Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Thrills, Chills, & Spills: HENRY V

by JB
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention…

1989 was a great year for movies. Besides the films and trends that you will be reading about here all week, may I humbly suggest that it also sparked a new wave of serious films based on the works of William Shakespeare, spearheaded by actor/director Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V. The film was both a commercial and critical success and led to many more movie adaptations of the bard’s works. From Branagh, we got Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), As You Like It (2006); we also got Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990), Richard Loncraine’s Richard III (1995), Oliver Parker’s Othello (1995), Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night (1996), Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard documentary (1996), John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998), Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999), and Gil Junger’s The Taming of the Shrew adaptation, 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). Imagine if the different studios behind these films had somehow gotten together and suggested that they were all part of a “shared universe!”
The Plot In Brief: The year is 1415. The new king of England, Henry V (Kenneth Branagh) is young and untried. The Archbishop of Canterbury (Charles Kay) persuades Henry that he is the rightful heir to the throne of France and convinces him to invade that country to claim his birthright. Henry sends France a message stating his intentions. The French king’s Dauphin (Michael Maloney) uses this opportunity to insult Henry by answering his message with a mocking gift. The two countries are plunged into war. Henry is inexperienced, and the English are greatly outnumbered. Who will win the famed Battle of Agincourt?

AN ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: When I first saw Henry V in 1989, one detail that I thought must be an anachronism so bothered me that I scurried to question the Shakespeare expert in the high school English department in which I worked. “Marilyn,” I said, “I just saw Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, what is up with those tennis balls?” Marilyn assured me that the phrase “tennis balls” was in the original text and that tennis “is a really old game.” Tennis goes all the way back to 12th century France, well before Henry V takes place! Before Google was invented, working in a high school was the next best thing to having Google.
Seldom has the world ever seen a more assured directorial debut than this film. Branagh was instantly compared to Orson Welles and remains one of the few performers to be nominated for both acting and directing Oscars for the same film. For proof of his directorial talent, one need only to look at the film’s signature sequence (which, ironically, is not part of the text of the original play.) Branagh’s Henry takes up the body of a young boy cruelly slaughtered by the French and carries it across the battlefield after the English victory. This is a four and half minute unbroken tracking shot showing the true cost and devastation of war, as Patrick Doyle’s sad, stirring score moves to a tempestuous climax on the soundtrack. The sequence defines superior filmmaking. TRIVIA NOTE: The servant boy Branagh carries is Christian Bale, in what was only his third film role.
The allure of playing King Henry V for any young actor must be the opportunity to perform Shakespeare’s famously inspirational “St. Crispin’s Day” speech, and I wonder if his actor’s vanity played a part in Branagh’s choice of Henry V as his first movie project. Branagh is magnificent, wringing emotion, bombast, and allegiance in equal measure from every syllable.

ANNOUNCING THE FIRST EVER “KENNETH BRANAGH VS. YOU AT HOME” PROFESSIONAL ACTING CHALLENGE: Read the speech below out loud. Really try to sell it; you are a new king trying to rouse your subjects to feats of bloodshed and bravery that most of them do not even realize they are capable. I don’t care where you are or who else is sitting close by, THROW CAUTION TO THE WIND AND ACT THE SHIT OUT OF THIS SPEECH. Then click the link below to see and hear Branagh’s version. Who won the competition? YOU BE YOUR OWN JUDGE AND JURY!

Henry: No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.

No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmorland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.

This day is call'd the feast of Crispian
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say "To-morrow is Saint Crispian."
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say "These wounds I had on Crispin's day."

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Sound slightly familiar? The stirring motivational speeches in both Independence Day and Mystery Men are loosely based on this, one of Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits.

Henry V’s supporting cast is a Who’s Who of the English stage. Seldom has a cast been assembled with a higher pedigree: Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed, Ian Holm, John Sessions, Richard Briers, Robbie Coltraine, Dame Judy Dench, Paul Scofield, and Emma Thompson. Back in 1989, many of these actors were better known for their stage work and had not yet distinguished themselves in the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter films!

Shakespeare clearly intended Henry V as pro-England propaganda. Laurence Olivier even directed himself in a film version in 1944 to raise English morale during World War II. One of my favorite scenes in the film sees both sides assessing their casualties at battle’s end. According to Shakespeare, “10,000 of the French lie in the field, dead.” Henry pronounces it “a royal fellowship of death.”
The English dead number… 29. History is indeed written by the winners.

Thrills: 100%
(In addition to the usual epic sweep that literally gives us the term “Shakespearean,” it is thrilling to see a new directorial talent emerge, fully formed, in a stunning debut film.)

Chills: 100%
(Branagh proves that not every war film turns out pro-war, as Truffaut suggests; Branagh’s Battle of Agincourt is a bloody, muddy, chaotic mess.)

Spills: 100%
(Lots of gut-wrenching violence sprinkled liberally among the iambic pentameter.)

IF our run-up to this Saturday’s F This Movie Fest 7 finds any of our readers or listeners hankering for more 1989-centric content, why, just use the links below, and I will “see” you all on Saturday:

UHF podcast

Heavy Action: Tango & Cash

Roadhouse podcast

Batman podcast

Do The Right Thing podcast

Heath Holland on… Field of Dreams

I Dig Shag the Most

Reserved Seating: Sea of Love

Full Moon Fever: Puppet Master

Take Two: Shocker

Off the Shelf: Night Game

Off the Shelf: Kill Me Again

The Overlook: The Big Picture

Unsung!: Penn and Teller Get Killed

Shitting on the Classics: Dead Poet’s Society

Shitting on the Classics: Driving Miss Daisy


  1. What a crazy coincidence. Just last night in my theater class we studied that opening monologue. "O for a muse of fire..."

  2. Oh, Daniel... you should know by now that THERE ARE NO COINCIDENCES...

  3. OMG. Love that film. I was getting ready to student teach when that came out. After giving up my theater major and focusing on history, that film made me rethink my decision. I memorized that speech and can still recite it in class. The thing I love about that speech: In the film, when Kenneth Branagh gives the "We few, we happy few" line...he spits a bit, and a little dangles from his mouth. And that stuck with me. I don't know why, but I always thought that they left it in there because he nailed it and they didn't want to re-do it. It seemed so natural and..who hasn't done that? The music is amazing and Patrick Doyle would also compose the soundtrack to Branagh's next film, Dead Again. Thanks, JB for highlighting this film. I know what I am going to do tonight!

  4. Thanks JB! This sent me down a youtube wormhole of watching people perform it; a 3 year old, a 6 year old, a guy eating a sandwhich while walking to what I think was a football match in Yorkshire, plus Richard Burton, Tom Hiddleston, & Mark Rylance.

    Then I came back and re-read the speech out loud to myself, in some way channeling all those folks - and I'm not kidding I gave myself chills. Ok, really mostly because it's a great speech. I've also honed my projection and enunciation by talking to myself rather a lot (a LOT) and more specifically by having pretend arguments. I think you just gave my crazy a new hobby!

  5. JB— giving “the crazy” a new hobby since 1962.