"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers." - King Henry V
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: William Shakespeare, Kenneth Branagh
Principal cast members:
Putting Shakespeare on the screen is always a risk. Tie yourself too tightly to a 400 year old script and you risk being incomprehensible to a modern audience. Take too many liberties with the sacred words of the immortal Bard and the highbrow crowd will crucify you. Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles both spent time bringing Shakespeare to the big screen with great success. They managed to walk that fine line between fidelity to the bard and appeal to an audience. Naturally, you have to be a seasoned filmmaker as well as a master of the theatrical stage to pull off such a thing.
So it was a bit surprising when in 1989 with only a handful of acting credits to his name, Kenneth Branagh decided to make his directorial debut bringing Shakespeare to the screen. He was not yet 30 years old and he chose to lead and direct a cast consisting of numerous British theater legends. The sheer presumption and cockiness of such a move was begging for a comeuppance. Instead, we got one of the finest modern presentations of the Bard's work of all time and it was only the first of several for this remarkable newcomer to the craft of directing.
Branagh remained extremely true to the original text of the play, Henry V. In doing so, he recognized that this was one of Shakespeare's histories that was truly filled with drama and action. It really needed no modernization to make it appeal to a modern audience. It just needed to be done well with the kind of elements that make a movie really come to life. The script already had many key elements for a great film. There was soaring ambition, poignant friendship, tragic fatalism, a huge battle with an overwhelming underdog rising to victory, and even the smatterings of a love story.
Branagh's performance as an actor was equally compelling. His Henry was a proud king determined to reclaim the lands he was convinced were his. The nobles who fought for him were loyal friends as well as subjects. But there was also a human Henry who still joked with friends in a tavern and their loyalty to him was no less. Branagh brings the painful sense of duty to life when Henry discovers he must punish these friends for looting and disobeying orders. The real Henry was a young king and Branagh shows us this young man having to grow up painfully fast as he leads his army into France to fight.
Brian Blessed appears here as Exeter. Blessed is always at his best when he can roar and bluster and Branagh wisely gives him free reign here. Meanwhile, as all Shakespearean plays have their comic characters, in this film that duty is handed to Robbie Coltrane who charms us as Falstaff.
On the French side, we are introduced to several principal players and all of them are extremely stirring in their roles. Michael Malone is perfect as the proud, condescending Dauphin who rejects Henry's claims and scathingly assumes he can wipe the fields of Agincourt of the English army without fear or difficulty. The legendary Paul Scofield has only a few minutes here as the aging French king, but in those minutes, he gives us a man who realizes the empire he has built is about to come apart and though he loves his son and heir, he sees in this English invader a nobility that he wishes he had sired.
Emma Thompson appears here as Katherine, the French princess. She speaks no English in the play, delivering her lines entirely in perfectly accented French. Though she does not understand Henry's wooing, her face and body language are superb in playing out her part of the love story.
But when it comes to the story of Henry V, the centerpiece of the film simply must be the battle of Agincourt. History traditionally describes this battle with the French outnumbering the British by at least five to one. Modern scholarship of all the documentation from that era still cannot agree on the numbers. At the time of Shakespeare's writing, a five-to-one margin was generally accepted and even today, some scholars who have examined military records even maintain the margin was 6,000 British to 36,000 French on the field.
What is known for certain is that the field of battle was a narrow plain between forests and the French knights were unable to attack across a broad line, allowing the smaller English army to match them at the point of contact man for man. On top of that, the English forces included a great many Welsh yeomen with heavy yew longbows easily capable of penetrating armor. These archers not only shot down a great many horses and knights before the lines met, they also littered the field with arrows sticking up from the ground which proved deadly to any Frenchman who fell from his horse on the treacherous, muddy field.
Branagh captures the spirit of this ugly brutal battle in a lengthy scene that emphasizes the horrific nature of this type of hand-to-hand combat. The prelude to the battle, of course, is the famous St. Crispin's day speech in which Henry exhorts his troops to extraordinary action. Branagh delivers this with chill-inducing fervor that has the theater audience ready to leap from their seats and join his Band of Brothers in the attack.
Most film viewers have a difficult time interpreting Elizabethan English which is why remaining true to Shakespeare's original text can be a risk. Branagh manages to use the original language and do such an incredible job of showing as well as telling, that we have no problems following this amazing story. Great drama is always great drama whether it is in the 16th century or the 21st. Branagh managed to prove this to us in his first effort as a film director. The best news, of course, is that he would return to do it again.
Coolness factor: 5
Overall entertainment: 8