This past week saw two seemingly unrelated events: the UK Parliament’s defiance of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s determination that Britain will exit from the EU on Oct. 31, deal or no deal; and the premiere at the Venice Film Festival of The King, a retelling of the life of medieval king and Shakespearean hero Henry V, played by young heartthrob Timothée Chalamet. Both partake of farce: the current constitutional crisis in Britain exacerbated by a foppish, shambolic Prime Minister; and a revisionist biopic which depicts Henry V as a brooding millennial, amusingly dubbed by BBC film critic Nicholas Barber as ‘diary of a wimpy king’.
Boris Johnson would arguably cast himself as a latter-day Henry V, whose 1415 victory over the French at Agincourt (depicted above in an 1884 painting by Sir John Gilbert of the bedraggled English before battle) would be echoed in Britain’s ‘liberation’ from the European Union. Shakespeare’s 1599 play (part of the so-called ‘Henriad’) depicts King Henry V as an ideal monarch, reflected in the famous scene where the king goes in disguise among his troops on the eve of battle, which the Muse describes as ‘a little touch of Harry in the night’. The modern counterpart, in Brexiters’ minds, may well be the dishevelled Prime Minister: a little touch of hairy in a dark moment in British history. Let us consider some of the screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s Henry V before returning to the current UK Prime Minister.
David Michôd’s film The King, Barber notes, is a radical departure from Shakespeare’s portrayal. Chalamet’s Prince Hal is a tortured, brooding youth who hangs out with Sir John Falstaff, a weary military veteran who apparently comes up with the winning strategy against the French at Agincourt. This is a far cry from the wild, licentious youth in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, who stews in the taverns with the lovable and irresponsible coward Falstaff, but who eventually betrays his surrogate father to become a lofty king and war-hero. In Act 1, Scene 2 of Henry IV Part 1, Hal tells the audience that he will ‘imitate the sun, / Who doth permit the base contagious clouds / To smother up his beauty from the world, / That, when he please again to be himself, / Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at, / By breaking through the foul and ugly mists / Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.’ Thus, Michôd’s retelling would surely cause the Bard to shake in his grave. Shakespeare’s Henry is the ‘mirror of all Christian Kings’ and the ‘star of England’, though at the same time, the ending of Henry V foreshadows his early death and the disastrous reign of his infant son Henry VI, under whom the factious nobility ‘lost France, and made his England bleed.’ The playwright drew heavily on the 1587 Chronicles of Raphael Holinshed, who might thus be nicknamed Holin-blood-shed, or for his detractors, Hole-in’s-head.
Prior to The King, Shakespeare’s Henry V was memorably adapted to screen several times. The first film adaptation was Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1944 Henry V. The film is ingeniously framed by a performance at London’s Globe Theatre before the audience is transported to medieval England and ‘the vasty fields of France’. With a stirring soundtrack by Sir William Walton, the movie is a patriotic saga for wartime Britain featuring epic battle scenes inspired by Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. Given the era in which it was made, one might well regard it as a Henry ‘V’ for Victory.
Decades later, the 29 year-old actor-director Kenneth Branagh sought to outdo Olivier (and Orson Welles, for that matter) in both achievement and ego in his 1989 film version of Henry V–an important movie in my youth. Branagh’s adaptation is notable for the naturalistic way the actors’ lines are delivered, not to mention a cast which features the cream-tea of British theatre: Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Paul Scofield, Ian Holm, Emma Thompson, Brian Blessed, and other noted thespians (not to mention a young Christian Bale, who is more bat-boy than Batman in this movie). Branagh sought to break from the patriotic jingoism he detected in Olivier’s version, and to depict fully the horrors of war, especially in memorably brutal and muddy battle scenes inspired by Orson Welles’s 1965 classic Chimes at Midnight (itself an adaptation of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and bits of other plays, featuring Welles as a mischievous, decadent Falstaff corpulently embodying ‘merrie olde Englande’). Critics, however, were repelled by the subtext that soldiers’ manliness and heroism–‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’–arose out of surviving WWI-like conditions: a med-evil way of thinking about war?
One of the most recent screen adaptations was that of the Hollow Crown television series, co-produced by Sam Mendes. As with previous adaptations, its versions of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V stress Hal’s cruel abandonment of Falstaff (played by Simon Russell Beale), in effect letting him fall on his staff. The series stars Tom Hiddleston as Henry V, and Jeremy Irons as his troubled father Henry IV. Irons also voiced the villainous Scar in the 1994 Disney cartoon The Lion King (itself a loose adaptation of Hamlet and basically recycled in the 2018 Marvel superhero flick Black Panther, and pointlessly remade this year), so we may infer that Irons’s Henry IV is a lyin’ king–perhaps an appropriate nickname for Boris Johnson too, who in his boyhood dreamt of becoming ‘world king’ and is noted for his mendacity as Daily Telegraph columnist and pro-Brexit campaigner.
’til next week,
The Once (and Future?) Director, Early Modern Henriad-vertising Studies Program