Compare two different adaptations of the same primary text.
In this brief essay, I will look at the comparative versions of Henry V, the first of which was the film produced during the Second World War in 1944 as a Laurence Olivier vehicle, given its full title The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought in Agincourt in France, the second of which was Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, produced over four decades later in 1989.
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Firstly, the purpose behind the two films were very different. One of the arguments for the production of Shakespeare’s war plays was that they were written in order to enlist people into the British army. Thus, during the Second World War, the play itself was resurrected (with the recommendation of Winston Churchill himself), and became more polemicised still under the guidance of Olivier. Olivier’s production begins in an Elizabethan theatre, which serves to steep the play in the history of its time. Rather than trying to enlist people into the army, the purpose of the play had changed into simply providing rousing propaganda for the masses. It could be argued that Olivier’s choice to switch settings from a film set in an actual location to the authenticity of a theatrical setting steeps the film in a personal (and British) history that serves the nationalistic agenda of the film well. Branagh’s film, on the other hand, chooses not to stray into the realms of the “play within a play” format, and instead provides escapist entertainment whose only agenda is to provide an authentic and encapsulating filmic rendition of the play itself.
Central to the original version of Henry V is the speech where Henry psyches his army up to go into battle. In the two adaptations, it is striking how differently the play is directed. Olivier chooses simply to speak. The camera is stationary and there is no additional elements to the speech. The words are uttered in a much more florid way, perhaps emulating the stoical and noble speeches of Churchill at the time, who gave the impression of strong leadership and control at all times. On the other hand, Branagh’s speech is delivered in a much more passionate way. Branagh bellows the lines, and during the speech the camera is in constant movement, suggesting a leader much closer to the actual action of the battle and of the brutalities of the war. Also, in Olivier’s speech, the soundtrack remains conspicuously absent, which, on the one hand highlights the importancy of the words being spoken, but on the other hand, doesn’t add any additional dramatic impact to the scene. Branagh’s speech, in almost direct opposition to the production by Olivier, sets the speech to a rousing orchestral soundtrack, and as the speech develops, almost to echo the motivating and rousing impact of the speech, brass elements are added to the orchestra. The result is that Branagh makes the speech more immediately accessible, perhaps at the expense of Shakespeare’s language itself. Thus, what the second adaptation of the play gains in its portrayal of the dirtiness and of the visceral impact of war, it perhaps loses in relegating the simple, theatrical delivery of the lines to second place over a more expressionist style of cinematography.
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Olivier himself suggested during an interview after the film that “When you are young, you are too bashful to play a hero; you debunk it.” He starred in the play when he was 37, whereas Branagh himself was just 29 when he starred and directed his own version of the play. It is ironic that, although the first film was designed primarily as a propaganda film designed to stir up nationalistic sentiment, the second version of the play, because of the slightly less subtle vocal delivery by Branagh, and because of the cinematic devices used in the adaptation, is in fact much more effective as a pro-war and pro-patriotic propaganda film. But this arguably, was not the purpose of the first film. Certainly, the way in which both actors play Henry V differ greatly insofar as Olivier’s performance is one that is much “softer” – as in, the words and the vocal delivery isn’t so much shouted, but portrayed instead in a much more distant, Churchillian way, which is arguably, a much more effective portrayal of the leader of Britain as it was intended to be portrayed during the Second World War.
In terms of how effective the two films were in synthesising the elements of Shakespeare’s original “war play”, and using them to portray two very different aspects of leadership and of how a great war leader portrays himself, both films, albeit in very different ways, offer equally effective renditions of this central element of the play. Shakespeare himself intended the play to be used as propaganda to enlist people into the army, and the rousing speech about the nobility of war proves central to both film adaptations of the play. In the first, Olivier’s rendition of the words are done in a more minimalist way. Henry’s motivational speech is enunciated without any additional cinematographic devices, which highlights the delivery of the language and the subtleties of the words, rather than attacking the feeling the speech intended to rouse by using expressionist devices such as non-diagetic music and camera movement. Indeed, the Olivier produced piece is stark in the way it re-enacts the war scenes, as dialogue is very infrequently used in conjunction with dialogue. Conversely, Branagh uses a massive orchestral score during his rendition of the motivational speech, and the effect of portraying both the brutality and the nobility of great leadership in war is very different. Both films are effective in their own ways – the Branagh directed piece, although it lacked the subtlety of personal performance and the vocalisation of Shakespeare’s lines that Olivier’s had, also provided audiences with a Hollywood spectacle less encumbered by the sanctity of Shakespearean language, and more interested in providing a slice of historical entertainment, which, arguably, would have been Shakespeare’s original intention.
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