The Battle of Agincourt, one of the most famous battles in English history, took place on the 25th October 1415, 600 years ago today! The Battle of Agincourt was a dispute over whether the English or French owned parts of France following arguments about who was king of France during the early parts of the Hundred Years War. King Henry V of England invaded France, breaking the uneasy peace that had been established many years earlier under Richard II. Henry won the Battle of Agincourt, during which large numbers of French nobles died, and married Princess Catherine, the daughter of the French King.
If this was just a bloody dispute over land, why do we remember it? For a start, it was a classic underdog tale in which the much smaller forces of the English defeated the superior numbers of the French. However, we mainly remember it because William Shakespeare immortalised the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V, part of his series of plays (collectively called the Histories) about the Kings of England. Henry V depicts the conflict from the point of view of Henry, a.k.a. Prince Hal, a young king who is barely out of his hell-raising students days, as he tries to live up to his father’s reputation and prove he is a strong king. The play (like all of the Histories) has a lot of bias and it is unashamedly patriotic, but it is also a powerful story of a young man with huge responsibilities trying to prove himself. It’s incredibly quotable and King Henry is a part that has seen lots of great actors making it their own. We’re comparing the three most famous versions, so you can see which one is right for you!
Henry V (1944)
BOOK ZONE 822.33
The timing of this first screen adaptation of Henry V was no coincidence – Winston Churchill instructed Laurence Olivier to make the film to boost morale during the Second World War, and the release coincided with the Allied invasion of Normandy. The parallels with the current situation in Britain were unavoidable, and Laurence Olivier, who was one of the most famous stage and screen actors at the time, embraced (some might say exploited) this in his screen adaptation. Henry V was lauded by critics around the world and also commercially successful, and is sometimes considered the first film to prove that Shakespeare could be produced for the screen and still entertain. As well as directing the film, Olivier plays King Henry with wit and intelligence (though his eyeliner is a bit much), and his rendition of the famous ‘Once more unto the breach’ and ‘St. Crispin’s Day’ speeches must have been extremely inspiring to British people who were uncertain of victory against the Nazis. The production does look a bit stagey these days, with the Technicolour making everything just that bit too bright, but it does hark back to an idealised version of Medieval history that was all flying pennants and inspiring leaders, and maybe that was just what was needed in drab and rationed WW2 Britain.
Henry V (1989)
BOOK ZONE 822.33
Following in the tradition of a recognised Shakespearean actor directing himself as the young king, Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V is more tailored for the screen. Branagh’s series of Shakespeare adaptations, including Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Hamlet and Love’s Labours Lost, are considered some of the best screen adaptations of notoriously difficult plays. Branagh was one of the first directors to use flashbacks, non-linear storytelling and heavy editing of the script to turn plays originally written for the stage into excellent films. His Henry V avoids the idealism of Olivier’s version, portraying the Siege of Harfleur and the Battle of Agincourt as grim, harrowing experiences. According to historical records, the Battle of Agincourt happened on fields that were recently ploughed and had been turned into a morass of mud by heavy rain. You’ll recognise most of the actors in this adaptation – Branagh got lots of great actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company involved, and the opening scene in which Derek Jacobi walks through a deserted film studio reciting the prologue is magical. Branagh is excellent as King Henry, showing him as a hot-headed young man whose emotions sometimes over-rule his good sense, but this also gives his speeches immense power. This was the first screen Henry V whose portrayal was vulnerable and intimate, and it works really well.
The Hollow Crown (2012)
2012 saw not only the London Olympics and Paralympics but also the World Shakespeare Festival. Sam Mendes was commissioned to create The Hollow Crown for the Cultural Olympiad, adapting Richard II, Henry VI Parts 1&2 and Henry V for the BBC. These plays were originally intended to form one continuous sequence called ‘The Henriad’ showcasing the story of three kings whose lives influenced one another. This is the first screen adaptation where we have a chance to see Henry (Tom Hiddleston) before he was a king. During Henry IV, Prince Hal spends his time drinking with a group of thieves and drunkards, led by the infamous John Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale). He creates chaos for fun, even robbing and frightening Falstaff, and is a constant disappointment to his father (Jeremy Irons). However, when he takes on his role as king in Henry V, his hell-raising past makes it all the more impressive when he leads his armies into battle. With the two great performances of Olivier and Branagh before, Hiddleston could have just produced a derivative performance, but he manages to make the role his own, and his King Henry is determined to be the king his people believe him to be. Where Olivier was a shining hero and Branagh was an inspiring but brutal leader, Hiddleston’s Henry is the product of his earlier years, and the portrayal of Henry’s arc is a modern interpretation of what can be a clichéd and overly patriotic character.
If you liked this…
Try some other Kenneth Branagh adaptations of Shakespeare with Much Ado About Nothing, Love’s Labours Lost and Hamlet (all in the BOOK ZONE at 822.33).
Read about Branagh’s experiences of playing Henry V on stage in Players of Shakespeare II (BOOK ZONE 822.331), along with essays by many other members of the Royal Shakespeare Company about their most iconic roles.
Henry V is essentially historical fiction – and very entertaining at that. For more fictionalised (and great) accounts of kings, queens and battles, try Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (BOOK ZONE 823.92), The White Queen by Philippa Gregory (BOOK ZONE 823.92) and Harlequin by Bernard Cornwall (BOOK ZONE 823.91). Harlequin is particularly interesting because it involves the Battle of Crécy at the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, which had a great influence on the politics of Henry V’s day.
Gilbert, John (no date) King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, 1415 Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:King_Henry_V_at_the_Battle_of_Agincourt,_1415.png (downloaded 15/10/2015)