When young Kenneth Branagh directed himself as Hal in Henry V, he invited comparison with young Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film. Let’s compare.
The play explicitly breaks the fourth wall with the prologue’s apology for the gap between the stage performance and the historical reality. Olivier uses this as springboard both for a loving recreation of the original Globe theatre and a chance to comment on how actors create and inhabit the roles they portray on the stage. We see Olivier first as an Elizabethan actor clearing his throat surrounded by a flurry of backstage chaos, next as the same actor portraying Henry V before an Elizabethan audience, and then as Henry V himself.
This is a tough act to follow, and Branagh wisely chooses a different tack. Derek Jacobi, always in a long dark 20th century coat and scarf, reappears as prologue and chorus to provide narration when required.
Olivier’s version edits out many of the darker elements in Shakespeare’s text. Branagh retains much more of the dark side of Henry and his play, although he too omits some of the grimmest elements, in particular the slaughter of the French prisoners.
Although Oliver had some respectable actors, Branagh assembled a stronger cast overall, with Ian Holm splendid as Fluellen, a radiant Emma Thompson as Princess Katherine, Paul Scofield as Charles VI, Brian Blessed as Exeter, Judi Dench as Mistress Quickly and Robbie Coltrane as Falstaff.
Both Branagh and Olivier owe a noticeable debt to better directors. Olivier features a mounted duel between the constable and Henry that owes a visible debt to a similar scene in Alexander Nevsky, and Branagh’s vision of Agincourt owes much to Seven Samurai.
Olivier repeatedly frames scenes and uses stylized backdrops to recreate the look of images from illuminations in the Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry. There’s a clear homage to the February page, although without exposed genitalia.
Branagh clearly ended up with a lower budget for armor. His English men-at-arms are grossly underarmored, and the Exeter, the Englishman with the most complete harness, wears an anachronistic and misshapen monstrosity. Even the French show the usual film reluctance to wear helmets. Olivier does better, but many of his are clearly not wearing a hard cuirass or breastplate beneath their jupons, or showing the characteristic pouter pigeon profile of the era. Recreating medieval armor is expensive, especially when you need to convey a reasonable impression of an army, and given a finite budget I don’t see a lot of places where Branagh could have found savings to do better without sacrificing other elements of the production. This isn’t Braveheart, where resources were lavished on a gratuitous and ahistorical assault on York. The charge of the French cavalry, which was a splendid and expensive tracking shot in the Olivier version, is dealt with quite economically in the Branagh version: a series of reaction shots of wide-eyed English looking offscreen as hoofbeats drum louder and louder on the soundtrack.
Branagh does portray the English heraldry accurately and effectively. The similar heraldic designs repeated on coat armor convey to the educated viewer how many of the English commanders were blood relatives to the king.
Both films err in showing the English men-at-arms fighting on horseback: dismounting all the men-at-arms to fight on foot was a key English tactic at this and most other battles of the war. Both films show men at arms wearing a separate plate neck defense that wrapped around the bottom edge of the helmet and allowed it to freely rotate within it. This is a misunderstanding of what frontal depictions in contemporary brasses were showing: a plate or plates attached directly to the helmet.
Olivier’s other historical lapses include the infamously wrong hoisting of French knights onto their horses with derricks and English bowmen leaping out of trees in the grand tradition of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood. He also shows a number of round shields on the field. This may not be entirely wrong: this image from the period seems to show round shields born by two of the foreground men at arms. It is, however, unusual and atypical. It’s difficult to shake the impression that whoever was responsible for the costumes discovered he had several dozen round targes available and found it expedient to decorate them with Agincourt era heraldry. Mail coifs that close at the base of the throat and gap widely below are another annoyance to the purist.
Olivier includes a brief shot of the advancing French reflected in standing water, and after the first encounter pans to show muddy carnage behind the front line, but much of the other combat happens on a green, pastoral and unmuddy battlefield.
Branagh errs in the other direction, showing the battle as total chaos. The different accounts of Agincourt agree that the English men-at-arms kept good order thoughout the battle: this was a key ingredient in their victory.
Branagh only lightly evokes the bowl haircuts of the early 15th c. Olivier is more faithful to the look of the era in this and other ways. In general, Branagh often settled for a rough approximation of the dress, hairstyles and equipment of the period while Olivier came a lot closer to getting the same details right.
Branagh brings wonderful immediacy to Henry V. Courting Katherine, he asks if she can love him. Neither speaks the language of the other well, and when Katherine responds for the third time in the conversation with a baffled “I cannot tell” Branagh’s Hal snaps back with: “Can any of your neighbors tell, Kate? I’ll ask them” When I first heard this, I took for a sarcastic ad-lib added by Branagh, but no, it’s the way Shakespeare wrote it. Branagh’s delivery makes it work as natural dialog.
“..Notwithstanding the poor and untempered effect of my visage. Now beshrew my father’s ambition! He was thinking of civil wars when he got me…” complains Hal to Katherine. Branagh, who does not have a conventionally pretty mug, makes the line work well. Young Olivier, who was not in any sense an ugly man, couldn’t, and didn’t try.
Olivier plays the English clerics for low comedy. Branagh portrays them as deadly serious political players.
Olivier portrays the French nobility as ineffectual and foppish twits. In Branagh’s version they are, with the exception of the Dauphin, more dangerous opponents, but disunited. This is better drama and closer to Shakespeare’s text: a victory is enhanced when it is won over strong opponents rather than weak ones. Charles VI in Olivier’s version is a twitching mental defective. Historically he was, on and off, but Shakespeare chose to show him in a lucid phase, and Scofield’s portrayal is less distracting and closer to the text.