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The Criterion Collection presents
Henry V (Olivier's Shakespeare Collection) (1944)

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends!"
- Henry V (Laurence Olivier)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: July 31, 2006

Stars: Laurence Olivier, Leslie Banks, Max Adrian
Director: Laurence Olivier

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 02h:16m:44s
Release Date: August 01, 2006
UPC: 715515018821
Genre: epic

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

If nothing else, when it comes to selling a war, George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld could use some pointers from William Shakespeare and Laurence Olivier. This grand version of perhaps Shakespeare's finest history play was made into a rousing film during the darkest days of the Second World War in an effort to keep British chins up; even now, it functions both as entertainment and propaganda, a crowd pleaser for even the most ardent assembly of pacifists. (This isn't a new DVD edition, but Criterion has packaged this disc with their previous releases of Olivier's films of Hamlet and Richard III in a makeshift trilogy called Olivier's Shakespeare.)

Olivier, in both the title role and as director, shapes the tale of Henry's conquering of France into a grand expression of national pride, almost even of manifest destiny, at a time when the British Empire wasn't yet a decaying memory. The conceit of the film is that it starts as a performance of Henry V at the Globe, Shakespeare's theater of choice—the rowdy audience is more ballpark than Broadway, letting the performers know just what they think of their efforts, at every turn. (It isn't quite a completely faithful rendering of Elizabethan stage practice, for here the female roles are played by women, and not, as they were in Shakespeare's own time, by boys.) The drama is the last in Shakespeare's second cycle of four history plays, hence most of the characters would be familiar to the writer's audience, who witnessed young Prince Hal renounce his tavern buddies, and go from a boy to a man when he assumed the throne. After thirty minutes or so, the film quite literally busts out of the theater—now the actors are playing on proper sets with grand backdrops. This allows Olivier and his fellow actors to strut about in their chain mail, having a merrie olde time at making war—it's surely not stark realism, certainly, for the bulk of the movie is shot in front of backdrops painted in bright and gaudy colors that would have been at home in a classic MGM musical.

Olivier has no use for subtlety, and he brims with confidence—the Henry we see is absolutely certain that not only the throne of England but that of France should be rightfully his, and he'll ignore all intelligence that doesn't agree with his preconceived notions as he launches on what he sees as his divinely guided mission. (The parallels between Henry and Hitler might have made 1940s audiences uncomfortable; I'll leave it to you, gentle reader, to draw comparisons between King Henry, the once drunken son of a former leader who chooses to fight a politically questionable and strategically unsound war on foreign soil, and anyone from our own time.) But nobody else had quite the bombast of Olivier, and he delivered a rabble-rousing speech as well as anyone—his St. Crispin's day set piece is especially memorable, as he leads his men into war. He also has a surprisingly fluid camera—the fear, no doubt, must have been that he would lock it down in a static attempt to reproduce the stage proscenium, but he happily moves it around the saturated sets. He also smartly uses the Choruses that open each Shakespearean act as voice-overs, for their function—to set the scene for us, to help us to conjure up images on a bare stage—is in many ways replaced by the camera.

Olivier and his collaborators aren't above playing fast and loose with the text, either—for instance, the film incorporates the death of Falstaff, and we even get to see Sir John, a treat for those who are familiar with the Henry IV plays, but perhaps baffling and largely irrelevant to those coming to this material for the first time. Olivier had many talents, but he wasn't a keen director of comedy—the bits with Falstaff's compatriots and with the comic relief on the battlefield fall flat, almost as if the film itself were merely marking time until the leading man appears again. The French, Henry's enemies, are portrayed as Gallic dandies, fops with costumes festooned with fleurs de lis; the English allies across the Channel may not have cottoned to this portrait, and it certainly undersells the notion of the enemy, particularly when England was taking on the Third Reich.

There's also almost no blood shed here, and the battle scenes are close to balletic; the film is much more interested in Henry's true prize of war, his swift and politically astute courtship of Katherine, the French princess. The film ratifies the notions of empire, and you've probably got to fancy yourself an Englishman with God on your side, at least for a couple of hours, to enjoy it. As Kenneth Branagh demonstrated, Olivier's Henry V is of its time, quite grandly, but perhaps not for all time. Still, for majesty and poetry, you can do no better.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: This DVD was originally released in 1999, which seems like millennia ago for the format; you'll be able to tell right away, alas, as the print here is full of scratches and discolorations, and the saturated production design is rendered somewhat sourly on this transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Dynamics are modest and limited on this disc, but the audio quality and transfer are nowhere near as egregious as the problems with the picture.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 42 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Bruce Eder
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. genealogy chart for English royal family
  2. images from Book of Hours (see below)
  3. production photos
  4. accompanying essay
  5. color bars
Extras Review: Bruce Eder wears almost as many hats on this DVD as Olivier did on the film—Eder is the producer of the disc, the author of the accompanying essay, and the sole speaker on the commentary track, on which he calls this "the first successful film adaptation of a Shakespeare play." (I'd quibble with this, as I've got a weakness for Mickey Rooney as Puck.) He gives a pretty fair overview of the production of the film, the edits of Olivier and his collaborators to Shakespeare's text, and the influences on Olivier's directorial style—Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky seems to have been particularly influential on Olivier's work. Eder also has interesting historical tidbits—Olivier wanted his wife, Vivien Leigh, to play Princess Katherine, but she was under contract to Daryl Zanuck, who wouldn't allow it; he also compares Olivier's version to Branagh's toward the end of this smart track.

Also on the disc, under the heading Shakespearean Royalty, is a family tree for the Houses of York and Lancaster—if you've read or seen the history plays, you know that you can't tell the players without a scorecard; images from the Book of Hours, a 15th-century French illuminated manuscript that inspired the look of the film; and a dozen production photos, all in black and white, unlike the feature, which is in glorious Technicolor.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

God for Harry, England, and St. George! Laurence Olivier's film of Shakespeare's paradigmatic history play offers both finely spoken poetry and patriotic fervor for a country at war and uneasy about its destiny. It's a grand and almost willfully naïve version of the play, one with no room for doubt, or for Machiavellian re-readings. But it is a fun time at the movies, and goes over much easier than the warmed-over Shakespeare we see too often, stuff we're told is good for us, but isn't very good.


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