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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: June ::
Re: Branagh H5
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1592  Monday, 25 June 2001

[1]     From:   Mike Jensen <
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        Date:   Friday, 22 Jun 2001 09:29:01 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1583 Re: Branagh H5

[2]     From:   Paul E. Doniger <
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        Date:   Friday, 22 Jun 2001 23:21:03 -0400
        Subj:   Fw: SHK 12.1583 Re: Branagh H5

[3]     From:   Graham Bradshaw <
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        Date:   Sunday, 24 Jun 2001 01:44:35 +0900
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1583 Re: Branagh H5


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mike Jensen <
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Date:           Friday, 22 Jun 2001 09:29:01 -0700
Subject: 12.1583 Re: Branagh H5
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1583 Re: Branagh H5

I'll let Graham Bradshaw defend his comments about *HV* as questioned by
Andy White, though, Andy, I would hardly describe them as vitriolic.

I disagree that Olivier's film was the *HV* standard before Branagh's
movie, unless you restrict your inquiry to movies.

Why do that?  The standard is, of course, the plays, Q and F.  One
approach for evaluating any performance version is what they do with Q
and F.  There are other standards as well.  If the RSC's 1970 version of
the play was persuasive to you in the way it found Henry to be quite a
dark and manipulative character, then that may inform how you read Q and
F, and also how you feel about Branagh's and Olivier's films, or for
that matter David Giles BBC Shakespeare version and other stage
productions.

I think it is reasonable to compare Branagh's film to Q/F and find it
wanting, or even not to find it wanting, but discuss what I'll call the
"Branagh spin" on the play.  Both are valid approaches, to my cute
little mind.

All the best,
Mike Jensen

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Paul E. Doniger <
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Date:           Friday, 22 Jun 2001 23:21:03 -0400
Subject: 12.1583 Re: Branagh H5
Comment:        Fw: SHK 12.1583 Re: Branagh H5

Andrew W. White wrote

>To call Branagh's version 'shallow' begs the question:  in comparison to
>what?

I must mention a pet peeve, here. What Andrew means to say is  "To call
Branagh's version 'shallow' ASKS the question: ... " Begging the
question, a term whose meaning is being made fuzzy by so many misuses of
the term, is a logical fallacy in which one 'begs' his or her audience
to assume that his or her opinion is an accepted fact (i.e., already
proven without need of evidence); for example, I would be begging the
question if I said, "High school students shouldn't study Shakespeare
because they're incapable of understanding difficult language." In
saying this, I am asking my audience to ASSUME that the language of
Shakespeare is too difficult for high school students (incidently, I
never agreed with that assumption). Begging the question is a form of
evasion (politicians do it all over the place).

Andrew continues to say:

>However naive Branagh may have been in his own interpretation, if
> we take Olivier's version as the standard (and I would argue that it
> certainly was _the_ standard before Branagh, especially for the WW-II
> generation that first saw it) his Henry has depth by the butt-load.
> Olivier's Hal is squeaky-clean, no blood is spilt, and the battlefield
> is unrealistically sunny.
>
> The only real quarrel I had was that, as long as Branagh was going to
> create a more realistic atmosphere -- rain, gallows and all -- I don't
> see why he insisted on creating a 'hill' at Agincourt, when the field
> itself is as flat as a pancake.  Did he really need the "Comanches on
> the hill" bit, with the French nobility standing in as Indians?

Here I have a more serious disagreement. Shakespeare never worried about
creating 'realistic' battlefields (nor I suspect did he create any
realistic, or rather, naturalistic, settings at all -- this is still
before the influence of Inigo Jones and the); he used language and
actors' delivery of language to create 'truth'.  Branagh's bloody
battlefield is far less interesting to me than Olivier's impassioned,
bold, and honest acting of the text. I'll take the older film over the
newer one any day -- even with the flaws inherent in Technicolor and
1950's 'squeeky-cleanness'.

