Henry V (1944)

In today's movie climate, it's easy to shrug off Laurence Oliveir's "Henry V" aka "The Chronicle History of Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France" as a work that's (more than) a little outdated. It's so easy, in fact, that when we find out that this movie nabbed Oliver an honorary Oscar for the feat of bringing the Shakespearean play to the screen, it's almost that much more unbelievable how easy it still remains for us to not care about the movie.
I think this is because Oliver always chooses the darker works and is better known for the tragedies. "Hamlet" won the Best Picture Oscar and not this picture, and the emotion of the more famous play is certainly more genuine than anything found in "Henry V". Yet perhaps it's my own fault for reading George R. R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice books before watching this movie that made me assume there would be more bloodshed. Spoiler...there's not.
A simplistic plot for a work by the bard, "Henry V" consists of one man trying to get as much kingdom as he can. Henry (Olivier) wants to take control of France too because of the idea, supplied by his advisers, that he deserves a claim to the throne. He does so and the rest, they say, is history.
The way the film is shot is perhaps the most curious facet of the work. Using the original script (as best they can) Olivier sets up the movie as a play. We watch as performers backstage get into costume and we see the orchestra getting ready. The performance takes place on a day in May in the 17th century. This is curious for the viewer because now we have a laugh track making machine that is the audience in the movie. When characters say something amusing, the audience roars with laughter. What does happen (as expected) is that eventually we get "drawn into" the story and the fake scenery fades away so that we are now looking at great plains where battles will be held.
It's a love letter to the theater and Olivier does his best to make it seamless, alas, he is no wizard behind the camera. The change from stage to set is not that hard to make and Olivier doesn't falter when he does so, he slips when he gets too far beyond himself.
Trying to make the most colorful, the most exciting, and the most moving picture he can, Olivier throws everything and the kitchen sink at the viewer and surprisingly there are only a few moments that don't work like the hallucinatory image of the narrator sinking into the background like the beginning of a Hitchcock movie.
Yet as "simple" as "Henry V" is, there is still good drama here and plenty of hubris to go around. Olivier plays the title character with a lot of heart and even more ego. It's not surprising to see many scenes in which the king gets complimented furiously. He even makes pains to go out disguised and talk to him men about himself, getting offended when they are anything less but adoring of him.
So yes, if you're going to watch an Oliver Shakespeare work, you might want to start off with "Hamlet" (to be fair, I found it boring, but the majority of people find it emotionally rewarding).
It could just bet the play that the movie is based on, but I get the feeling that there is something hollow to this story. It's an easy success for everyone involved and Oliver's movie makes no real effort to ground our 'heroes' in peril.
But the movie is good and worth watching because of how Olivier handles what seems to be an unfilmable play. Alas, it does beg the question: did the play deserve to be filmed at all?

Score: ★★½

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