Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2153
Kenneth Branagh's Henry V is an ambitious film. Ambitious in that it takes one of the best known and well loved of Shakespeare's plays—already made into an acclaimed film by another great English actor—and seeks to use the film's story to convey a message of the horrors of war and the moral and practical burdens of kingship and government. Compressing into five acts the actions of five years, Shakespeare wrote a play that would run approximately two and one-half hours in length, without intermission. Branagh, in editing the text, brings the film to just over two hours, exactly 138 minutes. To move the film along, he makes effective use of two editing techniques, the cut and the dissolve. His pacing gives a sense of the historical time span, while at the same time keeping the audience actively involved in the narrative and characters.
The plot of Henry V is complicated by Shakespeare's predilection for writing for a score of characters, all with their own understanding of the events, and all with clearly identified interests and philosophies. The bare bones of the matter is historically famous. Since the reign of Edward I, England's monarchs had been seeking the throne of France on the basis of their connection through the female line. France countered their argument with Salic Law, which forbade the issue of any female assuming the throne. Henry, upon assuming the throne of his father, invaded France in 1415, and, after besieging Harfleur, fought the battle of Agincourt. Taking literary liberty, Shakespeare leaves that as the final, decisive battle, ignoring the fact that Henry had to conquer Rouen two years later before he was able to bring the French to the negotiating table. The Treaty of Troyes, signed in 1420, marked the end of hostilities (for a time, at least) as Henry married Katherine, the daughter of Charles VI of France, and their issue was to rule both France and England.
Shakespeare adds to that basic outline the early companions of Henry—Pistol, Bardolph, Nym, the Boy and Mistress Quickly—as well as various military figures, most notably the Welsh Captain Fluellen. Included in the personnel are Charles VI (known as the French King) and his advisors, the Dauphin, the Constable of France, the Dukes of Burgundy and Orleans and the Grandpre. There are also the nobles of England—the Dukes of Gloucester, York and Bedford, the Earl of Essex—and the traitorous Scroop, Grey and Cambridge. Each of these has a story to tell. Finally, there is the Chorus who—while supposedly providing objective third-person narration—has its own viewpoint. All of these characters are included in Branagh's film, and given great vitality.
The message the film coveys is clear: the unyielding horror of war, no matter what the cause and its justness. This theme is best developed in the the latter half of the campaign, as Henry's army moves from Harfleur to Calais, where it is ravaged by sickness and foul weather. The battle at Agincourt fills the screen with images of death and pain: mental, emotional and physical. There is another theme, however, more subtle and often overlooked, and that is difficulties of kingship and, by extension, government. Henry, in both the play and the film, must reconcile the heritage of his murderous father with his own dreams and ambitions. In the famed scene where the king walks the camp on the eve of Agincourt, the responsibilities of a king are debated, but not totally resolved. All this Branagh adds to the mix.
What would seem a long film, what with its narrative expanse and dense text, actually goes by quite quickly. The audience, at worst, feels that the film is exactly 138 minutes long. In actuality, the time passes by almost unnoticed, so skillful is Branagh in his pacing. This pacing, as noted above, relies on the deft editing of the scenes, as well as the talents of the actors and their director. Almost all movement from shot to shot is done by the use of cuts, the only exceptions are eight dissolves and one wipe where the screen becomes black.
The cuts are fairly basic, but quite effective. They are either a simple cut, a jump-cut or an intercut. The last two, however, are not extensively used. Branagh films the action much like a play in that each scene is carried out as it was written, whole and complete. Only after the action is completed does the camera move the audience to a new venue. The only exceptions to this rule are the use of flashbacks, which occur three times in the film. Two are used to denote Henry's relationship with the late Falstaff and his followers—Bardolph, Nym, Pistol, the Boy and Mistress Quickly— while the other is reserved for the final scene, the Treaty of Troyes, where both Henry and the French King recall their dead. The first two flashb'acks are actually new scenes to the audience, the third is a montage of faces and images that dissolve one into the other before the camera returns to the action.
The dissolves are so infrequent and specific that they are easily noticed. The first occurs as Mistress Quickly bids her loved ones farewell as they head to the wars. The camera is still on her face, but then the image dissolves to show an antique map, with the site of Rouen. The map dissolves into the face of the worried French King. This technique is used again as Henry forces Harfleur to surrender. The bloodied, battered image of the king and his warriors fades into a sun-lit room where Katherine, the Princess of France, learns English with the help of her advisor. The third dissolve occurs as the camera finds the sick English troops slogging through mud and rain. The image dissolves once again to the map, where their path is shown leading to the field of Agincourt, at which point the scene once again returns to the soldiers, with the use of a dissolve.
