O for a muse of fire that would ascend
the brightest heaven of invention
Shakespeare starts Henry V with lines that seem to cry out for moviemaking. He opens the play by apologizing for the shortcomings of simple theater, wondering what he could show us all if he could actually transport us to the Battle of Agincourt and watch Henry and his men duke it out with the French.
Kenneth Branagh took Shakespeare's words to heart. His Henry V couldn't be anything but a movie. In the process, he not only gave us the Henry that all other Henrys envy—he also made a lot of people suddenly start digging William Shakespeare.
Branagh directed the film in part as a way of playing off Laurence Olivier's 1944 version, which felt like a children's fairy tale. He wanted the grit and grime of real history, not the sugarcoated version that Olivier delivered to the screen. (To be fair, Olivier made his during World War II, when people needed a little sugar coating.)
This newer Henry V keeps a lot of tougher dialogue that Olivier dropped, like the speech outside Harfleur where Henry promises to spit their babies on pikes if they don't surrender. Branagh plays it like a great big bluff: Henry's forces are exhausted and he doesn't know if he can win the battle, so he puts on a big tough-guy display to force the town to surrender. Shakespeare had it, Olivier didn't, and Branagh keeps it there to give his hero some down-and-dirty tricks (that you just might find on an honest-to-goodness battlefield).
He also keeps the costumes historically accurate, sticking to what people wore during the real Henry V's reign. Henry's tabard mixed the three lions of England with the fleur-de-lis of France is keeping with the actual king, and the extras all wear dirty peasant's robes and similar bits of Dark Ages grunge. Again, contrast that with Olivier's flick, in which everything was bright and a little too clean for comfort (this was the Middle Ages, after all).
The sets, too, are all guts and grit and grime. He shoots the Battle of Agincourt in a muddy fog-ridden field (which matches the October date of the actual battle), and the battle ends with the sadly realistic slaughter of little boys. The interiors are all dark and poorly lit (not a lot of halogens in the 15th century), and different ethnicities in Henry's army constantly squabble with each other in keeping both with the text and our historical tendencies to pick fights with anyone not of our tribe. All of that is inferred or stated in the text, and Branagh does his level best to keep it there.
Fair Shmoopers, at no time does Branagh want us to think that this is a play. Unlike Olivier, who actually showed us the Globe Theater and constantly emphasized the staginess of Shakespeare, Branagh dives headlong into the possibilities of cinema. He lays the groundwork with the very first scene, with his Chorus (Derek Jacobi) dressed in snazzy modern clothes and wandering around a movie set (complete with cameras and cans of film).
Then there's his use of camera angles. The camera swoops and zooms over the landscape like a deranged buzzard, giving us images that could never be captured or conveyed in a theater. Check out the scene in which they sing Non Nobis and Te Deum at the end of Act IV after they've won the Battle of Agincourt. The camera follows them for a full two minutes, crossing a half-mile of territory and letting us know that we're definitely outdoors, on a huge battlefield, where real men have died real deaths.
Branagh wanted to give us a Henry like no other, and with a little help from that Muse of Fire, found the perfect medium to do it.
This version—much happier and more cheerful than Branagh's—was considered definitive for many years. Olivier dedicated it to the British troops fighting in World War II, and it was intended to bolster his country's spirits during that brutal and horrifying conflict.
Unlike Branagh, Olivier wanted everyone to remember the play's theater-y roots, so he uses the Globe Theater (where Shakespeare's plays were performed back in the day) as a framing device. Gradually, the theater gives way to more realistic surroundings, only to come back at the end to give us a change to watch the actors take their curtain calls.
Olivier also drops a fair amount of lines from the play. Mostly he axes any lines that refer to (1) anything horrible that the English might do (like spitting babies on pikes) or (2) the fact that England might not actually win this thing. That's not really in the patriotic spirit.
Shortly after donning the pointy helmet of Loki (for director Kenneth Branagh no less), Tom Hiddleston played Henry V in an epic three-part saga covering both Henry IV Parts I and II and Henry V. (Yes, even Shakespeare made sequels.)
It's a faithful, sweeping adaptation that the BBC produced just before the 2012 London Olympics, in an effort to celebrate and promote British culture before the world descended on their megacity in the spirit of sport.
So which version will you be popping in your DVD player? Shmoop amongst yourselves.