restricted access 2 Pistol’s Two Bodies: Henry V at War

From: War Pictures

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2 Pistol’s Two Bodies Henry V at War I have without good help danced myself out of the world. —Will Kemp, Kemp’s Nine Days’ Wonder (1600) Falstaff: Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world! Prince: I do. I will. —William Shakespeare, The First Part of King Henry the Fourth (1598) No one needs to ask what Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) is all about. Whereas The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp seemed to have too much to say about its war, Henry V was immediately taken as successful and straightforward wartime entertainment. One of the most celebrated British films of the forties, Henry V satisfied audiences, critics, and even the prime minister because it appeared to suspend elegantly the difference between art and propaganda, between Britain’s long cultural history and its present experience of total war. Whereas Colonel Blimp seemed self-conscious, eccentric, or odd, Henry V just worked, giving the home front exactly what it seemed to want. That said, Henry V and Colonel Blimp continue to invite comparison and not simply because Olivier was Powell and Pressburger’s first choice to play Clive Candy. The films are both Technicolor spectacles, big productions that draw on early modern styles in order to evoke a simpler and more unified Britain; Colonel Blimp’s initial reliance on the look and style of a medieval tapestry returns in the self-consciously flat middle sections of Henry V, which Olivier modeled after the early fifteenth-century miniatures of the Limbourg brothers. Both films track the development of a protagonist from youth to maturity; where Clive makes his way from hotheaded youth to Blimpish maturity, the wise and sober King Henry is, as everyone knows, what a young and wild Prince Hal looks like all grown up and oats sown. Both films employ three-tiered narrative structures in order to manage their respective representations of history; Colonel Blimp Henry V | 83 creates a fantastic and visually varied palimpsest out of 1942, 1918, and 1902, and Henry V offers a 1944 cinematic representation of a 1600 theatrical representation of a 1415 battle in three stylistically distinct and nested acts. However, whereas Colonel Blimp faltered under the weight of its outsized complexity, Olivier’s Henry V was a critical because gently ideological triumph. James Agee wrote at the time: Poem and film link the great past to the great present. It is unlikely that anything on the subject has been written to excel Shakespeare’s short study, in Henry V, of men stranded on the verge of death and disaster. The man who made this movie made it midway in England’s most terrible war, within the shadows of Dunkirk. In appearance and in most of what they say, the three soldiers with whom Henry talks on the eve of Agincourt might just as well be soldiers of World War II. No film of that war has yet said what they say so honestly or so well.1 The past and the present, old wars and new wars, soldiers on the fields of Agincourt and in “the shadows of Dunkirk”: whereas Colonel Blimp widened the gulf between an imagined British past and the real present of modern war, Henry V seemed—at least to the American Agee—to bring past and present fully and evocatively together. Whereas Powell and Pressburger ’s film revealed fissures and contradictions within both modern British identity and the concept of total war, Olivier’s film seemed rather to clarify things, to know the difference between heroes and villains, and to cut through ethical fog of modern war. Henry V also did much—however obliquely—to imagine life after wartime. Whereas films like The Lion Has Wings (1939), Contraband (1940), 49th Parallel (1941), and Colonel Blimp thought from within the thick of things about why and how we fight, Henry V appeared when victory seemed more or less certain; it was indeed a film less of Dunkirk than of D-Day. What, it thus asked, should life be like after the violence, the social dislocations, and the real social promise of the war? What would happen when the warriors returned home? Henry V approaches these ideas in different ways: it tries to see war as a sane experience that, after and against the hardened and maybe psychotic realpolitik of Colonel Blimp’s New Model Army, could work alongside traditional English virtues; its light handling of relations between different British ethnicities—Scottish, Welsh, and, to a lesser...