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Shakespeare 400 - Henry V

Part of Shakespeare 400 On Screen, presented in association with the University of Ottawa

Shakespeare 400 logo by Sarah TuefeeLaurence Olivier’s Henry V, the first successful commercial Shakespeare film in terms of box office success and critical reception, is dedicated to the British forces involved in the D-Day landings of WWII. Its role as wartime propaganda accounts for some of the artistic choices that distinguish it from Kenneth Branagh’s more cynical version in 1989.

Original poster art for Henry VOlivier’s Henry is a glamorous and appealing figure owing a little more to Hollywood than to Stratford, a fact underscored in the film by an unusual opening scene showing a performance at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, complete with a boy actor playing the part of Henry’s love interest, Princess Katherine. The film contrasts the formal, rather stilted acting of the Globe actors with Olivier’s ‘real’ Henry, and eventually the ‘real’ Princess, played by Renée Asherson.

While this framing device plays on nostalgia for Shakespeare’s ‘merrie England’ at a time when the nation was under threat, the film’s aerial shot of London in 1600 visually echoes newsreel footage of bombed-out London during the Blitz, reminding viewers, perhaps, what British soldiers (and Henry’s soldiers) were fighting for. Greeted as both a cinematic tour de force that paved the way for Shakespeare on film and a ‘pasty patriotic ragout’ that sacrificed Shakespeare to patriotic propaganda, commercial greed, and Olivier’s ego, this Henry V remains one of the most influential and debated Shakespeare films.

– Kathryn Prince, University Of Ottawa

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