Saturday, April 30, 2005

Henry V d. Laurence Olivier, 1944

Essentially Shakespeare-as-propaganda, Laurence Olivier's adaptation of Henry V surmounts this utilitarian aspect and is shown to be, in addition to a patriotic spirit-rally, a very good film. Made in 1944, Olivier's production of Henry V was set against the backdrop of WWII. Olivier himself wanted to adapt first Richard III (which he would go on to direct in 1955), but his production company insisted that Henry V was more suited to those bellicose times than Richard III, which presented war - yes - but war of treachery and perfidy, unfit to sway public opinion toward the political cause. The problem was twofold: Olivier & Co. needed to bend the words of Shakespeare to their needs (the original play is less for than against war) and secondly, if the film was to serve its purpose - that is, provide public support for the war - the public must have reason to see and understand the film. Before Henry V, Shakespeare was box-office poison. The filmic adaptations prior - A Midsummer Night's Dream with James Cagney, Romeo and Juliet with John Barrymore, and As You Like It with (but not directed by) Olivier himself - had lost money at the box-office, due mainly to the public's difficulty in understanding the language. To combat both of these problems, Olivier cut nearly 1500 lines from Henry V, including any that might show the King, or the kingdom, in an unfavorable light. The result is a far different beast from Shakespeare's Henry V, but - in spite of the cuts and mutation of theme - not a failure in adaptation.

What Olivier does is stay true to the spirit of Shakespeare. The earlier filmic adaptations suffered from a stodgy, prim-ridden demeanor, sucked dry of their playfulness, which - at least in the cases of A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It - is imperative to their success. Moreover, the films were made in such a way that they were facsimiles of the stage, with the camera in fixed position and the actors carefully blocked, ignoring entirely the fluid strengths of the medium. Antithetic to those earlier films, Olivier accentuated the impish nature of Henry V and adapted the play into a film that could not possibly have been performed on the stage. Embracing Shakespeare's creativity, Olivier's film begins as a play within a film. The setting is the Globe Playhouse in the late 16th Century, where The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift (sic) is to be performed. The camera casually weaves its way through the crowd and into the backstage. The Chorus (Leslie Banks) takes the stage and the play begins. The first few scenes are arresting, taking place on the stage, with the crowd applauding and the actors taking their bows when applauded. The scenes - really, the entirety of Act I - are rowdy and over-the-top; the actors play to the cheap seats and the cheap seats revel in the humor. Then the artifacts of the stage begin to melt away; first the backstage, then the audience, and finally the soundstage itself opens wide to reveal the green fields of Agincourt. The play within a film becomes a film within a play within a film, much in the same creative vein as Shakespeare writing a play within a play. It is as if Olivier is commenting, via formalism, on the evolution of Shakespeare from the stage to the screen. This invention, a way of making the play one's own while paying homage to the old tradition, is Olivier riffing on the nature of Shakespeare.

Indeed, Olivier's distortion of theme is similar to this invention as well. What at first appears to be a bastardization of Shakespeare is - in my opinion - truer to the spirit of Shakespeare than a strict adaptation. Shakespeare fitted old stories to his use, such as turning As You Like It - an established novel - into an allegory of the reversal of The Fall. His plots, although compelling, are not where his genius lies. Laurence Olivier did much the same with Henry V. He took an old play about the corruptive nature of power, stripped away its former themes, and made a film to stand as a patriotic banner in support of its country's goals. When King Harry gives his monologue regarding ceremony - the thesis statement of the original play - it is both internalized (through voice-over) and marginalized - a great man noticing how fortunate he is to be great rather than noticing how destructive his "greatness" has become. Rather than the campfire scene displaying King Harry's unwarranted bravado, and the public's increasing displeasure and lack of confidence in him, Olivier uses it as a stumping block - a platform from which to stir public support. The scene is still the lynchpin of the work, but a lynchpin of an entirely different order. While Olivier's distortion of theme does not allow for the same depth as Shakespeare's original theme, it is still admirable because, as with the original play, the surface is only a tray upon which to shuttle the ideas.

Olivier clearly understood Shakespeare and the power of his plays. Without him, Shakespearean plays might still be seen as "box-office poison." Even though Olivier stumbled in some aspects - overdoing it with the jocularity of the play, in particular - Henry V is a very good Shakespearean adaptation, and an even better film. Moreover, it is a testament to the mutability and continuing relevance of Shakespeare in the 20th Century and beyond.


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