This week, I want to do something a little different. Instead of looking at one movie, I want to compare two of them. Specifically, I want to compare the depiction of the battle of Agincourt in Sir Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) to Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989). So today we’re looking at the historical Agincourt, and at Olivier’s treatment of it, and in my next post, I’ll explore Branagh’s approach to the same scene. It is a truism about historical movies that movies about the past are always reflective of the time they were made in; in some sense movies about the past are movies about the present. The fact that we have the same historical event depicted in two different films made during very different cultural moments allows us to look at this principle for an interesting angle.
The Historical Agincourt
In 1415, the young Henry V (r. 1413-1422) launched an invasion of France as a renewal of the Hundred Years’ War. Henry landed his army in northern France and after a long siege that cost him perhaps a quarter of his army, he captured the town of Harfleur. Having lost such a significant proportion of his army, he decided to return to England, but did so by marching his forces to the English-owned city of Calais, a considerable distance to the east. This may have been intended as a provocation to the French, to encourage them to offer battle.
The French, under the leadership of Constable d’Albret, responded and after some maneuvering and delay, the two sides encountered each other between a woods and the small village of Agincourt. Henry’s forces were low on food and suffering from some sickness, perhaps dysentery, with the result that Henry’s forces were at a distinct disadvantage.
As is often the case with ancient and medieval wars, good numbers are hard to come by. Medieval chroniclers routinely over-estimated the size of armies, often by a factor of 10 or more. Modern scholarship has suggested that Henry had a force of around 5-7,000 longbow archers and perhaps 900-1,500 men-at-arms, a type of cavalry that could dismount and fight on foot easily. The French forces were substantially larger, but contemporary estimates of 50,000 men are probably an exaggeration. They had a large force of men-at-arms, perhaps 8,000-10,000, who could certainly dismount and fight on foot but were less adapt at this tactic than the English. They also had a substantial compliment of crossbowmen, and some regular archers. Overall, the English were far more adept at archery than the French were, while the French cavalry were among the best in Europe. The French generally disdained archers and considered them of secondary importance, whereas the English focused a good deal of their military strategy on them.
We have four eyewitness accounts of the battle, but unfortunately we still have some serious problems with understanding the battle. The sources tell us that Henry arranged his troops in a formation called a herce, meaning a ‘harrow’, a large grid-like tool used to prepare the ground for plowing. Scholars have debated the exact meaning of this term since the 1940s. In the 1940s, the prevailing interpretation was that the dismounted men-at-arms were interspersed with the longbow men , so that units of archers alternated with units of men-at-arms.
Here’s a reconstruction of the battle according to the 1940s understanding of a herce:
But this interpretation was effectively challenged in the 1980s by Jim Bradbury, in favor of a formation in which the men-at-arms were all in a line, with longbowmen on each wing. To protect them from direct attack, the archers drove sharpened stakes into the ground in front of them, which would have been impossible for cavalry to attack through. If the wings were angled forward slightly, the result would have been a field that slowly narrowed toward the men-at-arms. The English had the woods to their back, and therefore could not be outflanked.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a reconstruction of the battle following Bradbury’s approach. This reconstruction has archers flanking the men-at-arms, but it still has some archers interspersed according to the 1940s model.
The field at Agincourt was wet from autumn rains, and it may have been freshly plowed for planting; it was therefore not ideal terrain for fighting in, since it would have been slippery. In particular, it was poor ground for a cavalry charge.
The battle opened with some exchange of arrows, but the English longbow had a better range and much faster rate of fire than the crossbows, and this forced the French crossbowmen to pull back. The French cavalry made a half-hearted charge against the longbow men, but were forced back by missile fire, losing formation and quite possibly losing control of their mounts, who were injured by arrows during the disorderly retreat.
The French men-at-arms advanced on foot, but in poor formation because the retreating cavalry were disrupting them. All the while, the longbow men were able to continue firing. The French had to keep their visors down, because of the arrow fire, and the charge through the mud and the panicking horses must have meant that when they reached the English line, they were tired, demoralized, and in disarray. If the archers were angled slightly forward, the inability to penetrate their wall of stakes would have had the effect of channeling the French into an increasingly narrow zone, which would have made it hard to maintain any sort of order. All of this seems to have cancelled out both the French numerical advantage and the fact that many of the English were sick.
