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Henry V: The Criterion Collection (1944)

Olivier's Shakespeare: The Criterion Collection

Laurence Olivier's 1944 Henry V is one of the most notable Shakespearean adapations of cinema, and for several reasons. Before Henry V, few films based on Shakespeare's plays made any sort of impact, and many were considered to be dismal failures. Much of this can be attributed to the difficulties of adapting works created for the theater to the complex langugage of cinema, something that Olivier (who rightly can be compared to Orson Welles) was a natural at, despite his substantial background in live performance and scant experience with motion pictures. And as Welles made his mark with his first film, Citizen Kane, and its unusual narrative structure, Olivier, along with scenarists Dallas Bower and Alan Dent, grounded Henry V in a clever framing device, staging the first act in a replica of the Globe Theater, where the viewers not only take in the exposition (wherein King Henry plans his invasion of France), but also the flavor of Elizabethean stage productions, with its grandiose actors and raccous audiences. It is when King Henry (Olivier) prepares his voyage that the literal theater setting is cast aside, exchanged for a broad cinematic environment, which retains elements of theater (the painted backgrounds clearly are for stylistic effect, even if forced by a limited budget) but allows Olivier to exploit the open space where stage becomes soundstage. In addition to the framing device, Henry V is also remarkable for being the first Shakespearean film to be shot in color, and to this day, because of its agressively broad pallette, it remains the most colorful of all. Perhaps what's most surprising about Henry V is that it wasn't created simply to render Shakespeare on the screen and line the pockets of its producers, but it was a clear work of propoganda, arriving as the Allies began to turn the tide of war against Nazi-occupied Europe. As a rule, art and propoganda are uncomfortable bedfellows (the former non-judgemental and inquisitive, the latter hopelessly simplified and didactic), but Henry V is a ready-made script to rally the masses with little modern embellishment. Scenes are cut in this version (most notably Henry's discovery of English traitors), but be the era Shakespeare's or Olivier's, the "Into the breech" and "St. Crispian's Day" speeches could make the most feeble-hearted of men seek honor in battle, and Olivier does both of them panoramic justice here (for fun, compare them to Branagh's 1989 version to see which you prefer). Criterion's DVD edition of Henry V offers a clean transfer (in the original 1.33:1) from a print that could use some restorative work but still retains much of its original Technicolor quality. Audio is in the original mono (DD 1.0), and features include an informative, scholarly commentary by film historian Bruce Eder, a chart of British monarchs from the Plantagenets through the Tudors, a look at illustrations from the medieval Book of Hours, which reportedly influenced the art direction on Henry V, a photo gallery, the original theatrical trailer, and color bars. Keep-case.
—JJB



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