I find it humorous TCM would be showing this the day after I chose to see Chimes at Midnight; Welles’ film, while focusing on Falstaff, deals with the young Prince Hal as his father, Henry IV, dies, and he becomes Henry V. This film, Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V play, picks up right where that film left off, making Welles’ a sort of quasi-prequel made two decades after Olivier’s arguable triumph. I call it a triumph because I am not alone in doing so; Olivier, while being nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor (becoming one of the few actors to direct themselves to a Best Actor nom, a feat he would duplicate with a win with 1948’s Hamlet), was given an Honorary Academy Award for this film, for, quote, “his Outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.” Basically, that means that this film was so successful, critically and commercially, that the Academy saw fit to give him a special award just for making the damn thing. That speaks volumes right there.
The film has a very interesting framing device, which actually works to spectacular effect. The film starts out as a filmed version of a stage play at the Globe Theater, and as it goes on, it gradually shifts and evolves into a full blown film adaptation, before receding back into the stage presentation at the end of the film. This is explained to us by the chorus of the stage actors at the beginning, who implore us to use our imagination to experience the play in our minds as it should be, then literally transforming the presentation on screen. It was quite endearing, and thankfully, the rest of the film more than followed suit. I mentioned in my last review that Shakespeare isn’t normally my thing, but damn does Laurence Olivier know how to handle it; this is widely regarded as the first Shakespeare film to be both commercially and critically successful, and I can definitely see why. The Technicolor is gorgeous, and exquisitely used, the actors are all excellent and incredibly believable (Olivier not the least of them); really, the whole film is just a spectacle of the highest order, albeit not being a full blown epic a la Lawrence of Arabia, though it does come close a number of times.
Once again, I can only say that if Shakespeare isn’t your thing, this will likely be a much more difficult watch for you than it otherwise would be, but unlike Chimes of Midnight, I feel I can confidently say; it won’t be the fault of the film. This does everything that a 1940s film could possibly do to be entertaining, so if you can’t overcome that one particular obstacle, then it is a real shame, and no one’s fault but your own. As much as I tend to dislike Shakespeare adaptations, I loved this one, and no one was more surprised at that than I; this had some real splendor to it, and it was nothing but a joy to watch. This has actually removed some of my hesitancy towards Olivier’s other Shakespeare adaptations, including Hamlet, and I may have to make a detour either during or soon after my quest to check that one out to see if it’s as good as this one. Either way, this is definitely worth your time, even if the middle part sags a tad and pads the length, but that’s the only real smudge I can see on this otherwise excellent effort.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10