HENRY V: Shakespeare Takes Cinematic Wing

CHORUS (Leslie Banks): O! for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

the brightest heaven of invention . . .

In the midst of World War Two, actor Lawrence Olivier mustered out of the Royal Navy to serve his country in an even greater capacity. Prime Minister Winston Churchill instructed Olivier to fashion a film which could be used as a morale-boosting piece of propaganda for the British troops fighting overseas.

To maximize the film’s impact, the making and release of the film were initially planned to coincide with the Allied invasion of Normandy and push into France (June 1944).

However, the film was not ready for audiences until November of "44 and would not be seen by US audiences until June of the following year. (The Japanese surrendered in August of 1945).

Regardless, Olivier agreed to abstain from acting in other productions in order to better promote (as well as not distract from) the impact of the film’s wide release.

Partly funded by the British government, with the original budget of £350,000 soon swelling to nearly £500,000, the film still managed to keep to a very tight shooting ratio, with over 75% of the original footage shot actually ending up in the final film.

Art director Paul Sheriff based the film’s breathtaking design on the middle age devotional text, The Book of Hours (“Très Riches

Heures du Duc de Berry”) whose illuminated pages served as

inspiration for many of the film’s sets and staging.

These same sets were constructed and shot at Denham Studios in

Buckinghamshire, England.

The massive Battle of Agincourt, the film’s central set piece, was

filmed on location at the Powerscourt Estate in Enniskerry, County

Wicklow, Ireland. (Curiously, Ireland had declared itself ‘neutral’ in

the conflict at the time.)

Upon its premiere, the film was "dedicated to the ‘Commandos

and Airborne Troops of Great Britain — the spirit of whose ancestors

it has been humbly attempted to recapture.’"

At the Academy Awards in 1945, the movie won Olivier an Honorary Award for "his Outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.”

The score of the film by William Walton has taken on a life of

its own, with the Overture, Passacaglia (“Death of Falstaff”), "Touch

her soft lips and part”, and “Agincourt Song” all becoming part of the

standard concert repertoire. - KCJ