Of all of shakespeare’splays, my favorite is MacBeth, which almost certainly means that Kumonosu Jo is my favorite film adaptation of a Shakespeare play. When it comes to the histories, nothing beats Henry V. For my money, the Kenneth Branagh version from 1989 is the best of these going. It’s got everything that I want in this story start to finish, and even pays a slight homage to the Olivier version at the start. It’s got the great speeches, great performances, badassery, and some great battle sequences. This is Shakespeare as it’s meant to be done.
In a nutshell, we have English King Henry V (Kenneth Branagh, who also directed) who is deciding to press his claim as the King of France. It’s only hinted at here, but before he was King Henry, he was Prince Hal, and he had as misspent a youth as possible. He hung around with thieves and gamblers and drunkards, making his eventual ascension to the throne a huge worry for the people under his rule. However, once king, Henry becomes a man of both action and decision, the sort of king that both the common folk and the nobles are willing to follow.
We get a bit of banter back and forth between the British and the French, a lot of posturing and threats, and then Henry gathers his nobles to him and they invade France. Victories come, but they come with difficulty, and it’s not too long before Henry and his army are worn down by fighting, hunger, disease, and everything else that besets an attacking army. The French offer ransom terms to allow Henry and his followers to escape back to England, but he’s having none of it. This all leads to a pitched battle at Agincourt, with the English forces outnumbered 5-to-1.
The best thing that Branagh has done with Henry V is make it as accessible as possible to a general audience. Admittedly, the words can be difficult (although I’ve always found that Shakespeare is easier to understand when spoken than when merely read). Without changing the language, Branagh attempts to make the whole thing understandable, and in the main, he succeeds. He’s also not married to the play itself. Parts of the story, like Henry’s relationship with Sir John Falstaff (Robbie Coltrane), appear not only as flashbacks within the film, but as literal flashbacks to scenes from Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays.
Moreover, he simplifies chunks of the story by augmenting and combining characters. French herald Montjoy (Christopher Ravenscroft) gets all of the heraldry duties, combining several characters from the play. The inclusion of a chorus character played by Derek Jacobi in modern dress adds a connection between the play and the modern world.
It goes without saying (except I’m going to say it) that this is brilliantly cast all the way through. Aside from Branagh himself and Emma Thompson as French princess Katherine de Valois, the best casting move is the gigantic, bear-like Brian Blessed as the Duke of Exeter. He appears as one of Henry’s most trusted advisors, and is both genial and terrifying, and is always a presence to be considered in each scene he is in. This is especially true when he appears in full armor at the French court bringing messages from his king to the insults delivered by the French. He looks every inch the sort of man no one would want to tweak.
Most of the cast, save a very young Christian Bale, Judi Dench, and Ian Holm, are hardly household names, but there’s not a person here who doesn’t acquit him or herself brilliantly. Worth noting in particular is Robert Stephens as Auncient Pistol, combining the joy of the typical clown character with genuine pathos by the end of the film.
The real sell, though, are the battles and the speeches. The character of Henry’s most famous speech is the St. Crispin’s Day speech before the battle of Agincourt, but it’s hardly his only great pronouncement. Earlier, at the siege of Harfleur, he delivers two memorable moments. The first contains the fantastic line “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. Or close up the wall with our English dead.” While badass, it pales in comparison to his angry tirade at the mayor of the town demanding surrender and threatening utter destruction (complete with babies stuck on pikes). For each of these moments, Branagh hits a precise and perfect tone. The words are great, and his performance makes them better.
As for the battles, Henry V doesn’t hold back. These are violent and bloody affairs, and we’re not given anything sanitized at the end of them. Men are wounded and covered in blood (their own and that of others). These are the results of real battle. Eventually, when Henry meets up with his desired bride Katherine, he is still sporting wounds and scrapes from the battlefield. I don’t know if it’s realistic, but it looks fantastic, and confused and terrible the way it should.
Oh, I like this film a lot. I was tempted, after watching it, to rewatch it immediately. For me, Shakespeare on the screen doesn’t get any better than this. Even if you get lost in the language, it’s worth it for the brutality and the pageantry and the badassery.
Why to watch Henry V: Because it’s completely awesome start to finish.
Why not to watch: Evidently, since it’s Shakespeare, it’s hard to understand.