Shakespeare on film is always a trial. To film one of his plays is to invite the inevitable complaints that the results distort or otherwise fail to measure up to his greatness. Furthermore, while the plays demand an emphasis on his language and the performances, cinematic expectation favors the image and action. Filmmakers obsequious before the Bard’s reputation produce lifeless waxworks. Those (like Zeffirelli, for example) who throw caution to the wind and treat Shakespeare as just one more scenarist raise the ire of the literati, though sometimes with reasonably successful results. Perhaps the best “Shakespearean” films are those, like Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood or Ran, that just treat him as a starting point.
Laurence Olivier’s film version of Henry V falls somewhere between these poles of fidelity. His treatment is respectful, but not slavish. The film is probably most famous for its three levels of Realistic articulation, starting with a recreation of an Elizabethan performance of the play, transitioning into a studio-bound, highly stylized production in 15th century garb, then going the full naturalistic route by staging the Battle of Agincourt on location. The conceit is certainly audacious. How successful it is as a production of the play I cannot say, but I have always found the filmmaking to be just a touch too self-consciously clever to be entirely successful.
Shot in glorious Technicolor and produced largely as a propaganda effort (for decadent French, read nasty Nazis), the film never entirely finds a balance between the competing demands of epic theatre and film. The speeches are well delivered, I suppose (Olivier’s pre-Agincourt exhortations are effective) but as with all Shakespeare on film, I find myself struggling to understand what is being said in simple expository terms. Furthermore, there seems to be an assumption that viewers have enough knowledge of Shakespeare to be able to understand much of the action, so that Falstaff, for example, is included (as a reference) only to die, as if we know his importance without further explanation. He may be essential to Shakespearean mythology, but in film terms, he serves no plot function at all and seems to be referenced just for the sake of it.
The early Elizabethan, Globe Theatre scenes have an earthy, surprisingly rough charm, the Battle of Agincourt is justly famous for its elegant staging and the studio-bound 15th century portions (which make up the bulk of the film) have a pleasant, candy-box sweetness. The movie offers a catalog of delights, and yet it is tough to claim that it coheres into an experience that makes us forget we’re watching a movie based on work by a great playwright. Perhaps Henry V is one of those films that needs the context of its original period to understand its acclaim. Its stylization guarantees that it never dates in the bad sense, but it also makes it even tougher than usual to overcome the “Shakespeare question.”