on the ice. Anthony Mann solves the problem by staging not a battle — although he would stage a battle at the end of the movie — but a tournament, a dual, a fight to the death by the champions of Aragon and Castile for the City of Callahora. In place of Olivier’s and Shakespeare’s groundlings, in place of the London mob, we get a battle of of facial expressions between Doña Ximena and Donna Urraca. Donna Urraca wins. I think Genevieve Page is a much better, much more subtle actress, but I suppose your mileage may vary. We see the dual between Cid and Don Martin — we know that Cid’s going to win because we’re only an hour into a three hour movie — not through our eyes, but through the eyes of the Castilian court. Donna Urraca’s beautiful face registers every blow and every counter blow. Doña Ximena is melodramatically conflicted. She loves Cid but wants him dead. She was charged by her father just before he died to avenge his death, and she wants to avenge his death, but she also knows that the only reason he had been so determined to provoke Cid was a creepy, incestuous passion, and a reluctance to admit he was growing old. After Cid stabs Don Martin through the heart, the camera draws back. Cid walks across the field to bow to greet King Ferdinand as the now Prince of Callahora. We see not only the scale of their field of battle, but the scale of Castle Bellemonte, and the stark landscape surrounding it. Olivier’s Henry V seems positively intimate and domestic compared to this. But Mann could not have done it without the approach to history Olivier invented back in 1944.
Sadly, people who film historical romance have not followed up on Laurence Olivier or Anthony Mann. They’ve taken one of two approaches. There’s the approach Kenneth Branagh used in the 1989 version of Henry V, a liberal, revisionist, anti-war deconstruction of the myth of chivalry. The best, and probably the most extreme example of this type of cinema would be Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. The second and far worse would be the one Peter Jackson took in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, romance devoid of romance, chivalry without chivalry, a medieval epic that uses special effects in place of drama, infantile racism in place of political intrigue. If Olivier’s Prince Hal is a man of destiny who triumphs, and Charleton Heston’s El Cid one who fails, then Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn is one who bores. Replace the bawdy, irreverent Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym with the insipid Frodo and Sam, and Shakespeare’s groundlings become G-rated moppets. Aragorn’s speech in front of the gates of Mordor is a wooden imitation of Olivier’s St. Crispian’s Day speech. Three major set pieces and an army of the dead against what must seem like 100,000 computer generated orcs doesn’t equal one Battle of Agincourt. Laurence Olivier we have need of thee today.