August 9, 2011  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Laurence Olivier’s Henry V
Henry V

Henry V. 1944. Great Britain. Directed by Laurence Olivier

These notes accompany the screenings of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V on August 10, 11, and 12 in Theater 3.

I can’t recall an image of an auteur in action that is as stirringly visceral, dynamic, and, frankly, sexy, as Laurence Olivier’s Prince Hal in tights, rousing his army at Agincourt. (Mom, I don’t want to be cowboy or a policeman. I want to grow up to be an auteur!) Well, it didn’t exactly work that way for Olivier. With some reluctance he was drawn into directing Henry V, and only once did he venture beyond the safety nets of Shakespeare and Chekhov as a movie director. So the glorious acting career on stage and screen didn’t offer much of a hook for hanging an auteurist hat.

Henry V

Henry V. 1944. Great Britain. Directed by Laurence Olivier

I’ve also always found it painfully difficult to rate any director’s contribution to a film written by Shakespeare, O’Neill, Chekhov, etc.; I think Henry V, Hamlet, and Richard III are all quite beautiful on more levels than one (visuals, performance, etc.). Since Olivier is readily recognized as a “man of the theater,” it cannot be forgotten that he made most of his international reputation—and his money—through films like Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, Pride and Prejudice, and That Hamilton Woman.Gradually, Oliver gives both theater and film their due, as he opens up the Globe stage to accommodate Shakespeare’s imagination and his own, ultimately incorporating some of the most spectacular battle scenes ever filmed. (On a smaller scale, there’s a clever New York City production of Henry V this summer, incorporating a ferry service for cast and audience as the action moves from Britain [Battery Park] to France [Governor’s Island].)

There had been very little well-executed Shakespeare on film before Olivier took his turn; Orson Welles, Peter Brook, Roman Polanski, Franco Zeffirelli, and Kenneth Branagh all came later. The “golden opportunity” arose from Britain’s need for a patriotic epic that wartime audiences could rally around. The combination of ringing poetry and grand-scale epic had been done many times, in places like the back lots of Warner Brothers, usually by Hungarian directors. Now this middle-class son of a British preacher seemed ideally suited to carry the ball (or the sword) for his sceptered isle.

Henry V

Henry V. 1944. Great Britain. Directed by Laurence Olivier

I’d always had great personal respect for Olivier, although I hadn’t seem him perform live. Friends provided a ticket for the London run of the stage version of Long Day’s Journey into Night,but unfortunately the tickets were for the same morning I stepped off the plane in Britain, so O’Neill’s epic has become a bit hazy in retrospect. My host was Britain’s leading auteurist film critic, who (together with his group of friends) had the unfortunate habit of dismissing Sir Laurence as “Bloody Olivier.” I never did figure out why there was all that rancor. My guess is that Larry was just too good at what he did and made it look too easy. His film directing may have been more about moments of flash than sustained vision, but given the British theater’s condescension to film, Olivier was generous with his time to both media.

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It seems oddly appropriate for Michael Cacoyannis to have died the week we were considering Laurence Olivier. Like Olivier, Cacoyannis seemed to be the designated spokesman of a particular breed of classic theater, preserved on film. Although he brought great passion to this, his true success seems to have come from his multi-Oscar-winning mongrel, Zorba the Greek.


Um dos grandes atores de Hollywood…

Laurence Olivier i really liked his Henry V i don\’t think has ever been done any better. He really brought Shakespeare to the big screen when he was told by by others it can\’t be done. Olivier\’s verse speaking i think was wonderful he made it easy to follow even if you weren\’t that in tune with Shakespeare and had never seen a play of his. Olivier certainly knew how to play men of action like Henry V and his good looks made the film even better. His follow up films Hamlet and Richard 111 where just as good. Richard 111 became one of Olivier\’s key-performances his role playing as that character was so well done the body language he used was there even before he opened his mouth to speak you knew what a nasty piece of work he was. Olivier i think was one of the greatest actor of the past century perhaps of modern times. I don\’t think there will ever be another actor like him he was an all rounder regarding his prowess as an actor. When he died i felt it was an ending of an era i miss him still to this day.

There are a few good Shakespeare films before the War, including the Reinhardt/Dieterle \”Midsummer Night\’s Dream\” as well as \”As you like it\” (agin with a young an a bit over enthusiastic Olivier)

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