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 com plaint. 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, vital medium. Exciting as was the artistic development of Laurence Olivier, last seen by U.S. cinemaddicts in films like Rebecca and Wuthering Heights, his production of Henry V was even more exciting.
Shakespeare's Henry V. As Shakesspeare wrote it, The Cronicle History of Henry the fift is an intensely masculine, simple, sanguine drama of kinghood and war. Its 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 (see map). The French confronted him at Agincourt. In one of Shakespeare's most stirring verbal sennets, Henry urged his soldiers on to incredible victory. English mobility (unarmored archers) and English firepower (the quick-shooting longbow) proved too much for the heavily armored French.
Casualties (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. Olivier's Henry V frees Shakespeare from such Elizabethan limitations. The film runs two hours and 14 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.