James Agees Review of Henry V for Time Magazine April 8, 1946 (from Agee On Film - 1958)
The movies have produced one of their rare great works of art.
Laurence Olivier's magnificent screen production of Shakespeare's
Henry V was first disclosed to a group of Oxford's impassive Shakespeare
pundits, there was only one murmur of dissent. A woman specialist
insisted that all the war horses which take part in the Battle of
Agincourt should have been stallions.
were important minor touches. In one of the most moving scenes in
Shakespeare, Falstaff was killed off. To replace him, his pal, Pistol,
the quintessential burlesque of the Elizabethan soul, was played
far down to the groundlings. Because in writing Henry V Shakespeare
was much hampered by the limitations of his stage, there was heavy
work for the one-man Chorus, who, in persuasive and beautiful verbal
movies, stirred his audience to imagine scenes and movement which
the bare and static Elizabethan stage could not provide.
The French court, in fragility, elegance, spaciousness and color, is probably the most enchanting single set ever to appear on the screen. Almost every shot of the French court is like a pre-Renaissance painting. The French King (Harcourt Williams), is weak-minded and piteous as he was in history, if not in Shakespeare. There is one beautiful emblematic shot of his balding, pinkish pate, circled with the ironic gold of royalty.
French Princess (Renee Asherson) has the backward-bending grace
of a medieval statuette of the Virgin. Her reedy, birdlike exchange
of French-English with her equally delightful duenna, Alice (Ivy
St. Helier), is a vaudeville act exquisitely paced and played beyond
anything that Shakespeare can have imagined. Her closing scene with
Henry--balanced about equally between Olivier's extraordinarily
deft delivery of his lines and her extraordinary deft pantomimic
pointing of them--is a charming love scene.
Making no attempt to over-research the actual fight, he reduced it to its salients--the proud cumbrousness of the armored French chevaliers, and Henry's outnumbered archers, cloth-clad in the humble colors of rural England. A wonderful epitomizing shot -- three French noblemen drinking a battle-health in their saddles -- is like the crest of the medieval wave. The mastering action of the battle, however, begins with a prodigious truckshot of the bannered, advancing French cavalry shifting from a walk to a full gallop, intercut with King Henry's sword, poised for signal, and his archers, bows drawn, waiting for it. The release -- an arc of hundreds of arrows speeding with the twang of a gigantic guitar on their victorious way -- is one of the most gratifying payoff's of suspense yet contrived.
But the most inspired part of Shakespeare's play deals with the night before the Battle of Agincourt. It is also the most inspired sequence in the film. Olivier opens it with a crepuscular shot of the doomed and exhausted English as they withdraw along a sunset stream to encamp for the night. This shot was made at dawn, at Denham (a miniature British Hollywood) against the shuddering objection of the Technicolor expert. It is one of many things that Olivier and Cameraman Robert Krasker did with color which Technicolor tradition says must not or cannot be done.
invisible Chorus begins the grandly evocative description of the
The hypnotic Chorus resumes; the camera pans to the English camp and strolls, as if it were the wandering King himself, among the firelit tents.
here poem and film link the great past to the great present. It
is unlikely that anything on the subject has been written to excel
Shakespeare's short study, in Henry V, of men stranded on the verge
of death and disaster. The man who made this movie made it midway
in Englands most terrible war, within the shadows of Dunkirk.
In appearance and in most of what they say, the three soldiers with
whom Henry talks on the eve of Agincourt might just as well be soldiers
of World War II. No film of that war has yet said what they say
so honestly or so well.
Henry V is one of the great experiences in the history of motion pictures. It is not, to be sure, the greatest: the creation of new dramatic poetry is more important than the recreation of old. For such new poetry, movies offer the richest opportunity since Shakespeare's time, and some of them have made inspired use of the chance. Bur Henry V is a major achievement -- this perfect marriage of great dramatic poetry with the greatest contemporary medium for expressing it.
Olivier is very earnest in his desire to share the honors of his
production with those who helped him. His friend Dallas Bower, a
producer for BBC, was responsible for the idea of the production.
Giudice did something more remarkable: he never interfered with
Olivier's work; he never let him know that there were money difficulties.
It was Del Giudice who suggested the excellent cameraman who had
never worked in Technicolor before. He also suggested that Olivier
should direct and produce the film as well as star in it. For those
scenes in which Olivier played, his cutter, Reginald Beck, took
over the direction. Their collaboration resulted in a mere twenty-five
pet cent throwaway of film, instead of the usual British fifty per
cent and Hollywood ninety per cent. Olivier and Alan Dent (the London
News-ChronicIe's ace theater critic whose long suit is Shakespeare)
teamed inextricably on the superb editing of Shakespeare's play.
The final preparation of the shooting script was a team effort by
all hands. But it was Olivier who called in Costume Designers Roger
and Margaret Furse and Roger Ramsdell (an old YaIeman). It was Olivier
who sought out William Walton, whom he regards as "the most
promising composer in England." It was he who recruited all-important
Art Directors Paul Sheriff and Carmen Dillon. He made use, in fact,
of a good deal of talent which most professional moviemakers overlook.
And within the profession, he respected professionals more than
they usually respect each other.
* Producer Filippo Del Giudice says the film will pay for itself in Great Britain (cost: almost $2,000,000). Paralleling Hollywood's bookkeeping on exports, he looks to the U.S. and elsewhere for profits. But United Artists, uneasy about the mass audience, is handling the film timidly. The plan: after opening in the most English and academic of U.S. cities, Henry V will play twice-a-day in all major cities at legit prices. Heavy play wilI be made far Mr. Gallup's estimated 10,ooo,ooo who thinks most movies worthless. There will be special rates for colleges, etc. No date has been set for general release.