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One must try and imagine what audiences felt in 1944, expecting something dull and stately, then watching the movie transform before their eyes, surprising them with every shot.
This setting gave Olivier an opportunity to overthrow the suffocating stateliness with which Shakespeare had been treated in earlier movies.
For audiences expecting a slow, reverential film, Henry V’s opening scenes were a revelation, reminding them how boisterous audiences in the playwright’s time were.
His joyful bravado may seem dated to modern audiences; we supposedly know better (looking down from the perch of hindsight) than to glorify war and combat.
Branagh’s dark, irony-laced approach also seems more suited to these end-of-the-century sensibilities.
Filmmakers with much greater records of success than Olivier’s—Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, George Cukor with Romeo and Juliet, and Paul Czinner with As You Like It (with a young Olivier as Orlando)—brought Shakespeare to the screen during the 1930s, supported by some of the most popular stars of the era.
Their reward: millions of dollars in red ink and reams of negative reviews.
The accepted wisdom was that if Shakespeare couldn’t be sold by James Cagney (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), or Leslie Howard, Norma Shearer, and John Barrymore (Romeo and Juliet), Shakespeare was box office poison.
Interest in producing a full-length screen version of Henry V dated from the ’30s—from television, not a film studio.
They succeeded in retaining the essence of the play while trimming it by over 1500 lines, or nearly half it length.
Some of this material was cut for the sake of brevity, while other sections—depicting the political machinations behind Henry’s invasion of France, and the king’s bloodthirsty nature—were removed for propaganda reasons.