Paul E. Doniger

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Graham Bradshaw <
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Date:           Sunday, 24 Jun 2001 01:44:35 +0900
Subject: 12.1583 Re: Branagh H5
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1583 Re: Branagh H5

Andrew White writes:

> Having read Graham Bradshaw's vitriolic take on Branagh's Henry V, I
> have to wonder how he feels about the Olivier version that preceded it?
> To call Branagh's version 'shallow' begs the question:  in comparison to
> what?  However naive Branagh may have been in his own interpretation, if
> we take Olivier's version as the standard (and I would argue that it
> certainly was _the_ standard before Branagh, especially for the WW-II
> generation that first saw it) his Henry has depth by the butt-load.
> Olivier's Hal is squeaky-clean, no blood is spilt, and the battlefield
> is unrealistically sunny.

Breaking this down, Andrew's different questions about what Bradshaw
thinks (let's forget "feels", and the still more diminishing "take")
require quite different answers.

(1) So far as these respective readings, as readings, are concerned,
both versions are "shallow" because Olivier cuts just under, and Branagh
cuts just over, 53% of Shakespeare's text. Cuts on this scale amount to
a chainsaw massacre, because they altogether destroy the play's
structural dynamics. I discussed this matter at some length in
"Misrepresentations", so shan't chew that cabbage twice. There are cuts
and cuts, but in this case we are talking about the equivalent of a
performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (abridged, and selected) that
takes about 36 minutes Forget that. It's stupid, and insentient.

(2) Nonetheless, Olivier is far superior to Branagh, if we allow that
what directs the cutting knife is another question. There are surgeons,
and there are (especially in God's own country) slashers, and they
should not be confused.

Olivier's cuts are relentlessly, surgically purposeful, and in that
sense, or to that degree, intelligent. He (and Dent) knew what he
wanted. His surgery was directed to the film's wartime purpose, so that
he cut out whatever might threaten that purpose. (Although I rue this in
Shakespearean terms, the purpose in question is, in its own terms, both
honourable and moving, and generates much of the film's real intensity.
Imagine the film finishing with an Epilogue in which the Chorus ruefully
reflects that within a few years or decades Germany and Japan would have
eclipsed Britain!) Whereas (here I shall quote myself) "Branagh's cuts
often seem clueless and recall Edgar Allan Poe's orangutan with a
razor". If they are directed by anything, it's merely Branagh's ego, and
indeed his "Olivier complex" deserves a separate (diagnostic) study.

(3) For all that, Olivier's film was a remarkable achievement, since he
was thinking so acutely about some of the problems in transposing a play
to the screen. Although I find Branagh's Shakespeare films more and more
shallow or vapid every time I see them, my respect for Olivier as
director has grown over the years. Considered from this point of view,
"Henry V" was probably his best Shakespeare film. Branagh as director is
a dustily ego-driven roomful of echoes, of other films he has seen, and
of other productions he starred in. Olivier the director is still
underrated; Branagh the director doesn't exist. Bernice Kliman gave a
devastating paper on the sheer incompetence of Branagh's films as films,
at the "Shakespeare on Screen" conference a couple of years ago.

(4) It's revealing that when Andrew wants an example to focus his sense
that I was being unfair, or "vitriolic", he compares the two films'
treatment of the battle scene! Wait a minute--which battle scene?  There
ISN'T a battle scene in Shakespeare's play, but Andrew seems to have
forgotten that. Does he have square or Widescreen eyes?
Both directors were interpolating their battle scenes. The truly great
battle scene which Welles interpolated into "Chimes at Midnight"
doubtless owed to Eisenstein, but Welles built on that. Branagh's
"realism", which Andrew commends, is merely derivative from Welles, adds
nothing else worth having, and finishes with the Hero's
nauseatingly/obscenely sentimental (and glorifying/Thatcheresque/
Malvinesque: war makes men, etc) plod through the battlefield, carrying
that damned Boy. Carrying him where, for heaven's sake, and for what?
Why not drop the bleeder, and leave him to be buried with the others of
"no name"? Or does Branagh suppose that the real, significant attachment
was not to Falstaff, or even to Bardolph or Nym or the curiously absent
or shortlived Poins, but to the Boy? (Absurd, of course, but in keeping
with "Peter's Friends", as another rip-off of a much better movie, "The
Big Chill".)

