Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Back to Henry V - Film Adaptations

In today's post, I'm getting back to the discussion of the play Henry V and its film adaptations (from earlier posts on January 29 , February 11 and the 16).


The 1944 film, Henry V, based on the play by William Shakespeare, with Laurence Olivier stands apart from the 1996 Branagh version in many ways. Concentrating on the mis-en-scene--what is photographed inside the frame, working from the back forward, we have the set of the scene. It is Disney like in appearance, the green, rolling hills leading back to the pristine village buildings that are all set underneath a willowy blue sky and puffy white clouds. There are brown, tan and gray cliffs in the foreground through which we see soldiers running away from the fighting behind them. The King rides from behind the cliffs into the frame on a white stallion with red trimmings, carrying a sword. He is the only one on a horse and appears above everyone else. The props and costume are obvious with a medium shot cut to Henry with his blue, red, and yellow dress and gray silver armor surrounding his arms and his neck and up to his head. He removes his helmet in grand gesture with both arms moving up, his elbows extended out with his hands at his chin to push up the front of his face plate. He then brings the whole of it off of his head and as he does so his sword remains in his right hand swinging across his chest, so large that it moves half out of the frame. Olivier’s movement’s as the King are controlled, precise, and deliberate. He is on show, at play in the play, not in a real fight for life and death. The one time anything appears blocking him it is one of his minions carrying the flag. Enhancing these scene elements, is the orchestral score with the omission of any battle sounds and the absence of any explosions or cries from men whose flesh has been torn by blades. This film is a representation of the so called glory of war; with the noble untouchable king leading those lesser into the fight. Violence and death are hidden. It is the Poster child of the United Kingdom’s war offices to fight the good fight for mother, honor, and country. There is no realism, no blood, no suffering, so the film could be used as a marketing tool for the country’s people to join the fight against the Nazi’s and to feel good about it.

The 1989 film of Henry V directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh contains vastly more realism than Olivier's production. Again, the historical factors are significant at the time the film was made. We have defeated the Nazi’s, experienced the further atrocity of the war in Vietnam and the U.S. revolution of the 60’s where revolt against war became popular. We are at the end of the cold war and at the brink of the Eastern Bloc’s Wall come tumbling down. Smartly, Branagh still maintains his respect and admiration as the noble King Henry V, but he does so while showing the destruction that war causes. Scenes begin with all the grittiness of battle, the light of fire, dirty, bloodied faces, and chaotic raging movement leading into the sounds of massive explosion. Henry here, played by Branagh, is a tiger. His speech is guttural, fraught, and fiery. Branagh’s sword is raised straight up and then swings wildly side to side then towards us while he spews the words of once more onto the breech as if he were mad, his lips are wet and his eyes excited, it is dark and he atop a horse who becomes blocked by a mass the men’s helmet’s shining helmets so that it almost looks like Henry is carried by these men. Then there is a cut to a close up of one of these men whose intensity of concentration and arousal for king and war is clear in his eyes. Branaugh puts the violence and death right in our faces. He doesn’t sugar coat it. He’s telling us it’s a necessary evil and that to run away is to dishonor ourselves and be left to a worse condition, perhaps spared certain death, but to live in disgrace to your dying day, your dying breath.

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