LO was one of the greatest Shakespearean stage actors and film actors and directors of the 20th century. Olivier was born into a severe, religious household and sought escape as a child in play-acting and had played several Shakesperean roles by his mid-teens. Studied with eventual parental support at London's Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Arts. After graduation, Olivier became a member of Sir Barry Vincent Jackson's Birmingham Repertory Company and landed his first leading role at the age of twenty. On stage and in film Olivier's good looks initially typecast him as a young innocent hero. But this changed when John Gielgud chose Olivier to play Romeo in Romeo and Juliet and later in 1937 the role of Hamlet. LO used a new psychological intensity in his portrayal of characters such as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (1939), Rebecca (1940), Pride and Prejudice (1940). LO turned successfully to adapting and directing Shakespeare for the screen, beginning with Henry V (1945); Hamlet (1948); Richard III (1955). But from the end of WWII to the early 70s, Olivier made sporadic film appearances, largely owing to his involvement in the administration of London's St. James Theatre in the late 40s and the National Theatre at the Old Vic from 1963 to 1973. After WW2 he appeared infrequently and usually in character roles: the Madhi in Khartoum (1966), the reclusive mystery writer in Sleuth (1972), and the evil Nazi dentist in Marathon Man (1976). Towards the end of his life he appeared as King Lear in a 1984 TV production and the old soldier in Derek Jarman's "silent movie" to accompany Benjamin Britten's War Requiem (1988).

HV was his first attempt at film directing and it won him an Academy award in 1946. The Second World War interrupted his acting career and he went to work for the British government to promote the sale of war bonds and bolster public support for the war. When the Allied victory seemed assured LO was released from his other military duties to make HV. The British government gave its permission for the project because it was planned to be a very patriotic film which could be used for propaganda purposes, namely to remind ordinary Britons of a past glorious victory against a European enemy (in this case the French not the Germans) at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Dedication at start of film:

To the commandoes and airborne troops of Great Britain, the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture in some ensuing scenes, this film is dedicated.

Filmed in neutral Ireland in 1943-44. The Battle of Agincourt might suggest the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944 (planned when the film was being shot). LO adapted WS's play for the screen by cutting out about one quarter, leaving out important scenes about atrocities committed by the English (e.g. execution of French prisoners) in order to leave enough time to stage the battle itself. Important to note that war scenes are not at all realistic, but heroic and glorify war (compare with Branagh's "post-Vietnam" realism in his HV of 1989). The film proved very popular with wartime audiences, running for 5 months in London and 46 weeks on Broadway.

Jack Jorgens observes of Olivier's version of Henry V that

In the midst of a war (1944), the pressures on Olivier must have been very great to make an entertaining nationalist film uncomplicated by Shakespearean irony. Certainly the patriotism is there to complement the escapist fantasy, the hymn to Britain's past glories, and the "twentieth-century conception of a sixteenth-century conception of a historical fifteenth-century king."...

Nevertheless, it is to Olivier's credit that in spite of these pressures he retained a few of the complicating elements of the play and made something more than a brilliant showpiece of propaganda. (p. 126)


The Meaning of the Title

A film based upon William Shakespeare's play "The Life of Henry the Fifth". According to the Chorus in the Prologue and Epilogue, Henry is described as

... the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume(s) the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment...

...This star of England. Fortune made his sword,
By which the world's best garden he achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord...
Whose state so many had the managing
That they lost France and made his England bleed...


  • Henry V - Laurence Olivier
  • Archbishop of Canterbury - Felix Aylmer
  • Bishop of Ely - Robert Helpman
  • Montjoy, the French Herald - Ralph Truman
  • Corporal Nym - Frederick Cooper
  • Lt. Bardolph - Roy Emerton
  • Pistol - Robert Newton
  • King Charles VI, France - Harcourt Williams
  • Dauphin - Maz Adrian
  • Fluellan - Esmond Knight
  • Infantry and Cavalry by members of the Eire Home Guard

HV is a young king who has recently come to the throne of England. In order to show what he is made of, he manufactures a flimsy excuse to wage war against the French. HV uses the clergy to provide arguments to justify the English invasion of northern France, viz that the Salic law prevented the passing of the crown to a woman and that territory in the north of France in fact belonged to England. HV gets up an army and sets off for France. Although the English are outnumbered by the French their longbowmen and their sturdy yeomanry are able to defeat the decadent and overconfident French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. As a price of victory HV claims both territory and the hand in marriage of the French king's daughter.


Shakespeare's Henry V (1599)

WS gives considerable attention to war in his plays. Many leading characters are warriors, kings or generals who come to power or overturn the established powers. WS seems aware of the horror of war but he also likes to revel in the pageantry and glory of war. WS appears to hold view that peace makes a society soft and decadent (like the French court in HV) and that war is a useful thing at times because it makes a society tough and healthy. Weak elements are destroyed and the stronger elements are given room to grow and flourish. Domestic turmoil and other "sicknesses of state" are removed in the cauldron of war. Compare with similar Social Darwinist views of Émile Zola in The Debacle about the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

In HV WS is concerned with the issue of a just war and the proper duties of a Christian Prince. Compare WS's view of Henry with Machiavelli's and Erasmus's views of the duties of a Christian prince. NM believes war is always necessary, therefore a ruler needs to be skilled at war. Erasmus beleives war is so horrible for ordinary people that the good ruler should avoid war at all costs. Henry claims he is a model ruler who is forever worrying about the needs of his people. Yet WS suggests that HV also seeks war for personal ambition and goes to war on very spurious legal grounds.

