“We would not seek a battle as we are, yet as we are, we say we will not shun it.”
I don’t know much about William Shakespeare and his plays. I know I had to study A Mid Summer Nights Dream in grade 11English, and Hamlet in grade 12 English. I know I read every single one of his sonnets while at uni and somehow passed the unit without understanding a single word of any of them. But when it comes to Shakespeare and movies, I know that three names stand out the most. There’s Laurence Olivier for your very British, prestige adaptations. There’s Orson Welles for the very cinematic, mid century interpretations. And in (slightly) more recent years, there was Kenneth Branagh, bringing Shakespeare to the late 20th century. With movies like Henry V.
It’s early 15th century England, and King Henry V (Kenneth Branagh) is on the verge of making some sort of pronouncement that will lead to seizing land from the church. To distract him from that decree and that land seizure, some bishops convince him that through some convoluted laws of lineage, he is entitled to the crown of France. So, instead of taking church land, Henry decides he’s entitled to some frog land instead.
He sends word to King Charles VI of France (Paul Scofield) who isn’t so keen on giving up his crown. Less keen is Charles’ son, Louis the Dauphin (Michael Maloney), and their reply to Henry is a polite, fuck you. Now, convinced that France is rightfully his, Henry leads an army across the English Channel and into war on French soil.
Now, I know very little about Shakespeare’s King Henry V. And the tiny bit of knowledge I do have comes from Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight. That movie combined several Shakespeare plays to give a loose biography of the Henry up until his father’s death and ascension to the throne. Only the last minutes of Chimes dealt with Henry as king, and those few minutes focus on his betrayal of his former friend, Falstaff. So I assumed King Henry V wasn’t supposed to be seen as a good guy.
Here, while his original motivations may have been the result of his easy manipulation at the hands of the bishops, the majority of Henry V shows him as a brave, honorable and inspiring leader. Maybe I read his character wrong in Chimes at Midnight, maybe I got it right and the whole point of Henry V is showing us his redemption, but I have no shame in admitting that I don’t understand the Shakespearean dialogue nearly well enough to be sure of anything. But the fact that Branagh decided to include a flash back to young Henrys betrayal of Falstaff, in a scene that isn’t even from Henry V, makes me think I’m on the right track with the redemption angle.
Like I said above, I struggle with Shakespeare’s dialogue. But struggle or not, there’s no denying the awesome power of the St Crispin’s Day monologue. As things look their most hopeless to the English troops, Henry delivers a speech that would make anyone walk straight into certain death, and feel great about it. I guess that’s the sort of thing that makes William Shakespeare such an enduring, revered and important figure.
But Branagh also deserves a fair whack of the credit here too. It can’t be easy to deliver such complex, unnatural dialogue, and seem so natural and passionate while doing it. And even though it may have only been that one scene that I’m confident I fully got in every way I was supposed to, it worked so well as to tie the entire movie together for me in a way that made me feel like I got the rest more than I probably did.