(director/writer: Laurence Olivier; screenwriters: Dallas Bower/Allen Dent/based on the play by William Shakespeare; cinematographer: Robert Krasker; editor: Reginald Beck; music: William Walton; cast: Laurence Olivier (Henry V),  Robert Newton (Ancient Pistol), Lesley Banks (Chorus), Felix Aylmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), Michael Warre (Duke of Gloucester) , Valentine Dyall (Duke of Burgundy), Frederick Cooper (Corporal Nym), Michael Shepley (Capt. Gower, English army), Leo Genn (The Constable of France), Ralph Truman (Mountjoy, the French Herald), Russell Thorndike (Duke of Bourbon), Harcourt Williams (King Charles VI of France), Janet Burnell (Queen Isabele of France), Renee Asherson (Princess Katherine of France), Ernest Thesiger (French Ambassador), Max Adrian (Dauphin Lewis), Arthur Hambling (Bates), George Robey (Sir John Falstaff), Esmond Knight (Fluellen), Ivy St. Helier (Alice, Lady-in-Waiting), Robert Helpmann (Bishop of Ely), Freda Jackson (Mistress Quickly), Gerald Case (Earl of Westmoreland), Roy Emerton (Lt. Bardolph),  Niall MacGinnis (Capt. MacMorris), John Laurie (Captain Jamie), Francis Lister (Duke of Orleans),  Jimmy Hanley (Williams), Morland Graham (Erpingham), George Cole (Boy), Griffith Jones (Earl of Salisbury; Runtime: 137; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Laurence Olivier/Filippo Del Giudice; The Criterion Collection; 1944/UK)

Overwhelming production of the William Shakespeare epic historical play.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Overwhelming production of the William Shakespeare epic historical play by Laurence Olivier (“Hamlet”/”Richard III”), in his first attempt at directing. Initially Olivier was just to star in the film and only took over when he couldn’t find a suitable director. Shakespearean scholar Alan Dent came on board to help him prepare the screenplay. No previous Shakespeare film ever worked on screen, so Olivier decided to make some changes. He started the long speeches in close up and then moved the camera back as the intensity of the speech grew. He also treated the soliloquies not as direct addresses to the audience but as interior monologues, and thereby used a voiceover.

Since it was filmed during World War II, the English P.M. Winston Churchill urged the filmmaker to cut scenes from the play that were too violent or would undermine the film’s patriotic message.

There was also a problem with how to handle the Chorus, a narrator in the play, noted for some famous speeches. The narrator appears in the play throughout as a Chorus and sets the scene and underlines the action’s importance. In the movie the Chorus ended up being one person (Lesley Banks), who plays it as an Elizabethan actor on the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. It’s from the beginning revealed that the entire film was merely the play that was performed as its original audience might have seen it. The movie would return for a final scene, with a boy (George Cole) used to play Princess Anne (in those days boys were used to play women).

It opens at the Globe Theater in 1603. The Archbishop of Canterbury (Felix Aylmer) relays that Henry gave up his hedonistic runaround life with Falstaff (George Robey). King Henry V (Laurence Olivier) is asked to go to war, to claim his lands in France. At an inn, Pistol (Robert Newton), Bardolf (Roy Emerton), and Nym (Frederick Cooper) quarrel about the war but in the end join the war effort against France. Falstaff is rejected for war service, and soon dies with a broken heart.

Spoiler alert:

It’s off to war, as on horseback Henry rallies the soldiers with a pep talk. The king of France, Charles VI (Harcourt Williams), sends Mountjoy (Ralph Truman) as his herald to the English and demands a ransom. Henry refuses to pay. As the English prepare for battle, they are outnumbered 5 to 1. The bloody battle takes place in the lush French fields of Agincourt (it’s filmed in Ireland), named after the castle in the field, where the French army is vanquished. 10,000 French soldiers are killed and 500 English. The battle scene is a thing of great splendor, one of the best shot battle scenes ever.

At court, Henry V recognizes the French monarch and its Queen Isabele (Janet Burnell) and asks that that they forgo hatred for love. As the two monarchies negotiate a peace with their staffs, Henry woos France’s Princess Katharine for a wife. He tells of his love for France and for her. Charles VI gives Katharine to Henry for the sake of peace, as the play ends at the Globe.

It ran for 11 months in England. It opened in the States in 1946, and ran with rave reviews in New York for almost a year.

      Olivier and Renée Asherson in The Chronicle History of King Henry
      the Fifth with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France (1944)