Laurence Olivier was born in 1907, and became a stage actor in the West End of London in the 1920s. By the 1930s he was a leading man in films in Britain and in Hollywood, finishing with four remarkable portrayals in Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, Pride and Prejudice, and That Hamilton Woman. After the war began, he returned to England and joined the Navy as an aviator, though he never saw active service.
Dallas Bower, who worked for the BBC’s fledgling television service before war broke out, had planned a television production of Henry V, and wrote a script. War came, television broadcasts were suspended, and Bower went on to work at the Ministry of Information. He produced a radio broadcast in which Olivier read some speeches from the play in 1942. The film producer Filippo Del Giudice heard it and bought Bower’s script. Olivier agreed to play Henry, if he could have full creative control. No successful film had, up to this time, been made of a Shakespeare play. In a 1970s television interview, Olivier said, “As far as I was concerned, it may as well be the first Shakespeare film.” The seasoned directors Olivier approached, including William Wyler and Carol Reed, did not want to do the project, so Olivier, who had never directed a film before, decided to direct it.
The screenplay was written by Olivier and Alan Dent. The movie was made in 1944, with support from the British government, who saw the story of an earlier war hero, like Henry V, as good propaganda. Some of Henry’s darker, more cynical actions were excised from the script. James Agee wrote in Time, “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.” The location scenes were filmed in Ireland, where horses and horsemen were still available during the war.
Part of the success of Olivier’s Henry V is due to the opening up of the movie about a half-hour in. Shakespeare often describes the background for his action, which isn’t a formula for exciting cinema. Olivier’s early scenes outline the dynastic quarrels that led to Henry’s war with France. He draws the audience in with his realistic depiction of the Globe Theater, active camera movement, and comic elements. Note especially Robert Helpmann in his portrayal of the Bishop of Ely. Olivier, in the same interview, said, “I needed a style that would make the acting look more real. (If) I had used, outside of a castle, Kenilworth Castle, as it is now, or some bits of it (that were) useable, you’d say, yes, very nice, very real, absolutely real castle, you can see it’s absolutely real. . .and those trees, and those, absolutely real, and quite normal. Why are they talking so funny? And that’s what I had to avoid. The difficulty being the language your only hope was for the backgrounds to be more unreal than the language, so the language seemed real. That was my little thought. And it was a happy one.”
Olivier also said, “In the speaking of Shakespeare, you do not give way entirely to the music of Shakespeare because that is too much in one direction. In the other direction it is wronger than ever to pretend you’re speaking prose. That is very wrong. What you have to find -- you have to find the truth through the verse. Now if that’s not understandable, that’s the only answer I can give you.” The actors give exceptional performances.
The movie was released in November, 1944 in Britain, and in April, 1946 in the United States. The cinematographer was Robert Krasker. Paul Sheriff’s art direction draws from the medieval illustrated manuscript Les très riches heures du duc de Berry. The costumes were by Roger and Margaret Furse. The music was by William Walton. Olivier won an honorary Oscar in 1947 for “his outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen,” and was nominated for best actor. Sheriff was nominated for his art direction, Walton was nominated for best music scoring, and the picture was nominated for best picture. I hope you enjoy watching Olivier’s Henry V with me tonight.