What is Andrew's idea of "realism"? I suppose a historically "realistic"
depiction of Agincourt would concentrate on the catastrophic effects of
the new English longbow, and the still more catastrophic French cavalry
charges, and would have finished by showing the English hammering stakes
into the piled-up but not easily accessible French bodies, as they did;
but that wouldn't have had much to do with Shakespeare either.

(5) In the message which Andrew thought "vitriolic" I suggested, as one
example of Branagh's inability to think about Shakespeare's play (as
anything other than a vehicle for histrionic exhibitionism), that he
couldn't make any sense of what Pistol is doing in the play.  Well,
Olivier did think about that, and in a way that was at least intelligent
and interesting. In a way Branagh suffers from being able to draw on an
extraordinary pool of actors who are far better, and far more
intelligent--Scofield, Jacobi, Dench, etc etc. He then trusts them to do
what they do, without thinking about how this will or will not fit into
whatever he is doing (or remembers that Adrian Noble had done, etc etc).
I don't actually like saying these things, but somebody should.

To conclude: I have never seen an intelligent production of this play,
and doubt that I ever shall. The real reason for that is implied (though
not extracted) by Stephen Greenblatt's argument that a pro-Henry staging
can't work, now, and that "even today, and in the wake of full-scale
ironic readings and at a time when it no longer seems to matter very
much, it is not all clear that 'Henry V' can be successfully performed
as subversive" (Shakespearean Negotiations, p.63). Greenblatt's argument
depends on two assumptions, the first of which seems to me wrong, while
the second seems regrettably correct.

The first: Greenblatt assumes (I think, quite wrongly) that "the
Shakespearean theater...manifestly addresses its audiences as
collectivity"--so that there is "no attempt to isolate and awaken the
sensibilities of each individual member of the audience, no sense of the
disappearance of the crowd".

The second: Greenblatt assumes that no modern director will trust the
play enough to allow the audience to think for itself. Alas, this
assumption does seem to be true, which is why I no longer expect or dare
to hope to see an intelligent production of this extraordinarily
intelligent play. Our modern climate is one in which it is assumed that
any decision about whether or not the play is to be "performed as
subversive" rests with the modern director (a modern invention, like the
modern conductor).

In other words, and here I shall quote "Misrepresentations" again
because I can't find a better way to make the relevant point: "it is
taken for granted that any audience which was allowed or encouraged to
think for itself would be as helpless as the would-be apostles in the
Monty Python film 'Life of Brian': when told to 'fuck off,' they ask, in
painful bewilderment, 'How shall we fuck off, O Lord?'" If there is
hope, and hope for us, it might be found in that very intelligent
Shakespearean actor Alan Howard's comment, after playing Henry in the
1982 RSC production: "People have tried to do 'Henry V' as a play
glorifying war, and a play condemning war; but by allowing the text to
be free, without preconceptions, one discovers that the play does both
these things and many others besides". Hear, hear!--but is anyone
listening?

Why Shakespeare doesn't tell the truth about what happened after the
surrender of Harfleur is another, and I think far more interesting and
difficult question. "Difficult"=I don't know the answer,  although I
think this question so important and interesting it would be worth
discussion in a separate, Branagh-free thread.

Branagh just isn't interesting, unless for those who want to analyse the
phenomenally pretentious self-marketing. Is that what Americans, or
Hollywood, liked--some kind of Shakespearean Andy Warhol, claiming his
miserable minutes of fame?)

What about Harfleur, and Shakespeare's reasons for departing from what
he read in the chronicles? If we could have a separate thread on that, I
myself would prefer to sit silently, and listen, and learn.

Best wishes, Graham Bradshaw

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