The fighting was fierce, but the tide turned when the longbowmen abandoned their bows and waded into the fight. They were only lightly armored, which must have been an advantage in the muddy field, and they were equipped with long knives and mallets (to make and plant stakes with). The result was that the cream of French chivalry was defeated in considerable part by low-born English longbowmen.
Agincourt was a terrible slaughter for the French. Numbers are hard to estimate, but French sources claim that they lost 6 times as many as the English did, variously putting the number between 4,000 and 10,000 French casualties. English sources claim that the French lost between 1,500 and 11,000 men, while the English lost only 100. The startlingly low total of English dead does appear to have some factual basis, since a close study of records have identified only 110 Englishmen known to have died, although the wounded would have been perhaps 4 times that figure. The French lost two leading royal officers, the Constable and the Admiral, three duke and seven counts, while the English lost only the duke of York and the earl of Suffolk. A large number of French nobles were captured.
Although the battle was an enormous victory for Henry, his army was in no condition to capitalize on it, and he continued his withdrawal to Calais. So while Agincourt was one of the largest English victories during the war, it was not a decisive victory of any sort. But it made Henry V’s reputation as a skilled tactician and strengthened his position both in England and against France. It’s easy to see why Shakespeare focused his play on Agincourt, and then essentially skipped to 1420, when Henry is negotiating the surrender of the French.
Olivier made his version of Henry V in 1944, while the English were still at war with Germany. The BBC, at Winston Churchill’s suggestion, had asked Olivier to make a patriotic film to help inspire the British. Olivier chose Henry V, a play in which the English invade France and fight a battle in which they are desperately outnumbered; few in England would have failed to recognize the parallels with the D-Day Invasion. Indeed, Olivier had made radio broadcasts of some of the film’s speeches during the war, so making a full-scale film was a natural idea (although Olivier was uncertain that Shakespeare could properly be adapted to film). So Olivier’s film must be seen in the context of World War II and as a sort of propaganda piece.
Olivier omitted a number of darker scenes, such as the one in which Henry threatens to inflict rape and infanticide on Harfleur, and the scene in which he orders the execution of men for looting (one of them his good friend Bardolph), as well as the sad epilogue in which the Chorus reminds the audience that the English lost France and descended into civil war a generation later. His Henry is largely a righteous and charismatic hero, with little of the moral complexity of Shakespeare’s Henry. What was left was mostly a patriotic film filled with rousing speeches to inspire the English to go “once more into the breach”. The speeches are directed simultaneously at Englishmen in 1415 and 1944. The cause is just and victory is assured if only the English stand their ground and fight.
These facts strongly influenced Olivier’s depiction of the battle of Agincourt, which he depicts in a surprisingly light style. The sun seems to be shining despite some clouds, the music is lively if not cheerful, and the ground is dry, except for a brief shot of a puddle intended to signify the wetness of the field. This last detail might have been a concession to the safety challenges of trying to film a cavalry charge on wet ground. Stunt work was obviously less sophisticated in 1944 than it is today, so we have to be careful not to project modern expectations of what a battle scene can look like back onto Olivier’s film. By the standards of the day (not to mention the limitations of filming on a limited budget during wartime), Olivier’s Agincourt was an impressive spectacle.
I’d like to offer you the whole scene, but I’ve only been able to find the second half of it on youtube, so I can’t show the opening of the scene. This is unfortunate, because the cavalry charge is both great cinema and worth analyzing.
The scene opens with the French cavalry charge. The French knights wear bright-colored surcoats, and their horses are wearing caparisons, bright-colored cloths than hang down from back to ankle. These were mostly used for show occasions such as parades and tournaments, but they could be worn in war to protect a horse from the sun and, if they were padded they could provide modest protection from injury.
The cavalry charge begins slowly and then gradually increases speed. The music here brilliantly increases its pace with the charge, drawing the audience into the drama of it. The depiction of the cavalry charge draws heavily off then-current notions of how knightly cavalry charges operated. It was wrongly assumed that cavalry charges were not well-organized, so that a charge was conducted in a haphazard style, with no attempt to keep the line dressed (with all the cavalry roughly abreast of each other and none out in front). It is now understood that keeping an evenly dressed line of knights was vital for the charge to have its proper effect. It was also assumed that a charge was done at full gallop, whereas modern thought suggests that the charge was not done at the horse’s top level of speed (among other factors, that would have made it hard to keep the line evenly dressed). So Olivier’s charge is entirely wrong by modern standards, even though it was roughly in line with what scholars thought in the 1940s.
