Henry V (1989)
Politics and Warfare
Henry V is a 1989 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play of the same name, directed and starring Kenneth Branagh. In the film King Henry V is convinced by his clergymen to invade France. Henry crosses the English channel and takes the French town of Harfleur. From there, Henry’s forces go to Agincourt, facing sickness and poor conditions along the way. The French leaders and Henry face off at the Battle of Agincourt. Despite being outnumbered 5 to 1, Henry’s army wins the battle thanks to his superior military tactics (such as his use of longbows) and a rousing speech (the St. Crispin’s Day speech). Henry is named King of England and France and marries the French princess Katherine of Valois in pursuit of peace and prosperity between the two rival nations.
The film was received extremely well, earning a 100% positive response from critics and garnering two Oscar nominations for Branagh (for his directing and acting) and one Oscar win for Phyllis Dalton’s costume design in the film. It was also a successful shift for Branagh from Shakespearean stage actor (he’d played the role of Henry V on stage in 1984 at the Royal Shakespeare Company) to film actor and director.
Branagh’s adaptation of Henry V is tied closely with the current events of Britain at the time, in particular the Falklands War – a 74-day war fought between Argentina and Britain over the Falklands islands, which resulted in much unneeded death on both sides of the conflict. Adrian Noble, the director of The Royal Shakespeare Company 1984 production of Henry V, was “keen to stress the brutality of war in its effect on the individual,” and put editorials in the play’s program highlighting historians’ opinions on whether Henry was a hero or a tyrant. These differing views mirrored the country’s own division over their conservative leader Margaret Thatcher, who had initiated the Falklands War and was considered by many as a less-than-empathetic leader. Branagh’s film adaptation evolved from this stage adaptation and thus the stage play’s anti-war themes transferred over into the film. Branagh’s version represented a major shift from the previous well-known cinematic adaptation of the play. Laurence Olivier’s 1946 film adaptation of Henry V, which was commissioned by the government during WWII for pro-war propaganda, celebrated and promoted British nationalism.
The film was based on Shakespeare’s play Henry V, which was in turn based on the historical events of the Hundred Years’ War and, in particular, the Agincourt campaign and the crucial Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The Hundred Years’ War (which actually lasted 116 years) was a war between the British and French, fought intermittently between 1337 and 1453, over succession of the French throne.
The Agincourt campaign was Henry V’s attempt to solidify his status as King of both England and France during the war. On August 11, 1415, Henry sailed with 12,000 soldiers from Southampton to Harfleur, a coastal French town he laid siege to until September 22nd. Though the siege was successful, it came at a high cost for Henry’s army – about a quarter of his men were killed.
In early October 1415 Henry took his remaining troops north towards Calais, to cross the English Channel from there to Dover. The French army pursued Henry’s weakened forces, and finally the two armies met in Agincourt, a town south of Calais. On October 25, the Battle of Agincourt took place, a decisive battle that ended with a clear victory for Henry’s army.
Several factors led to the English success at Agincourt, most crucially being the French’s calvary could not adequately defend itself in the face of English longbows. The French had hundreds of horsemen they planned to charge through the English lines. Henry’s order for the front lines to be defended by long sharpened poles made it so the calvary couldn’t get close enough to attack Henry’s army, and also gave Henry’s army the ability to get close enough to pick off horsemen with their longbows.
Henry’s success at Agincourt has been central to the history of British nationalism. Since the archers in Henry’s army were from predominantly lower-class backgrounds their defeat of the aristocratic leaders that were a part of the French calvary was seen to exemplify British greatness – that even the common man in Britain was better than the highest Frenchman. This propaganda is subverted in Branagh’s version of the film, as he portrays both the power of propaganda in war as well as the immense individual loss during the battle.
Henry V (1989) is a wonderfully nuanced take on Shakespeare’s play that provokes thought on whether Henry’s actions were justified during the Agincourt campaign.
November 6, 1989 (US release date)
Curzon Film Distributors (UK, theatrical)
The Samuel Goldwyn Company (US, theatrical)
Late Middle Ages (c. 1300-1500