I don’t think it is too controversial to say that in America we are in a bit of a leadership drought these days. Gone is anyone that seems to be able to unite and inspire us to be better than we might otherwise be. You can make the argument this type of dogmatic leader is dangerous, and that is certainly true, but I nonetheless miss it.
William Shakespeare’s play Henry V is perhaps the greatest example of a dynamic leader who through their powerful discourse is able to convince people to do more than they ever thought they could. Now, whether invading France is a good thing is another discussion but Henry still got the men to do it and to win in spite of all the odds. Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 adaptation of Henry V is a visceral and intense version of this story, and I honestly can’t imagine it being done any better.
The film uses elements from Henry IV Part 1 and 2 in a flashback style and adds a narrator billed as Chorus played by Derek Jacobi. This is helpful as particularly the opening actions can be a little confusing.
It always takes me a bit to get into Shakespeare but particularly here as these scenes involve a lot of diplomatic negotiations. I especially found confusing a story-thread with Dame Judi Dench as an innkeeper and Robbie Coltraine as Falstaff. I’m not sure if they are supposed to be comic relief like the Thénardiers in Les Miserables, but I didn’t really get it.
Fortunately for us, Branagh quickly moves on to the soldiers and the battlefield, which is easiest to understand and become engrossed with. First, we get the rousing speech at the city of Harfleur:
“What say you? Will you yield?” I would yield. I can tell you that right now! Then the army continues to struggle through Calais where a member is hanged for stealing from a church. In a great scene Henry goes amongst the soldiers to see how they are feeling and they tell him ‘if his cause be wrong…it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it”:
Then we get up to the battle where they are outnumbered by the French 5 to 1 and it is there that Shakespeare gives Henry one of the most powerful speeches of all time:
“But we in it shall be remembered- We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother…” That’s a leader! With such leadership they fight and defeat the French with Henry becoming King of both nations. It’s all quite riveting and while Branagh’s version is very violent it works to draw you in and build up the stakes of the story.
The easiest modern example to compare Henry V with is obviously Braveheart which follows very similar beats and executes them well. Some may cringe at the glorification of war but where is leadership more crucial (especially in this ancient age of intimate conflict) than in war? Do we honestly believe we would have gotten the Abraham Lincoln or the Winston Churchill in an era of peace and serenity? Not so much. The great leaders are great because they inspire us to be better and to gather together as a ‘band of brothers’ to face the struggles of the battlefield and of life.
As far as technical prowess of Henry V it holds up quite well. The acting is great across the board (we even get to see a young Christian Bale in a small role). The sets, action and cinematography are all great. The music is soaring and draws you into the battle. Aside from the confusing scenes with Falstaff, it all works very well and is very impressive considering it is Branagh’s directorial debut (he was nominated for best actor and director for Henry V). I think it is even stronger than his a bit bloated version of Hamlet.
It is definitely smile worthy!
What do you think of Henry V? Do you find it inspiring or is it too violent for your taste? Let me know in the comments section. What is your favorite Shakespearean adaptation?