Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 3, No. 128. Monday, 8 June 1992.
From: 		Tad Davis <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date: 		Sunday, June 7, 1992, 23:15:01 -0400
Subject: 	Once more (last time) unto the breach
I've gone back and compared the Oxford text of "Henry V" to
Branagh's screenplay and to the finished film. I continue to
disagree with many of the opinions expressed on this list, and at
the end I'll give my reasons for continuing to love the movie
despite the excellent arguments that have been advanced against
it. But in the meantime I'd like to acknowledge the merits of
those arguments, and I'll begin by summarizing where Branagh
varies most starkly from the original.
In summary, what Branagh omits are:
* The sequence of Henry's first scene where he discusses the
potential threat from Scotland and lays detailed plans to meet it.
This has little to do with the plot, but it nicely illustrates
Canterbury's earlier description of Henry: "Turn him to any cause
of policy, / The Gordian knot of it he will unloose, / Familiar as
his garter."
* Much of the byplay involving Pistol: more specifically, the
scene where Pistol takes a terrified French prisoner, and the
scene where Fluellen cudgels him and makes him eat a leek. By
omitting the one detailed (and obviously ridiculous) battle scene
that Shakespeare includes, Branagh has removed one of the devices
by which Shakespeare undercuts the heroic thrust of the story.
* Henry's threat to Mountjoy, just before Agincourt, that the dead
bodies of the English will spread contagion and thus "break out
into a second course of mischief." This and other specific and
detailed descriptions of the horrors of war at the very least
balance, if not undercut, Shakespeare's otherwise heroic
* Henry's order to cut the throats of the French prisoners. (As
Steve Urkowitz says, Branagh fails to call in ugly where
Shakespeare calls in ugly.) By doing so, Branagh softened the
ruthless edge of Henry's leadership.
* The rather cruel practical joke that Henry plays on Fluellen and
Williams regarding the challenge Williams had (unknowingly) made
the night before. Again, Branagh has softened the edges: this is
one of the few places in the play where we get a real glimpse of
the wilder Henry from the "Henry IV" plays.
* The sequence in the negotiation scene with the French, at the
end, where it becomes clear that Henry (a) has failed in his
effort to move Katherine to "love" him; (b) offers to take her
anyway in exchange for some French towns; (c) if I'm reading the
text right, decides, once he has her, that he wants the towns
anyway; (d) insists on a prescribed, and humiliating, mode of
reference to himself in any official French correspondence. Again,
the hard, perhaps Machiavellian, edge has been lost.
And there are things Branagh has added. The flashbacks to Falstaff
are the most obvious, but I hope these don't enter the debate:
Branagh simply couldn't assume any knowledge of this background on
the part of his audience, and his way of handling this is at the
very least economical. But other additions change the focus of a
couple of key sequences.
* When Bardolph is hanged for stealing, we see him, see the
memories Henry has of him, see the grotesque squirming of the body
on the rope's end, hear Henry's voice become a hoarse and tearful
whisper as he pronounces judgment. In the script, the speech is a
terse "We would have all such offenders so cut off." By adding the
additional action, Branagh has changed a speech that COULD serve
to illustrate Henry's chilling lack of emotion into a scene that
emphasizes the personal cost, to him, of kingship and war. If I
read some of the comments from others correctly, this recasting of
several scenes in terms of their effect on Henry was a particular
source of irritation.
* In a similar vein, Branagh overlays Burgundy's plea for "gentle
Peace" with flashbacks of the fallen Constable, the fallen York,
and scenes of other people once dear to Henry who are now dead. I
don't agree that the net effect of this is to undercut the plea
itself; what it does is turn it from an image of loss to France to
an image of loss to Henry.
I can't begin to address all these issues here. I have to
recognize that I'm corresponding with people who have studied the
original Quarto and Folio texts; have directed their own
productions of the play; have seen many other stage
interpretations; have read enormous amounts of critical commentary
on the play; and have engaged in long and fruitful discussions of
the play with eager students. I've done none of those things, and
I realize that any one of them would be sufficient to change my
perspective radically. I always try to keep an open mind, even
when it means that I believe most whatever I read last.
But the one thing I cannot and will not do is suggest that
Branagh's motives were in some way "dishonest." This film has
touched me too deeply for me ever to believe that. Here are some
of the things I believe are RIGHT with it:
* Branagh included the opening scene with Canterbury and Ely,
plotting to divert attention from the Church by urging the
campaign in France; unlike Olivier, he played the scene straight;
and he further emphasized it by a conspiratorial glance between
the two as they file out after Henry has decided to pursue the
course of action they recommended. The expression on Henry's face
as they promise their "mighty sum" speaks volumes for his own
mixed motives and mixed feelings. It would be difficult for anyone
to see this opening scene and have no reservation about the
justice of Henry's cause.
