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Henry V: How Kenneth Branagh stopped worrying and learned to love the Bard

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Reading time: 5 minutes

“… we are enough

To do our country loss; and if to live,

The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

An outnumbered, ragtag group of underdogs. Soldiers caught deep between enemy lines in France. Running out of supplies, sick of the mud, rain and blood and about to be overwhelmed and destroyed by a force much larger than their own. Ordinary men doing extraordinary feats.

Sound familiar? Like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers

This collection of iconic story elements that make up the modern war film were created in around 1599 by none other than William Shakespeare and perfected on screen by the 1989 film version of Henry V, directed by Kenneth Branagh. As we’re close to the anniversary of the battle of Agincourt and fans of historical dramas are watching Netflix’s The King, we’re taking a look back at the genesis and genius of the modern, gritty war film. 

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.

It’s easy to forget that in the late 1980s, Shakespeare wasn’t really in vogue cinematically, although one could name the awesome Ran by Akira Kurosawa. Although that was an exception, not the rule, to adapt the works of the most important playwright of all time for the screen. Shakespeare seemed very much the subject of the movies of yesteryear. The logic seemed to be that the great Shakespeare plays were safely in the domain of old school Hollywood and a British film industry which had all but vanished. For many, that’s where they thought they should stay or possibly on television with great performances from the likes of Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judy Dench in cheap subpar productions which would be shown to years and years of distressed school children. A change needed to happen in how the bard was adapted for cinema and this risk was about to be taken.

That risk was to be undertaken by Renaissance Films, not to be confused with Sam Raimi’s production company of the same name. It’s clear that Kenneth Branagh, as one of the creators of Renaissance Films had a vision that would completely change the way Shakespeare would be presented on the big screen right up to this day. That vision was to present Shakespeare in a way that would actually appeal to the cinema-goer, not by just performing the text in front of a camera but by producing a lavish, engaging production that, while keeping much of the original text, presented to audiences the brilliance of Shakespeare, confirming that his work is just as important now as it was always claimed to be. This approach affected the whole process of making the movie – from its screenplay to the fact that it was shot largely in the large spaces of Shepperton studios. Everything about this production of Henry V was going to reflect big-budget sensibility. Even though, with the assistance of the BBC, the film was made for less than 10 million dollars. 

This story shall the good man teach his son;”

Two elements make this cinematic revolution complete, the screenplay and the style of the movie. There’s criticism that the text of the play was heavily edited, but let’s not be constrained by that school of Shakespeare where we must just endure the text as it was written, especially when contemporary audiences certainly didn’t! What happens in this version is that the text is edited to impactful effect, to do all it possibly can to unify the tone, themes and message of the text. It cleverly weaves in parts from Henry IV to strengthen the character arcs of Henry and Falstaff which reinforces the sentiment of the coming-of-age story that is to be found in Henry V and would go on to be an essential trope of the modern war movie. The screenplay is beautifully and elegantly adapted from the original text, with every component serving the story. 

An unfortunate thing about the analysis of this movie is that it’s often compared to the 1944 version, this comparison is somewhat reductive… The presentation of the ‘44 version is completely different to our subject and Branagh’s whole approach was to engage a contemporary audience, to move Henry V away from the lavish set pieces and slapstick humour of the wartime version and give a much more gritty, earthy, rain-drenched, gory and grey style to the film. This was a massive risk. It brought up memories of Roman Polanski’s Macbeth made nearly two decades previously. His style of dealing with Shakespeare in all its grotesque Jacobean glory didn’t exactly lead to a wave of films of the same type. In addition, Lawrence Oliver’s style was seen as almost sacred to some, but his version of Henry V couldn’t exactly be called historically accurate.

What is clear from the production design is the massively successful achievement of creating and maintaining a consistent and engaging tone throughout. The sets are incredibly effective and the Oscar-winning costumes by Phyllis Dalton are some of the best ever committed to any movie adaption of Shakespeare’s work. The chorus are dressed in contemporary clothing which works well as a grounding contrast to the medieval costumes of the rest of the film. These costumes absolutely capture the tone of 15th century Europe and the contrast still shames most medieval productions 20 odd years on. The arms and armour are also of an incredibly high standard. All of this displays a successful intent to rob the Shakespeare adaptations of the past of all their faux jolly medievalism and offer something that strives to reflect the text and furthermore, reflect the sensibilities of the modern audience. This is no easy task. 

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

The legacy of Henry V is massive in creating the war movie as we know it today. Another vital aspect of how this movie shaped the genre is the way it got the best possible actors to put across the desperate circumstances of war. The cast of Henry V is one of massive abilities. In fact, it stars some of the greatest actors of a generation including Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi, Emma Thompson, Christian Bale, Brian Blessed, Ian Holm, John Sessions, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Briers and of course, Kenneth Branagh himself. Any noteworthy war movie will use an  A-list cast to pull audiences in. Although few will ignore the cast in a film with such amazing performances you can still follow the film with the sound off. 

The brilliantly constructed production values, pointed and fast-paced script and fantastic range of acting ability under the guidance of Branagh not only successfully rebooted Shakespeare for a generation (which is an article for another time), but left a footprint that one can definitely feel in movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line as well as a fair number of HBO productions like Deadwood, Rome and of course Game of Thrones. The last one of these in its style comes close to plagiarising the look and feel of Henry the V.

With the release of Netflix’s The King, it’s fascinating to look back and see the influence the Branagh version had.

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