Monday, October 19, 2009

HENRY V - Movie Review

Although I've never been a devoted fan of Shakespeare, I really appreciated Hamlet. The storyline was interesting and philosophical and the movie with Mel Gibson was tolerably good too. However, it was nothing when compared to Kenneth Branagh's film rendition of Henry V. I think this film may possibly be as good as Shakespearean histories can get.

Henry V details the exploits of the young English king, Henry V, in the early fifteenth century. Carrying on a traditional war over the succession of the French throne, Henry V launches an invasion of France. The play is a story about his hopes, decisions and emotions during this time, but also about the actual historical battles that took place. Shakespeare even managed to insert a little love story as a subplot.

I've always thought of Harfleur and Agincourt as inexcusable wars of aggression on the part of the English. It is difficult for our culture to even consider this kind of violent attack as acceptable for any civilized monarch. However, in order to enjoy the story at all, we do have to understand the times and the national sentiments going around in an age where no one felt safe, even in days of relative peace. France was the traditional enemy of

England and both sides were apprehensive that as soon as the other should find it convenient, they would attack.

I really liked the balance in the movie. Even though the script for the movie is taken word-for-word from the play, the director shapes the attitude of the audience towards the story with the sets and actors he uses. While giving Henry a very fair chance to appear noble and showing his misgivings and his desire to please God, Branagh also paints the horrors of war vividly. He makes no attempt to glorify the battles, but instead makes them far worse than Shakespeare probably intended. I think that in a way he short-circuits some of Shakespeare's obvious intentions of romanticizing the war, and I do appreciate this.

I've heard Shakespeare's version of Henry hailed as a Christ-figure, but I must say that this analogy really doesn't bear any examination. Rather, the Henry in Shakespeare's play is a noble and heroic but severely misguided and violent man. (I can't speak for the historical Henry V. I'm only talking about Henry V as depicted in the play.) Although there are good aspects of his character and he is a generous and good-hearted king to his own people, his standards are far too low for me to even come close to considering that he could represent Christ.

The most famous portion of the movie and the play is the St. Crispin's Day speech. Indeed, the whole thing would lose most of its appeal without this scene that ties off all of the loose ends of both Henry's character and the motivation for the war. I was very impacted by this speech. When the King launches into these immortal lines:

He which hath no stomach to this fight,

Let him depart. His passport shall be made,

And crowns for convoy put into his purse.

We would not die in that man’s company

That fears his fellowship to die with us.


And gentlemen in England now abed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day!

it made me think what a privilege it is to be living now, in the time and place that God has set for us. You can watch that scene here:

The movie reaches a climax of tragedy when the victorious English army returns to their camp to find all of their boys slaughtered by the angry and desperate French army. Boys too young to fight had been left behind when the army went to battle and it was illegal by the rules of honorable war to strike them. The unutterable rage and horror incited by the sight of the bleeding children provokes the king to cry, "I was not angry since I came to France until this instant!" As the triumphant but miserable and outraged English army sets out to bury the dead boys, this lovely scene wraps up the battle of Agincourt:

Kenneth Branagh's Henry V is an excellent way to watch Shakespeare's play. While retaining the original text, it brings the story to life on screen, preserving the Shakespearian regard for the man, but not without raising questions as to the ethical basis for the war.

Seize The Day!



Martha Henderson said...

Yes, it's a very good movie. I remember when it came out.

For comparison, you might want to watch the older film with Sir Laurence Olivier.

Anonymous said...

Kenneth Branagh always does Shakepeare justice.

Lucie Manette said...

I'm going to watch that in my British Lit. class...unless it's the one with L. Olivier...

Anonymous said...

Oh dear... that video clip was way too sad. Excellent post, as usual :). Can I link to you (I know I've been to long at putting up a blogroll)?

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