* While he omitted the "throat-cutting" scene, he included the
horrifying speech to the governor of Harfleur: defiling the locks
"of your shrill-shrieking daughters," aged fathers with their
brains dashed out against the walls, "naked infants spitted upon
pikes / Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused / Do
break the clouds." And while he changed the emphasis of Bardolph's
hanging, he did bring out quite effectively that Henry would let
nothing stand in his way, not even the claims of old friendship.
* While he omitted the unpleasant bargaining and banter between
Henry and Burgundy, after his scene with Katherine, it is quite
clear from his other words and actions in the scene that he has
entered the room as a conqueror: "If... you would the peace," he
tells Burgundy, "then you must buy that peace." And he tells
Katherine in plain terms that "in loving me, you should love the
friend of France, for I love France so well that I will not part
with a village of it; I will have it all mine."
* In the camp scene, Branagh gives full play to the doubts of the
common soldiers about the justice of their cause: Williams cries
as he thinks of his "children rawly left," and goes on to say: "I
am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can
they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument?"
Henry responds as best he can, but his words sound hollow in
Shakespeare's play and they sound hollow (to me) in the film.
Branagh goes on to emphasize Henry's own sense of guilt and doubt,
his questioning as to whether he is really entitled to the throne
of England, much less France: "More will I do; / Though all that I
can do is nothing worth."
* The film captures some of the flavor of Shakespeare's
acknowledged compromises ("four or five most vile and ragged
foils") in depicting his epic theme, without losing its sense of
fluid cinematic movement. The scene before Harfleur is obviously a
set on a soundstage; the room where Henry first receives Mountjoy
and the tennis balls is also, obviously, a small corner of a
soundstage, plunged in shadow beyond a narrow focus to hide the
20th-century masonry and wallboard surrounding the tiny group of
people. Henry's army is small enough for us to recognize all the
faces we see on the field of battle. The obvious smallness of
budget serves to give point to the apologies of the Chorus; yet
the illusion (for me) is preserved that we are seeing only part of
a much larger action. Branagh has made a virtue of necessity and
has brilliantly incorporated a kind of staginess into his
direction. Contrast it with the excessive closeups of Richardson's
"Hamlet" film, or with the "fully-expanded" settings of
Zeffirelli's adaptations: Branagh has struck a remarkable balance
between the two worlds; there is no question this is a play, but
there's no question it's a movie either.
* Finally the battle. Impossible to know how Shakespeare intended
to stage his "alarums and excursions": it's true that only
Pistol's part in the battle is given any extended dialogue (in the
film, the scene is reduced to a brief glimpse of Pistol and Nym
robbing corpses on the field while the fighting rages around
them), and if we were working only with the words spoken, we might
take away only a sordid and scummy view of the conflict. But it
isn't clear to me that by adding a much-expanded view of the
fighting, Branagh was in any way betraying the intent of the play.
Nor is it clear to me that he needed to show "the absurd slaughter
of tens of thousands" in order to convey an overall sense of
pointless death. The absurd slaughter of several dozen people was
enough for me. Yes, we see Exeter hacking away, in slow motion,
with the kind of toothful laugh of triumph that only Brian Blessed
can deliver. But we also see the arrows darkening the sky and the
corpses darkening -- sometimes littering -- the ground. We see
York pursued like an animal, surrounded by six or seven men --
hardly a fair fight between matched opponents -- and finally
killed, with gouts of darkened blood spilling from his mouth. We
see pools of bloody water standing in the midst of the mud; we see
the hysterical grief of the very widows Henry threatened to create
in his first scene; we see the death of the Constable ("shame and
eternal shame, nothing but shame") in a crazy accident, thrown
from his horse; we see Bates thrusting a French soldier's face
into the muddy water and drowning him. (There is nothing glorious
about any of this, intended or perceived.)
But more than any of this, we hear the screams of the children.
The Page ducks behind the lines, the French follow him, and then
we hear it: not a brief shriek but a prolonged cry of terror and
pain from many small throats at once. It is not a single wave of
sound either, but one that rolls forward again and again. We do
not see the killing itself, but we see the carnage immediately
after: one boy with a sword through his stomach, pinning him to
the ground; one with an axe in his back; the Page crumbled against
a cart; and blood everywhere, blood on everything.
In short, I believe that Shakespeare held, and presented to us,
two equally valid images: a invader driven by an ambition that
exacted an enormous price from the world; and an admired and
admirable hero king who loved and united his people. While
Branagh's success in preserving the first is debatable, I do think
he tried, and in my opinion he succeeded quite well -- certainly
better than most people on this list have suggested. He's a
bawcock and a heart of gold, and from heartstring I love the
lovely bully.
Tad Davis
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