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.
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.
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.