Henry V

  • Title:  Henry V
  • Director:  Kenneth Branagh
  • Date:  1989
  • Studio:  MGM (DVD release)
  • Genre:  Action, Drama
  • Cast:  Christian Bale, Kenneth Branagh, Brian Blessed, Robbie Coltrane, Judi Dench, Richard Easton, Ian Holm, Derek Jacobi, Paul Scofield, John Sessions, Emma Thompson
  • Format:  Color, Widescreen
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC
“Oh, for a Muse of Fire that would ascend the brightest heart of invention.”  — Chorus
 
“No King of England if not King of France.”  — Henry V
 
“Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more…”  — Henry V
 
“And upon this charge, cry God for England, Harry, and St. George.”  — Henry V

Branagh does a very traditional take on Shakespeare’s history play, Henry V, and brings it to life on the screen wonderfully.  The film features an excellent cast.  When watching Shakespeare, either live, or a television or film presentation, I’m always almost distracted by the famous quotes and Henry V is no exception, which goes to show just what an excellent writer Shakespeare really was.

But Henry V is also a history play, meant to instruct the Elizabethan audience on their history, with a favorable nod toward the Tudor line.  The film opens with Henry’s advisors explaining to him that he has a just claim to the throne of France, through the female line, though France is claiming Sallic law — that is, Royal descent through the male line only.  The French Delphin arrives, bearing the message the King has refused Henry’s claim — and an insulting present.  This pushes Henry into the decision he was leaning towards:  he will invade France and pursue his claim militarily.

Henry and company are next in Southampton.  Henry is asking his advisors how to deal with a man who has broken the law.  They advise harshly.  However, the audience knows these advisors are conspiring against Henry and are actually in the employ of France.  Henry gives the man accused a light sentence, then he has the three conspirators arrested. They are accused of High Treason. Henry, points out that since they did not advise mercy for a lesser crime, he will show no mercy to them.

The English army heads to France, and into a battle.  Henry himself  leads the charge, with rousing words of bravery on horseback, “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more…”  — Henry V. They take the castle, but Henry advises his men, they are not to harrass the villagers.  Nothing is to be taken, but paid for.  The French people are not to be harrassed.  Henry even orders the execution of one of his own men who was caught stealing from a church, though the man is an old friend and advisor.

Finally, the English army reaches Avincourt.  They are cold, wet, tired, and sick.  On the eve of battle, it is plain they are out-numbered five to one.  Henry takes another advisor’s cloak and wanders through the British camp, getting a feel for how his soldiers really feel about the king.  Some support the king, others, fear they are on a fool’s errand and the king will only get himself captured and need to be ransomed. Henry swears this will not happen, though he is also worried by the long odds.  The next day, Henry gives the rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”) and the English charge into battle.  The battle is extremely well-filmed, showing both chaos and violence, and historic tactics.  Again, Henry leads his own men into battle.  The English archers fire thousands of arrows into the French army, killing hundreds of men and boys.

At the end, though it looks like the English have one, Henry is unsure.  The French envoy arrives and tells him that he has won the day.  Later there is an accounting — the French have lost 8000 men, including over 500 newly named knights.  The English, about five named men, and an additional twenty-five.  Henry gives credit to God for fighting for them.

Henry then goes to the French king.  Among his terms, the crown of France and the king’s daughter – Katherine.  The French king gives all to Henry.  Henry, after some courting of Katharine is to marry her. The film shows the two as the new king and queen.  However, Chorus reminds the audience that Henry’s son is not the man his father was, and he will lose France.

The courting scene between Henry (Kenneth Branagh) and Katharine (Emma Thompson) is wonderful, and the sparks fly — though she speaks only French, and he really only speaks English.  He tries speaking in French to her, but only succeeds in making her laugh.  Still, the chemistry is palatable.

Christian Bale is extremely young (like eight) in this, playing one of the boy pages, who sets off the flight of arrows at Agincourt, and is also killed. But he’s recognizable — and it’s surprising to see him.  The cast is filled with excellent British talent:  Derek Jacobi, Ian Holm, John Sessions, Robbie Coltrane, Brian Blessed and Judi Dench, as well as, of course, Branagh and Thompson.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  5 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Highlander