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LO was one of the greatest Shakespearean stage actors and film actors and directors of the 20th century. Olivier was born into a severe, religious household and sought escape as a child in play-acting and had played several Shakesperean roles by his mid-teens. Studied with eventual parental support at London's Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Arts. After graduation, Olivier became a member of Sir Barry Vincent Jackson's Birmingham Repertory Company and landed his first leading role at the age of twenty. On stage and in film Olivier's good looks initially typecast him as a young innocent hero. But this changed when John Gielgud chose Olivier to play Romeo in Romeo and Juliet and later in 1937 the role of Hamlet. LO used a new psychological intensity in his portrayal of characters such as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939), Rebecca (1940), Pride and Prejudice (1940). LO turned successfully to adapting and directing Shakespeare for the screen, beginning with Henry V (1945); Hamlet (1948); Richard III (1955). But from the end of WWII to the early 70s, Olivier made sporadic film appearances, largely owing to his involvement in the administration of London's St. James Theatre in the late 40s and the National Theatre at the Old Vic from 1963 to 1973. After WW2 he appeared infrequently and usually in character roles: the Madhi in Khartoum (1966), the reclusive mystery writer in Sleuth (1972), and the evil Nazi dentist in Marathon Man (1976). Towards the end of his life he appeared as King Lear in a 1984 TV production and the old soldier in Derek Jarman's "silent movie" to accompany Benjamin Britten's War Requiem (1988).
HV was his first attempt at film directing and it won him an Academy award in 1946. The Second World War interrupted his acting career and he went to work for the British government to promote the sale of war bonds and bolster public support for the war. When the Allied victory seemed assured LO was released from his other military duties to make HV. The British government gave its permission for the project because it was planned to be a very patriotic film which could be used for propaganda purposes, namely to remind ordinary Britons of a past glorious victory against a European enemy (in this case the French not the Germans) at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Dedication at start of film:
To the commandoes and airborne troops of Great Britain, the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture in some ensuing scenes, this film is dedicated.
Filmed in neutral Ireland in 1943-44. The Battle of Agincourt might suggest the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944 (planned when the film was being shot). LO adapted WS's play for the screen by cutting out about one quarter, leaving out important scenes about atrocities committed by the English (e.g. execution of French prisoners) in order to leave enough time to stage the battle itself. Important to note that war scenes are not at all realistic, but heroic and glorify war (compare with Branagh's "post-Vietnam" realism in his HV of 1989). The film proved very popular with wartime audiences, running for 5 months in London and 46 weeks on Broadway.
Jack Jorgens observes of Olivier's version of Henry V that
In the midst of a war (1944), the pressures on Olivier must have been very great to make an entertaining nationalist film uncomplicated by Shakespearean irony. Certainly the patriotism is there to complement the escapist fantasy, the hymn to Britain's past glories, and the "twentieth-century conception of a sixteenth-century conception of a historical fifteenth-century king."...
Nevertheless, it is to Olivier's credit that in spite of these pressures he retained a few of the complicating elements of the play and made something more than a brilliant showpiece of propaganda. (p. 126)
A film based upon William Shakespeare's play "The Life of Henry the Fifth". According to the Chorus in the Prologue and Epilogue, Henry is described as
... the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume(s) the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment...
...This star of England. Fortune made his sword,
By which the world's best garden he achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord...
Whose state so many had the managing
That they lost France and made his England bleed...
HV is a young king who has recently come to the throne of England. In order to show what he is made of, he manufactures a flimsy excuse to wage war against the French. HV uses the clergy to provide arguments to justify the English invasion of northern France, viz that the Salic law prevented the passing of the crown to a woman and that territory in the north of France in fact belonged to England. HV gets up an army and sets off for France. Although the English are outnumbered by the French their longbowmen and their sturdy yeomanry are able to defeat the decadent and overconfident French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. As a price of victory HV claims both territory and the hand in marriage of the French king's daughter.
WS gives considerable attention to war in his plays. Many leading characters are warriors, kings or generals who come to power or overturn the established powers. WS seems aware of the horror of war but he also likes to revel in the pageantry and glory of war. WS appears to hold view that peace makes a society soft and decadent (like the French court in HV) and that war is a useful thing at times because it makes a society tough and healthy. Weak elements are destroyed and the stronger elements are given room to grow and flourish. Domestic turmoil and other "sicknesses of state" are removed in the cauldron of war. Compare with similar Social Darwinist views of Émile Zola in The Debacle about the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
In HV WS is concerned with the issue of a just war and the proper duties of a Christian Prince. Compare WS's view of Henry with Machiavelli's and Erasmus's views of the duties of a Christian prince. NM believes war is always necessary, therefore a ruler needs to be skilled at war. Erasmus beleives war is so horrible for ordinary people that the good ruler should avoid war at all costs. Henry claims he is a model ruler who is forever worrying about the needs of his people. Yet WS suggests that HV also seeks war for personal ambition and goes to war on very spurious legal grounds.
Note the following key passages in the play. William Shakespeare, Henry V (The Oxford Shakespeare).
Note especially the speech by the Duke of Burgundy which some critics regard as a "pacifist" statement by WS:
... let it not disgrace me
If I demand before this royal view(before King Henry and King Charles),
What rub or what impediment there is
Why that the naked, poor, and mangled peace,
Dear nurse of arts, plenties, and joyful births,
Should not in this best garden of the world,
Our fertile France, put up her lovely visage?
Alas, she hath from France too long been chased,
And all her husbandry doth lie in heaps,
Corrupting in it(s) own fertility...
An all our vineyards, fallows, meads, and hedges,
Defective in their natures, grow to wildness,
Even so our houses and ourselves and children
Have lost, or do not learn for want of time,
The sciences that should become our country,
But grow like savages - as soldiers will
That nothing do but meditate on blood -
To swearing and stern looks, diffused attire,
And everything that seems unnatural.
Which to reduce into our former favour
You are assembled, and my speech entreats
That I may know the let why gentle peace
Should not expel these inconveniences
And bless us with her former qualities. (5 II 23-40, 54-67)
William Shakespeare, Henry V (The Oxford Shakespeare).
Steven Marx, "Shakespeare's Pacifism," Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 1992, vol. XLV, no. 1, pp. 49-95.
Jack J. Jorgens, Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977). Chapter 8: "Laurence Olivier's Henry V," pp. 122-35.
Classic Film Scripts: Henry V by William Shakespeare. Produced and Directed by Laurence Olivier (London: Lorrimer Publishing, 1984).
Laurence Olivier, Confessions of an Actor (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982), "Call to Arms," pp. 88-106.