Henry V (1944)

Conceived as a wartime morale-booster, Laurence Olivier’s groundbreaking reimagining of Shakespeare combines cinematic sweep with patriotic fervour.

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Alternative titles

  • The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battel Fought at Agincourt in France Alternative

Introduction

“It was the first genuinely great Shakespearean film, and set a standard of excellence against which Olivier and all others have had to compete.”
Bruce Eder, The Criterion Collection

Planning to star in a film of Henry V, Laurence Olivier also took the directorial reins after established filmmakers William Wyler and Carol Reed turned him down. Where previous screen Shakespeare had been conservatively theatrical, Olivier’s adaptation confounded expectations by beginning as a recreation of the play’s first Globe production, gradually opening out until the swaggering and kinetic battle scenes unfold in real landscapes (shot in County Wicklow to avoid German bombs).

Cutting the play, Olivier kept the focus on the young king’s heroism, while his muscular central performance, the rich Technicolor cinematography and a dashing score by leading British composer William Walton combined to inspirational effect for war-weary wartime audiences. Olivier received a special Oscar for “outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director”.

Laurence Olivier went on to direct adaptations of Hamlet (1948) and Richard III (1955). Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) restores the darker shades in Shakespeare’s text.

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