The Chorus, speaking of the attitudes of the two camps before the great battle, dissolves to show the tent of the French Constable, which, when the scene is completed, fades to reveal the demoralized English camp. The penultimate dissolve happens as Henry, once again bloodied and battered, stands on the cart holding the dead, overlooking the field of Agincourt. The scene changes to the hall where the treaty is to be signed and the cleanly attired nobles present. The one wipe occurs after Henry prays to God, just before the battle, begging Him not to penalize the English for the sins of Henry IV. The screen is wiped black, only to reveal the rested and confident French troops.
Each of these techniques makes the film more powerful. The cuts move the story along, sometimes occurring quickly and revealing a multitude of viewpoints, and at other times moving as if the the director's notes had been marked "legato". The hurried pace occurs in moments of great tension and action: the battle scenes, the speech of St. Crispin, the moments in which Henry confronts the mockery of the Dauphin through Mountjoy, the herald. The cuts are more measured in scenes fraught with emotional tension: Henry's decision to go to war, France's deliberations and then resolve regarding the hostilities, the preparations of the English yeomen before leaving for France.
One of the most effective cuts between one scene and another occurs when the French determine to fight. After learning of Henry's removal from Harfleur and advance towards Calais, the French King lays out his battle plans. The final words of the scene are his. "Now forth, lord constable and princes all, / And quickly bring us word of England's fall."* Hard upon the delivery of that line, the camera cuts to the English troops, as they painfully make their way through the French countryside. Their ill-fed and pain-wracked bodies are clearly pushed to the limit as they struggle to maintain the pace of the march. Even Henry and his lords appear despairing of achieving their goal. Here is a beautifully realized comparison of not only the French and English troops but their spirits as well. For, desperate as the English are, they persevere, and it is the overconfidence of the French which is their ultimate undoing.
This scene is also a good indicator of the way Branagh handles the passage of time during the film. While, on the one hand, the scenes succeed each other, they are often linked, to give a sense of simultaneity. The French King speaks as the English march. The first dissolve in the film links Mistress Quickly's foreboding regarding the campaign to the fears of the French, who are initially reluctant to engage in the conflict. Not only does the editing allow the two scenes to appear simultaneous, it also deepens the characterization of the two sides, showing them to be far more alike than previously evidenced.
The dissolve from one camp to the other before the final battle heightens the impact of both scenes, and the battle itself. The French, in their confidence, appear similar to the English in earlier scenes, who relished the thought of war and conquest. When the scene shifts to the English camp the audience sees how demoralizing and futile such dreams are. The British soldiers are exhausted and fearful, believing this night to be their last on earth. Henry himself is far from the energizing leader who will shortly stir the blood of his men with the speech of St. Crispin. He, too, has doubts. He, too, fears for his life and the lives of all those with him. The impending battle, he realizes, will be the decisive factor in his kingship. If he loses, his cause will appear unjust and he will be a failed king who led his countrymen to death on a foreign soil.
In direct contrast to the slow, almost painful care in which Branagh illustrates the dejection of the English, is the battle of Agincourt. The sequence, from the first rush to the realization that the English have won, occupies almost fifteen minutes of the film. Compressing an entire day's worth of bloodshed into a quarter of an hour is no mean challenge, and Branagh meets it. Instead of following one or two characters through the battle, such as Henry and the Dauphin, the camera jumps from one character to another. Any man who has had a line in the film so far is shown, and the camera also shows characters who have been in the background. The action is all-encompassing. Everything from the most savage brutality to the cupidity of the cowards is shown, and when the battle is over, the audience is left almost exhausted. For we have followed the actions of everyone that we care for, and we have been included in their pain and anguish.
This is how Branagh encapsulates five years of history into a two-hour film. With a masterful command of the camera, he involves the audience in every aspect of the film: the characters, the setting, the dialogue, the historical matter and the various messages. He is aided by two specific choices: his portrayal of the Chorus and his music. The Chorus, as played by Derek Jacobi, is clothed in modern dress and acts as a commentator on the action. Far from appearing out of place in a medieval film, the Chorus serves to draw the audience into the narrative. As he crouches beneath the barricade at Harfleur, we feel as if we are there with him. He also helps to compress the action, appearing to shift the scene and then disappearing to allow the characters to take center stage.
The music, as composed by Patrick Doyle, a cast member, utilizes the harmonies of the twentieth-century, but plays on our conceptions of the Middle Ages to produce a dark, heroic atmosphere. At times the music and the action share the same pacing, but there are other times where the music offsets the action, either adding greater tension and a faster tempo or slowing itself to emphasize a certain moment: the deaths of the Constable and York at Agincourt or Henry's realization that he has won the battle. In all, the music complements the nobility of the king and his cause while revealing the pain and suffering that attended the victory.
Branagh's film is a marriage of superb acting and beautiful language. It does not succeed simply on that level, however. The editing compresses the story enough to make it manageable for the scope of the film, but it allows the viewpoints of a multitude of characters to be put forth and examined. By dissolving from the English situation into the French, and the reverse, Branagh afforded the Gallic host greater humanity than it is often allowed. The film succeeds because of its masterful editing which understands, and complements, the narrative and message of the film.
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