It's perhaps surprising that when people from a theatrical background turn to film directing, they tend to produce pictures that are purely cinematic and freed from staginess. This is the case with Laurence Olivier, as it was with Rouben Mamoulian and Orson Welles. Here, with his debut feature as director, Olivier not only created a landmark propaganda film, but also redefined the screen Shakespeare adaptation and established a new precedent of renowned actor turning competent director.
Shakespeare's play of Henry V was of course ideal for a wartime morale booster, featuring as it does heroic action, rousing speeches, historical parallels with the landings at France, a protagonist who is valiant yet warm and humane, as well as plenty of little extra touches such as exploring the psychology of the troops on the eve of battle and stressing the need for unity between English, Irish, Scotch and Welsh. It was also the perfect play for Olivier to test his ideas on how a Shakespeare play should be turned into a film. The chorus of Shakespeare's original text tells the audience that the great battles and courts can scarcely be contained on a stage and that you must "on your imaginative forces work". Using this idea as his starting point, Olivier begins the film with a recreation of a contemporary production of the original play at the Globe theatre, complete with backstage glimpses, bumbling actors and a rowdy Elizabethan audience. Then, as Leslie Banks' chorus commands the audience to "work your thoughts", the theatre disappears, and the action subtly opens out into larger sets. Eventually, we are transported to location with thousands of extras for the climactic battle scene.
This was not only a complete reworking of screen Shakespeare, it was part of a whole approach to cinema. Olivier's Henry V, although totally different in content, is stylistically in the same tradition as Michael Powell's The Red Shoes or the elaborate ballet sequences of MGM musicals, which also expand would-be stage performances into pure cinematic fantasy. The originator of this approach was probably Busby Berkeley, who also made the switch from stage to screen, albeit from the music hall to the role of choreographer for screen musicals. The musical sequences that Berkeley constructed for Warner Brothers musicals in the mid-1930s always begin with a stage production, but then turn into tour-de-forces of choreography, camera positioning and massive sets, all of which could never be contained or properly appreciated on a stage. Olivier is effectively doing the same thing with a Shakespeare play as Berkeley did with a dancing chorus line.
Of course, all this alone isn't what makes Henry V a great work. For a first-time director Olivier's eye is remarkably sharp. He keeps the action smooth in dialogue scenes by making use of long takes, and preferring to move the camera to change the framing rather than breaking the shot with a cut, often dollying in on a single actor to achieve a close-up. He's not quite experienced enough yet though to give these shots a really natural flow, and he doesn't really get the chance to show off his talents as a dramatic director as he would later in Hamlet and Richard III. Having said that, he does manage to give remarkable tenderness to Henry's soliloquy on the eve of battle and his courtship of Kate towards the end of the film.
The highpoint however is the impressive Agincourt battle sequence, which was influenced by the battle in Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, but is actually an improvement on the Russian master's equivalent work. He similarly builds up tension as the opposing army begins its charge, using a rhythmic editing pattern and dynamic close-ups. However, whereas Alexander Nevsky's battle occasionally looked obviously staged and unrealistic, in Henry V you could as well be witnessing a genuine medieval battle.
Olivier selected a top notch cast composed of actors with theatre experience like himself, with exuberant performances from Robert Newton as the cowardly Pistol and Esmond Knight as Welsh captain Fluellen, and too many other great names to mention. Olivier himself, after a decade of learning how to act for screen, perhaps relished the chance to give huge, concert-hall-filling Shakespearean delivery again, although he does manage to rein his performance in again for the quieter scenes.
Henry V is remarkable for a director's debut feature. Olivier would direct two more prestigious Shakespeare adaptations, as well as a few dramas, but Henry V is his freshest and most engaging work as a director, and still remains the best.