This wooden ‘O’. That’s how Shakespeare decided to address the supposedly meagre stage upon which Henry the Fift is performed. It was a direct reference to the Globe theatre, where audiences packed along the edges of the globe, with the open sky above them and the stage before them. Not a lot of ways to get around that particular line. Henry the Fift begins by acknowledging the limits of theatre, begging your imaginative involvement, that when they speak of horses, it’s up to you to imagine them printing their proud hooves in the receding earth. Apparently, this cockpit could hold the vasty fields of France with performance, costume and light set dressing alone, but the movies don’t usually do things in half measures, or else audiences feel a little cheated.

Adapting Henry V for 1944

1944: Laurence Olivier, the might of the British propaganda effort behind him, elected to open his staging of Henry V by recreating the globe itself, as if we were seated amongst that crowd in 1599. They are vocal and restless, though they of course don’t make so much as a peep during Olivier’s monologues as young king Hal. Even before this though, the film opens on as stage-specific a signifier as a handbill.

Later on, as Shakespeare transitions his audience to France for a narrative stopover with the rival kingdom’s princess Catherine, Olivier’s film begins to slightly alter. Contrary to the norm in the bard’s day (think again of all his appeals to the imagination), women are no longer played by men in drag, and the French citizens speak… French. Sets are larger, backdrops more detailed, all populous with costumed extras. We have left the spectator’s point of view.

Still later on, the state of the nation of France is belaboured by the film in purely cinematic terms, by panning across depictions of Shakespeare’s ‘sorry France’ (doesn’t look too bad all things considered). But it is on the eve before the battle of Agincourt, when atmosphere creeps in by way of a more complexly rendered night scene, its shadows dramatically placed, anticipation building as men cloister round fires before the dawn and the king play dice with their lives.

All these settings are photographed in vivid Technicolor, by the way, so its not as if there hadn’t been any eye-candy in the paired down production up to this point. Now though, Olivier can play with a thick blanket of dimness, expressively lighting his characters as a disguised Henry hears the perspectives of his men on the battle to come, and his kingship. Mother England, again at war in France in 1944, would have been pleased with the divine justification invoked here. It may be your duty to die for your king and country, but the crown isn’t to blame for your death. Have fun thinking that through.

Being produced by the government near the end of the second world war, there are adaptations in the name of… the greater good, as well as choices in delivery, meant to uplift the war-worn audience. Henry’s character is smoothed over, his actions made more justified, and his apparent cruelties subdued. No spitting infants upon pikes. The most prudent example of this involves a moment after the battle (and therefore after Henry’s promise that the men will be remembered for their bravery, famously the benchmark for battle speeches ever since).

“This story shall the good man teach his son;

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be rememberèd—

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition”

Compelling, and all the more so since Olivier alters the scene just after the battle. Henry receives the toll of dead Englishmen and lists a few noblemen. “None other of name…” So much for brotherhood. Obviously, this isn’t a sentiment that would fly in the 20th century, so, for Churchill’s sake, away it went.

One might wonder if this is in keeping with Shakespeare’s vision, but the fact is the bard was a royalist who helped stage plays meant specifically to ennoble the sitting monarch by comparison (Macbeth is what happens when the line of succession is tampered with) or as in Henry V, through example (war is tough, but what a guy our king is). Olivier’s is a good film, not the least because it more brilliantly engages with the metatext of Henry V than most screen adaptations, but maybe we (not being British citizens during the blitz) could spare a little more of the caustic material. After all, even Shakespeare acknowledged the court’s later troubles, and he’d have been headless if things hadn’t gone smoothly.

“Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King

Of France and England, did this king succeed;

Whose state so many had the managing,

That they lost France and made his England bleed”

Adapting Henry V for 1944
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