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The historian who goes to the movies is going to his wedding tomorrow, so this post is shorter than usual and getting put up a day earlier than normal. In my previous post, I looked at Sir Laurence Olivier’s Henry V. In this second part, I consider Kenneth Branagh’s treatment of the same material.

Kenneth Branagh as Henry V

Kenneth Branagh as Henry V

Branagh’s Agincourt

Branagh’s take on Henry V is so far removed from Olivier’s that they almost seem to be different plays (and in a sense they are; Branagh kept much more of Shakespeare’s text than Olivier did). In 1988, Branagh was making his film in a drastically different political context. The Vietnam War had drastically changed attitudes toward war in many parts of Western society including England. More directly relevant to England, in 1982, Britain got into the Falklands War with Argentina. It was a brief conflict, lasting only 10 weeks, but it had a definite impact on Britain. It helped bolster the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, who was re-elected as Prime Minister the following year. The British press resisted the Royal Navy’s expectations of patriotic coverage, instead opting for a more neutral tone, and there was much more debate about the justification for the war. While World War II could be viewed as a “good war”, the Falklands was seen by many as needless war.

Branagh’s take on Henry V must therefore be seen in a very different context. There was no pressing need for the patriotic tone of Olivier’s version, no need to rally the British to continue with a great struggle. Instead, there was a much wider appreciation of the unpleasantness of war, the moral compromises it requires, and the suffering it produces.

Branagh restored the moral and psychological complexity of Shakespeare’s Henry V. We see Branagh’s Henry as a deeply conflicted man, a man keenly aware of the moral dimensions of his decision-making and not entirely convinced of his right to risk the lives of his men.

Branagh’s treatment of Agincourt fully reflects this. The battlefield is much murkier than Olivier’s; the sky is grey, the ground muddy, and the mistiness of the field suggests that it might be raining (which, in reality, would have ruined the strings of the English longbowmen, resulting in a drastically different battle). Whereas Olivier chose to focus on the French cavalry charge, Branagh focuses attention on the English as they wait to receive the charge. We see the men praying and crossing themselves. Then we watch them prepare their bows and arrows. The French cavalry begins its charge, but then the camera switches immediately to the English. We hear the sound of the charge and watch the tension and fear build in the English faces. These are men who know they are facing death if they fail.

The English launch their first volley of arrows, and then the English men-at-arms engage the French. Branagh makes no attempt to depict the French falling back and running into their own second wave. For much of the rest of the scene, we see a chaotic struggle between the two sides. We repeatedly see the archers loosing arrows and hear the sound of arrows whistling through the air and watch men falling dead. This, of course, is entirely wrong. The English would not have been able to continue firing once their troops had joined the battle, because they would have been killing their own men. Nor do the longbowmen ever enter the melee.

As the scene progresses, we witness the brutality of fighting. Many are covered with blood. We see men having their throats slit, men falling down, men being stabbed, corpses being looted, and one man being held face first in muddy water until he drowns. The Constable is unhorsed, and at this point, the music turns more mournful, as his men struggle to rescue him. The duke of York is mobbed and stabbed to death and we see him vomit blood. The Constable and the Dauphin bemoan the shame of their defeat.

Branagh’s Agincourt is a horrible, bloody conflict in which both sides suffer terribly. The English, although they win, find themselves lamenting their dead. When Henry receives news of the French casualties, he seems appalled at what he has done. The scene ends with Henry and the English walking across the corpse-filled battlefield as “Non Nobis Domine” is sung. For much of this sequence, Henry is seen carrying the corpse of a young boy, and the viewer can see the psychological weight of the body as much as its physical weight.

From a strictly historical standpoint, Branagh’s Agincourt is just as wrong as Olivier’s, both for what he omits (the confusion of the French charges) and for the errors he shows (the archers firing after the melee has started). But the different times in which these films were made led these two actor-directors to adopt very different visions of the climactic battle. Olivier’s Agincourt is a metaphor for British victory over the Nazis, whereas Branagh’s Agincourt is a meditation on the horrors of war, horrors that his audience can contemplate precisely because war is not on their horizon.

Want to Know More?

Branagh’s Henry Vis 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 HistoryCurry 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.