Note the following key passages in the play. William Shakespeare, Henry V (The Oxford Shakespeare).

  • Act 1. Scene 2 on why England should make war on France ("We are no tyrant, but a Christian king")
  • 3.1. Henry's famous speech encouraging his troops ("Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more")
  • 3.3. lines 81-139 on the horrors Henry promises to unleash on the town of Harfleur ('the gates of mercy shall be all shut up")
  • 4.0.and 4.1. The famous scene where Henry overhears his soldiers talking on the eve of battle ("A little touch of Harry in the night")
  • 4.3. the Saint Crispin's Day speech where Henry consoles his men for being outnumbered 5-1 by the French ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers")
  • 4.6. Henry's order to kill their French prisoners ("Then every soldier kill his prisoners") and 4.7 the French retaliation of killing the English camp boys
  • 5.2. lines 23-67. The Duke of Burgundy's on the destruction of France by the English ("the naked, poor, and mangled peace")

Note especially the speech by the Duke of Burgundy which some critics regard as a "pacifist" statement by WS:

... let it not disgrace me
If I demand before this royal view(before King Henry and King Charles),
What rub or what impediment there is
Why that the naked, poor, and mangled peace,
Dear nurse of arts, plenties, and joyful births,
Should not in this best garden of the world,
Our fertile France, put up her lovely visage?
Alas, she hath from France too long been chased,
And all her husbandry doth lie in heaps,
Corrupting in it(s) own fertility...
An all our vineyards, fallows, meads, and hedges,
Defective in their natures, grow to wildness,
Even so our houses and ourselves and children
Have lost, or do not learn for want of time,
The sciences that should become our country,
But grow like savages - as soldiers will
That nothing do but meditate on blood -
To swearing and stern looks, diffused attire,
And everything that seems unnatural.
Which to reduce into our former favour
You are assembled, and my speech entreats
That I may know the let why gentle peace
Should not expel these inconveniences
And bless us with her former qualities. (5 II 23-40, 54-67)


William Shakespeare, Henry V (The Oxford Shakespeare).

Steven Marx, "Shakespeare's Pacifism," Renaissance Quarterly, Spring 1992, vol. XLV, no. 1, pp. 49-95.

Jack J. Jorgens, Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977). Chapter 8: "Laurence Olivier's Henry V," pp. 122-35.

Classic Film Scripts: Henry V by William Shakespeare. Produced and Directed by Laurence Olivier (London: Lorrimer Publishing, 1984).

Laurence Olivier, Confessions of an Actor (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982), "Call to Arms," pp. 88-106.


  • The number of times the flag of the St. George cross is displayed.
  • The dedication to WW2 commandos at the beginning of the film.
  • The amusing scene where the English bishops (including the Australian Robert Helpman) provide HV with reasons for the invasion of France.
  • the "storybook" feel to the film with the painted backdrops (based upon medieval tapstries) and cardboard cut-out castles and walls (Harfleur)
  • The decadence of the French court is contrasted with the youth and vigour of HV. The French admit their "mettle is bred out" and that French women would prefer to have children by the more vigorous Englishmen.
  • The reasons why some of the more disreputable Englishmen (Pistol, Nim) go to war for personal gain.
  • The scene ("A little touch of Harry in the night") on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt when HV cannot sleep for worry about the coming day and makes an anonymous tour of the camp (he calls himself "Henry Leroi", literally "King Henry") to assess the feeling of his men. Does WS show Henry to be a model ruler?
  • The important discussion around the camp fire about whether the king is responsible for the death of individual soldiers (Williams - "few die well who die in battle"). Is an individual soldier guilty of war crimes if his king conducts an unjust war?
  • The St Crispin's Day speech ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers"), in response to the knight who wishes for the assistance of some of the Englishmen unemployed that day The prospect of glory should spur all Englishmen on to fight. The fewer there are (the English are outnumbered 5 to 1) the more glory there is for each.
  • The great speech ("Once more unto the breech") before the battle which takes the town of Harfleur when HV urges his men on to battle.
  • the question of whether or not Henry adheres to the traditional laws of war
    • anger at the French violation of the laws of war in killing the baggage boys
    • Henry's order to execute his friend caught robbing a church
    • Henry's threat to impale the children of Harfleur if the city does not surrender
    • Henry's order to kill the French prisoners (cut from film)
  • All English atrocities and any doubts as to the justness of the English cause have been censored by LO:
    • HV's summary execution of the pro-French conspirators
    • HV's threats to King Charles that war will devastate the civilian population of France
    • HV's threats before the gates of Harfleur to rape, pillage and torture the inhabitants
    • HV's doubts before the battle about the legitimacy of his father usurping the crown from Richard II and thus the very legitimacy of his undertaking
    • and his decision in the battle to slit the throats of his prisoners
  • The Duke of Burgundy's speech about the physical destruction of France caused by war - "that the naked, poor, and mangled peace". (5 II 23-40, 54-67).
  • The lack of realism in the film. We get a sanitised and glorious view of war. The conflict is not as dirty and bloody as Branagh's version (only a brief view of a crowded and muddy battle field). We get the merest of glimpses of the dead and injured on the field of battle. There is a fairy tale aspect to the film with its highly refined court scenes and the painted backdrops of castles and landscapes.
  • The rivalry and antagonism between the Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English officers. In spite of these "national" differences and ill feeling they pull together against a common enemy. Compare with "The Great Illusion" (1937) in which Renoir urges the French to overcome their ethnic, religious and class differences in order to face the threat of Nazism.