As the cavalry charges, the longbowmen fire once, and then, rather absurdly, run forward, stopping occasionally to fire an arrow. This would have been absolutely disastrous in real life. The reason the longbowmen were so effective is that they could easily fire six to eight arrows in a minute; the best trained longbow archers may have been able to do up to 20, although muscle fatigue sets in very quickly at that point. One calculation suggests that at Agincourt, the English may have been firing around 700 arrows a second. It was this withering barrage that shattered the French charge, not a single volley with occasional fire thereafter. And had the archers advanced from their defensive positions at this point, the cavalry would probably have destroyed them.
The French cavalry is shown milling around, which is a reasonable attempt to simulate what was happening, given that most of the cavalry were extras hired because they owned horses, and not professional stuntmen. The French cavalry retreat and then run into a second wave of cavalry. If you look closely, you can see that some of the extras think they’re supposed to be fighting each other. The English archers continue their advance. The French infantry advance and then just fall down. Again, I think we can overlook the less-sophisticated stunt-work here.
Then something very odd happens. The French charge a group of English archers who flee into a stand of trees. As the French ride through the trees, English soldiers leap down on them from the trees and knock them off their horses. This scene is totally Olivier’s invention, and from a tactical standpoint is unbelievably silly. (Every time I see this scene, I can’t help but imagine Spanky, Alfalfa, and the rest of the Our Gang kids—“Hey guys, let’s go help defend England from the French!” “Great idea, Spanky, we can jump on them from the trees!” Perhaps it’s the incredibly cheerful music.) Then Henry leads a counter-charge on horseback, which is incorrect because we know he was on foot during the battle.
Apart from the constantly advancing longbowmen and the absurd scene in the grove of trees, the main problem with Olivier’s depiction of the battle is that, in keeping with scholarly ideas of the day, he emphasizes the role of the cavalry and almost completely ignores the fact that the English fought nearly entirely on foot at Agincourt. For much of the 20th century, it was assumed that medieval warfare was primarily knightly cavalry, but that idea has been gradually abandoned in favor of an awareness of the importance of infantry even at the height of the dominance of knightly cavalry. But even then, a reading of the sources should have made it clear to Olivier that this was not really a cavalry battle.
In all likelihood, Olivier’s choice to focus on cavalry was probably due at least in part to the fact that he was trying to depict battle as something glorious and heroic. Europeans had already learned in WWI that war was hell, and if they had forgotten, the past five years had done a good job of reminding them. But Olivier’s whole purpose in this film is to help the English forget the horrors of war and take them back to a time when war was somehow good. The last thing anyone wanted to see was how unpleasant war actually is. So at his Agincourt, there is little mud, only brief glimpses of injured men, and the camera cuts away from killing blows. The camera never dwells on dead bodies, and the result is a glorious English victory in which no one seems to actually die. Between the scholarly mistake that medieval battles were mostly cavalry and Olivier’s need for a “pretty” battle, his version of Agincourt turns out to be inaccurate and more than a little nonsensical, although it’s mostly good cinema.
Of course, it’s also important to remember that in the 1940s, violence on-screen was considerably more taboo than it is today, and one way films handled this challenge was to suggest violence more than show it directly. Blood was shown in much smaller amounts, and graphic violence was virtually unheard of. By the time Kenneth Branagh got around to making his Henry V, things had changed a great deal, both in film-making and in the culture. We’ll look at that next time.
Want to Know More?
Olivier’s Henry V is available on Amazon.
Henry V has been the subject of a lot of popular biographies. One of my rules is that I won’t read historical works by journalists or ‘popular’ historians like Desmond Seward or Alison Weir because they tend to really irritate me with their superficial readings of the documents and facts. I haven’t seen a bio of Henry that I thought was really excellent yet, but John Matusiak’s Henry V (Routledge Historical Biographies)is fairly solid.
There are a variety of books on the battle of Agincourt, some of rather dubious value. It’s such a famous battle that it attracts a lot of writing by military enthusiasts, who are often former soldiers who think that because they know what modern warfare is like, they automatically can generalize to medieval warfare. Probably the best recent book is Anne Curry’s Agincourt: A New History. Curry is arguably the world’s expert on Agincourt and she makes good use of administrative records as well as the traditional narratives of the battle.