I recently saw (again) the 1944 version of The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France.
It’s a charming piece of work. Laurence Olivier is famous enough, I guess, but not as notable for his real talent as he might be. Shakespeare drops like ripe apples from his mouth.
The movie makes a mockery of so many who have tried fantastical juxtapositions of real and cartoonish in movies since then. It’s filmed like watching a Bayeux Tapestry or a child’s storybook get up and dance around, and throws in a view from backstage, too, to show just how far down the rabbit hole they can take us.
It’s fun to imagine a British audience, worn out with years of blitzes and the terrors of telegrams, sitting rapt in the theater and seeing their island race triumph in a tight spot. There’s a great scene where Olivier is backstage, and looks a little round-shouldered and wan, and coughs a bit in an offhand way, and then strides out onto the stage in front of the Globe Theatre crowd, and is immediately transformed by the words and the moment into the majesty of Henry Vth. Olivier knew that the play’s the thing that makes a man great, not the other way around.
Old Bill knew how to put words in women’s mouths, too; another art long since lost to the playwright. Catherine is made more charming than any sovereign could hope to resist in the blink of a French eye in her garden. Do you need to know French to get it? I don’t think so. Flummoxing up “bilbo,” a flexible sword, for “elbow” is a nice touch. I can’t remember if it’s written into the text or a happy accident.
The women are feminine but decide all in their sphere and the men kill one another over insults and geopolitics alike, and your countrymen are your brothers that you’d defend to the death against all comers. In hours, roughly, how long until Shakespeare is banned in public school?