Henry V (1989)

Reviewer: Maggie Starr


Try as he might, King Henry V (Kenneth Branagh) cannot escape the shadow of his misspent youth. He claims to have mended his ways, but the royal advisors, church officials and townsfolk haven’t been so eager to put his past behind them. Well do they remember the times when he would spend his evenings drinking and jesting with local peasants along with his boisterous companion, Falstaff. As a teen-aged prince his only concern was pleasing himself -- and now this irresponsible fellow is supposed to be Sovereign over all England? 


Still, Henry is intent on starting anew; he’s forsaken his old friends and wild ways, in an effort to step into his father’s stately shoes. And his first royal enterprise is an incredible one: he’s vowed to reclaim the throne of France, considered his by legal birthright. However, the French Dauphin (i.e. Crown Prince) isn’t too thrilled with this idea. In reply to Henry’s declaration, he sends a messenger bearing a gift -- a box full of tennis balls! He’s heard the tales of foolish "Prince Hal" and scorns this "vain, giddy, shallow, humorous youth" who dares invade his kingdom. Henry is insulted, though he tries to remain calm on the outside. But his fiery emotions are simmering just beneath the surface … the Dauphin has unknowingly awakened a Dragon and it’s only a matter of time before the French feel the full force of his wrath. War is declared!


 Throughout the country, men are joining ranks with their king. They bid goodbye to their children, kiss their wives farewell and saddle up their horses; some long for glory, some for the thrill of combat, still others for the riches and gold that France has to offer. One thing do they have in common: all are taking a great risk, casting their lot with this ambitious boy-king … perhaps never to see their native shores again. In France, the king and his arrogant son are unconcerned. What can this tiny band of warriors do to their great empire? The British may have landed on French soil weeks ago, but their progress is unimpressive. Lacking food and shelter, they’re growing weaker by the minute, and the Dauphin is certain his French troops will easily crush them underfoot. As the eve of the great battle approaches, Henry’s men are feeling anxious. Their ranks have dwindled; those that remain are exhausted and homesick. Why did they even start out on this crusade in the first place? What if this "War" is simply another example of their King’s immaturity?


The odds are not favorable: Full three score thousand French, outnumbering the British five to one. Tension cloaks the air like a dense fog. As the men prepare their beds, they try to also prepare themselves for the morning and the inevitable slaughter that awaits…  St. Crispin’s Feast Day -- the day of reckoning -- has arrived. In the final moments before battle, Henry addresses his "band of brothers" with a stirring speech, hoping to arouse their courage: "… And gentlemen in England now a-bed, Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,  And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks, That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day!" But the French are marching steadily toward them, armed to the hilt and brimming over with confidence… Who will be the victor in this deadly contest? Only time can tell...


If you’re a fan of Shakespearean adaptations, or war films in general, this movie is a must-see. Released in 1989, Henry V was the launching pad for Kenneth Branagh’s career in Hollywood, gaining him critical acclaim both as an actor and a director. This version of the story is admittedly much different than Sir Laurence Olivier’s 1940s interpretation -- in the words of Branagh, it’s ''a much darker world, with less picture-book medieval prettiness." The beginning starts off rather slowly but quickly gathers speed as it progresses.  The music, composed by Patrick Doyle, is absolutely breathtaking. It enhances the lyrical prose and perfectly matches the action. Violence is the film’s main drawback; it was rated PG13 rating for one bloody battle-sequence and a few other acts of aggression. King Henry also throws out a couple of nasty threats to the French to force their surrender. Language is minimal (bastard, ass, a few inappropriate uses of the Lord’s name, and two mentions of a "bawdyhouse") and sensuality virtually non-existent. The Bard included several lines of innuendos, but to the filmmakers’ credit, they added no emphasize to those bits of dialogue -- and if you aren’t a Shakespearean scholar, they’ll probably pass right over your head (as they did mine). The climax will have you on the edge of your seat, ready to cheer with the soldiers, "God for Harry, England, and St. Geroge!" It’s intense; it’s raw; it’s dramatic and thrilling. It’s Henry V