If British films were eligible for the Academy Award, Laurence Olivier's production of "Henry V" would win every Oscar in sight. For that reason it is difficult to talk about it. The publicity troglodytes of Hollywood have long since exhausted the mine of superlatives in describing far inferior efforts. No press agent adjectives can do this picture justice.
With the possible exception of "Antony and Cleopatra," "Henry V" more than any other of Shakespeare's plays strains even the plastic Elizabethan stage beyond its limits. Oliver in his role of producer-director makes the most of the potentially wonderful freedom and mobility of motion pictures, thereby giving "Henry" a breadth of scope utterly unrealizable on the Elizabethan stage.
The picture opens on an Oliver reproduction of the Globe Theater and follows him and his company through the first "act" of the play as Olivier imagines it was performed in Shakespeare's time. Although it might be argued that the cinematic version of the Globe contains inaccuracies of construction, this taste of the full flavor of the Elizabethan stage, of the intimacy of contact between the actors and the audience, the roll of the eye and the spoken aside followed by a howl of laughter, makes this first part of the picture in its way the most delightful of all.
With the shift of scene to the invasion coast of England, the camera eye leaves the Globe, to return only at the picture's conclusion. Except for the transposition from "Henry IV" of Hal's brutal rebuke of Falstaff, a rebuke which seen against the background of the magnificence of the young king seems somehow more necessary than was apparent in the earlier chronicle play, Olivier has taken no major liberties with the text. What innovations he does make achieve a startling success.
The always-moving scene in which Mistress Quickly tells of the death of Sir John has been doubly reinforced by the handling of the departure of Pistol and his comrades for war. In Pistol's simple admonition to his wife to take care, in the kiss that Mistress Quickly bestows upon them all--except Nym, who "cannot kiss; that is the humor of it", is contained all the heartache and tears-behind-the-smile that the business of men going off to fight has always been. This scene and that of the campfire on the eve of Agincourt where three Englishmen spell out for their king what war is all about--that it is not gaudy trappings and caparisons, but fear and mud and obscene smells--early an ice-cold shock of recognition for a world that has just got another war under its belt.
With Henry's magnificent Crispin's Day speech to his troops on the very edge of the battle, the dramatic highlight of the picture is reached. Showing an astonishing range and power of voice, Olivier gives that gorgeous flood of words everything they deserve. In the battle scene itself, the number of men and horses employed is large but not lavish; yet it should teach Cecil B. DeMille what spectacle can be. The charge of the French chevaliers is one of the most memorable war sequences ever filmed.
In a production overflowing with exciting experiments, the most daring is its abandonment of realism as the medium of expression. Painted backdrops, liberal use of miniatures, and Disneyesque castles mark an important and significant departure from Hollywood's fantastic absorption with accuracy and detail. Applying to his sets the Aristotelian dictum that the function of the artist is to present the essence, rather than the particularity, of life-- which Shakespeare so wonderfully exemplifies in his use of dramatic poetry as a vehicle of expression-- Olivier reaches a level of perception into life that has seldom been equalled in motion pictures or on the modern stage.
Space limitations prevent a recital of the tine work done by Olivier's corps of assistants. Most noteworthy of all is the remarkable score composed by William Walton. One of the leading contemporary English" composers in his own right. Walton has contributed a score which so exactly captures the mood of every scene that Olivier time and again makes it do double duty, serving not only as background music, but as an integral part of the dramatic machinery.
After last Wednesday's premiere performance at the Esquire Theater. "Henry" was cut, but not badly. Finding one or two words in the first set too rich for the blood, the Boston censor has climinated part of one scene. What standard of censorship was employed, however, remains a mystery, since all of the world play on Pistol's name has been retained.