James Agee’s 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.

When 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.

The film was given its U. S. premiere this week (in Boston's Esquire Theater). This time, the horses engendered no complaint. At last there had been brought to the screen, with such sweetness, vigor, insight and beauty that it seemed to have been written yesterday, a play by the greatest dramatic poet who ever lived. It had never been done before. For Laurence Olivier, 38 (who plays Henry and directed and produced the picture), the event meant new stature. For Shakespeare, it meant a new splendor in a new, viral medium. Exciting as was the artistic development of Laurence Olivier, last seen by U. S. cinemaddicts in films like Rebecca and Wuthering Heights, for his production of Henry V was even more exciting.

As Shakespeare wrote it, The Chronicle History of Henry the Fifth is an intensely masculine, simple, sanguine drama of kinghood and war. It's more eloquent theme is a young king's coming of age. Once an endearingly wild Prince of Wales, Henry V (at 28) had to prove his worthiness for the scepter by leading his army in war. He invaded France, England's longtime enemy. He captured Harfleur, then tried to withdraw his exhausted and vastly outnumbered army to Calais. The French confronted him at Agincourt. In one of Shakespeare's most stirring verbal sonnets, Henry urged his soldiers on to incredible victory. English mobility (un-armored archers) and English firepower (the quick-shooting longbow) proved too much for the heavily armored French. Casualities (killed): English, 29; French, 10,000.* With victory came the courtly peacemaking at Rouen, and Henry’s triumphant courtship of the French Princess Katherine.

There 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.

Olivier's Henry V frees Shakespeare from such Elizabethan limitations. The film runs two hours and I4 minutes. Seldom during that time does it fudge or fall short of the best that its author gave it. Almost continually, it invests the art of Shakespeare--and the art of cinema as well--with a new spaciousness, a new mobility, a new radiance. Sometimes, by courageous (but never revolutionary) cuts, rearrangements and interpolations, it improves on the original. Yet its brilliance is graceful, never self assertive. It simply subserves, extends, illuminates and liberates Shakespeare’s poem.

It begins with shots of I7th-Century London and Shakespeare's Globe Theater, where Henry V is being played. The florid acting of Olivier and his prelates and the Elizabethan audience's vociferous reactions are worth volumes of Shakespearean footnotes. For the invasion, the camera, beautifully assisted by the Chorus (Leslie Banks), dissolves in space through a marine backdrop to discover a massive set such as Shakespeare never dreamed of--and dissolve backward in time to the year 1415. Delicately as a photographic print in a chemical bath, there emerges the basic style of Shakespearean cinema.

Voice and gesture exchange Shakespeare's munificence for subtlety, but remain subtly stylized. Faces, by casting, by close-up and reaction, give Shakespeare's lines a limpid, intimate richness of interpretation which has never been available to the stage. One of the prime joys of the picture is the Springwater freshness and immediacy of the lines, the lack of antiquarian culture-clogging. Especially as spoken by Olivier, the lines constantly combine the power of prose and the glory of poetry. Photographic perspectives are shallow, as in medieval painting. Most depths end in two-dimensional backdrops. Often as not, the brilliant Technicolor is deliberately anti-naturalistic, Voice, word, gesture, human beings, their bearing and costumes retain their dramatic salience and sovereignty. The result is a new cinema style.

Falstaff's death scene, for which the speeches were lifted bodily from Henry IV, Part 2, is boldly invented. The shrunken, heartbroken old companion of Henry's escapades (George Robey, famed British low comedian) hears again, obsessively, the terrible speech ("A man ...so old and so profane....") in which the King casts him off. In this new context, for the first time perhaps, the piercing line, "The king has kill'd his heart," is given its full power. In the transition scene which takes the audience from Falstaff's death to the invasion of France, the Chorus makes a final appearance alone against the night sky, then recedes and fades as the movie takes over from him. In a flash of imagination, Britain's armada is disclosed through mist as the Chorus, already invisible, says: "Follow, follow...."

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.

The 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.

The Battle of Agincourt is not realistic. Olivier took great care not to make it so. To find the "kind of poetic country" he wanted, and to avoid such chance anachronisms as air raids (the picture was made in Britain during the war), Olivier shot the battle sequence in Ireland.

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.

The invisible Chorus begins the grandly evocative description of the night camps:
Now entertain conjecture of a time
When creeping murmur and the poring dark
Fills the wide vessel of the universe.

The screen sustains this mood with a generalized shot of the opposed camps, their fires like humiliated starlight. There are no creeping murmurs, neighing steeds, crowing cocks, clanking armorers. Instead, William Walton's score, one of the few outstanding scores in movie history, furnishes subdued, musical metaphors. Midway through the Chorus, the film boldly breaks off to interpolate, to better effect, a scene in the French camp which in Shakespeare's version precedes it.

This scene itself also improves on Shakespeare. His Frenchmen, the night before their expected triumph, were shallow, frivolous and arrogant. By editing out a good deal of their foolishness, by flawless casting, directing and playing, and by a wonderfully paced appreciation of the dead hours of rural night, Olivier transforms the French into sleepy, over-confident, highly intelligent, highly sophisticated noblemen, subtly disunified, casually contemptuous of their Dauphin--an all but definitive embodiment of a civilization a little too ripe to survive.

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.

And 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 England’s 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.

Here again Olivier helped out Shakespeare. Shakespeare gave to a cynical soldier the great speech: But if the cause be not good, etc. Olivier puts it in the mouth of a slow-minded country boy (Brian Nissen). The boy's complete lack of cynicism, his youth, his eyes bright with sleepless danger, the peasant patience of his delivery, and his Devon repetition of the tolled word die as doy, lift this wonderful expression of common humanity caught in human war level with the greatness of the King.

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.

Producer-Director 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.

The Royal Navy had given Olivier leave to make Demi-Paradise (Adventure for Two) in the interest of Anglo-Russian relations, and extended it so that he could make Henry V "in the interest," says Olivier, of Anglo-British relations." Producer Filippo Del Giudice (who promoted Noel Coward's In Which We Serve on an original 15,000 pounds shoestring) furnished some, and raised more, of the 465,000 pounds (a little under $2,000,000) which Henry V cost.

Del 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.

It was chiefly OIivier who did the brilliant casting; he who gave the French court its more-than-Shakespearean character. Many of the most poetic ideas in cutting and transition were also his. Above all, his was the whole anti-naturalistic conception of the film--a true Shakespearean's recognition that man is greater, and nature less, than life.

* 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.

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