Directed By: Laurence Olivier
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Robert Newton, Leslie Banks
Tag line: "Laurence Olivier's Presentation in Technicolor of Henry V"
Trivia: The filming of a battle scene was stopped in order for the company to watch while overhead a group of British fighters attacked a formation of German bombers on their way to bomb London
At the outbreak of WWII, Laurence Olivier set aside his acting career and joined the Royal Air Force. But as the war dragged on, the British Gov’t decided his services were needed elsewhere. So, he was removed from active duty and instructed to make a movie, one that would help boost morale on the home front. The resulting film was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous play, Henry V.
Henry V is set in the 15th century, during the Hundred Years War. Having recently ascended to the throne, Henry (Olivier) sails to France with his army and wins battle after battle, culminating in the victory at Agincourt in 1415, where Henry and his men, greatly outnumbered, managed to defeat the superior French forces. This not only secured the entire country for the British crown, but also allowed Henry to court the beautiful French Princess, Catherine (Renee Asherson), who would eventually become his Queen.
Olivier’s Henry V opens in London’s Globe Theater in the year 1600, in front of a live audience. These early scenes play out on a small, makeshift stage, as if we were watching a contemporary presentation of Shakespeare's play. But soon, the spectators disappear, the space expands, and the stylized sets and costumes morph into more realistic surroundings. It’s as if the "show" had somehow merged with reality, and by the time we reach the Battle of Agincourt, we’re transported to a wide, spacious field, witnessing an epic recreation of the melee complete with archers, horses and a hand-to-hand fight between Henry and a French Commander (Leo Genn). The slow dissolve from artificiality to reality that Olivier employed in Henry V was a stroke of genius, reminding viewers what they were seeing was once performed on a stage, but that the story itself was lifted straight out of the history books.
With Henry V, Laurence Olivier made his particular contribution to the war effort. The film reminded Britons of a time when their army successfully invaded and conquered a foreign foe, an event the country’s then-current military forces, and, indeed, those of much of the world, were hoping to repeat.
Lucky for us, they did.