Olivier’s Henry V: Patriotic Intentions

In Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film rendition of William Shakespeare’s Henry V, it is very clear that the juxtaposition of the English characters vs. the French is intended to highlight and magnify the bravado, strength, and fearlessness of the English in comparison to the meek, overconfident, and dishonorable French. Given the fact that the film was released during the second World War, it is evident that Olivier’s goal was to use the film to inspire patriotism in the people of England at a time where it was very much needed. In order to do so, he takes every opportunity to characterize the English as noble heroes and the French as an unworthy enemy in order to evoke the intended emotions from his English audience.

Olivier’s negative portrayal of the French is first noticeable in Act II, Scene IV of the play, when the French King and his men are first introduced. In the film, the king is old, incompetent, and disheveled looking. This is a stark contrast to the portrayal of King Henry, who, in the scene right before the audience meets the French king, speaks eloquently, boldly, and with much confidence. King Henry comes off as strong and fearsome, saying “And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his/Hath turn’d his balls to gun-stones; and his soul/Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance/That shall fly with them: for many a thousand widows/Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands;/Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down…” (1.2.293-299). Almost all of Henry’s lines are of this nature, conveying the strength of England.

Contrarily, The French King speaks in mumbles, and Olivier also makes a point of presenting the Dauphin and all other French characters one at a time, making them look either foolish, ignorantly self-absorbed, or un-manlike. When the king is faced with Henry’s messenger, Exeter, in Act II, Scene IV, he asks mostly questions, with an expression of fear on his face, as if he knows the answers will not mean well to him. After Exeter names all of Henry’s requests, the King of France asks, “Or else what follows?” (2.4.103) in a way that suggests he knows that Henry will strike France with all his power.

Olivier also characterizes the French as disrespectful of the rules of war, and makes Henry seem like an excessively noble and merciful king. In the film, in Act IV, Scene VII, The French kill innocent boys, loot the King’s tent, and burn down the camp. Henry then charges off to battle and avenges the dead boys. This characterizes Henry as a valorous and merciful king. For the sake of the film, Olivier exaggerated Henry’s mercy by leaving out the lines, “…the King, most worthily, hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner’s throat. O, ‘tis a gallant king!” (4.7.9-11). By leaving this out, Olivier furthers the gap of honorability between King Henry and the French, resultantly stirring up even more patriotism and pride in his English viewers. While those who view the film and have read the play know that Henry actually ordered the execution of many Frenchmen on behalf of their breaking the rules of battle, those who have not read the book would simply view the film and feel a lot of love for their country. Even non-English viewers feel victorious as Henry mercifully, yet justly wins the battle. Within the context of the historical time period the film was released during, Olivier’s clever and overt characterization of English and French characters is extremely effective in stirring national pride.

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