October 25 is St. Crispin's Day, the anniversary of the great victory of Agincourt, at which an outnumbered English army led in person by King Henry V defeated a much larger French army.
What better time for a comparative movie review?!
My friends are groaning as they read this, because I'm getting on a hobby horse of mine, but here goes.
Kenneth Branagh's 1990s version of Henry V is very popular in SCA circles. Branagh has made a number of Shakespeare plays, and some are very good. His Hamlet is generally excellent, for example. I also find Branagh to be a good actor in general. I like him in Dead Again and as the superlatively evil Nazi convening the discussion of the Final Solution at the Wannsee Conference in the recent HBO production.
However, I do not like this version of Henry V. The film has some virtues - the costumes are pretty good, and the youth of Henry's court is interesting - probably very like the reality. But Branagh's acting is wooden, which is unlike him. He shouts a lot - that's all he can do with the great Crispin's Day speech, for example. Also, the armor is poorly done and looks like there was a limited budget. Essex walks around in the kind of plate all the leaders and knights were likely wearing, but Henry himself and everyone else wears what appears to be a coat of plates. I don't think so. The battle scene at Agincourt is awful, the worst sort of Hollywood dreck. Everyone takes their helmets off, and then they wrestle around in the mud. Some sort of anti-war statement, no doubt.
But, gentle reader, you're in luck, because there is a much better option if you want a filmed version of Henry V!
In 1944, Laurence Olivier made a film version of Henry V, largely as a patriotic effort during World War II. This version, which is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection in a beautiful edition, is justly famed as one of the most innovative and remarkable films of all time.
The film starts out as a stage play in the Globe Theatre in London in Elizabethan times, with wonderful little bits of business in every scene. Olivier is shockingly good in this, playing an actor playing the role he's playing once the movie really gets going. The scene with the tennis balls is incredible. Olivier smiles and everyone laughs. He keeps the smile and suddenly the laughter dies away uneasily. I'd like to see Branagh pull that scene off.
Later, as the fleet is about to sail, Chorus introduces the wildest gimmick I've ever seen in a film: as he tells the audience to imagine the vasty fields of France, he also supplies a suitable backdrop for the imagination. The film goes to period costumes for the early 15th century for the rest of the story, but it doesn't become an ordinary period piece. Oh, no. The backdrops are still beautifully stagy, all taken from miniatures in period manuscripts.
The battle scenes are splendid - superb armor all around, everyone keeps their helmets on like sensible people and are instead identified by heraldry (what a concept!) Admittedly, the Frenchmen are winched into their saddles before the battle, but the producers are just making a point - the English leap into the saddle for contrast. (For the uninitiated, nobody was ever winched into the saddle of a horse before a battle - armor wasn't that heavy.) When the English archers let fly, the effect is incredible - a cloud of death blackens the sky.
But best of all is Olivier. When he gives the Crispin's Day speech that Branagh merely shouts, he expresses the full range that made him the greatest actor of his generation. He talks to the soldiers around him, argues with them, flatters them, encourages them. He's not just declaiming the legendary speech, he's making it his own. When he gives it, you want to get up and go with him to fight the French.
The costumes, both the stage 16th century stuff and the medieval outfits, are stunning and inspiring. There really isn't anything to complain about in this movie. Even the bit players have magnificent scenes. The elderly Charles VI is delightfully mad, which heightens the effect when he achieves lucidity for just a moment during the chilling "Of that black name, Edward, Black Prince of Wales" scene, where his dread for his kin and country stand in sharp contrast to the gleaming confidence of the mighty Henry. The actors playing his son and brothers are deliciously dismissive of the old man.
There is nothing like this in the Branagh version. It is just a modern movie, with all the faults of Hollywood and none of the virtues. I recommend the Olivier version emphatically.
(And lest I be thought biased about the actors or the times, I would entirely reverse my recommendation about Hamlet. Olivier's version I find tedious, Branagh's quite good, except for the soliloquys, which Branagh just seems to have trouble with.)