The film uses various techniques to present a particular view of the war against France. What is that interpretation and how does the film convey it?
Although the Branagh version of Shakespeare’s Henry V remains very close to the text, with only a few lines left out of the film, the movie portrays a very clear and distinct message about war and Branagh’s opinion on the matter. Henry V is fundamentally a play about war, and it would have been very easy for Branagh to make his version of the play into a film that glorified war. Instead, Branagh took the opportunity to make a statement about what he felt was the true essence of wars – both medieval and modern.
It is clear through Henry V that Branagh thinks that wars are a waste of precious human life, and in the end are fruitless, causing more loss than gain. From the very first battle at Harfleur Branagh’s low opinion of war is shown. When we first see the fighting, it is dusk and the sky is further darkened by smoke, instantly creating a morbid feeling. Combined with the muddy and wet terrain, the cheerless soldiers and the overbearing size of the castle which they hope to achieve, it is clear not only that the English army must fight against all the odds to win, but that even the conditions are detrimental to the English cause.
The scene where Bardolph, Nym and Pistol are backing away from the battle to save themselves is an important inclusion to the film. Had Branagh intended the film to be a glorification of war, this small scene could have easily been removed. However, he chose to keep it in his film because it actually assists the message which he attempts to convey. This scene, although still clearly comical, as Shakespeare intended it to be, it implies that not all soldiers are valiant and brave and that war is so terrible that soldiers are willing to desert their friends and fellow countrymen because of the hideous nature of war.
After the battle of Harfluer is won by the English and they begin to make their way towards Agincourt, Branagh seizes the opportunity to show the viewer the ‘victorious’ army. Although he could have shown them to be joyful with their win, Branagh instead shows the war-weary, bloody, wet and muddy soldiers. It is raining and so the already miserable soldiers, wearing torn and ragged clothing are forced to bow their heads as they slowly make their way down the road in a way reminiscent of a death march, the sombre mood of the scene assisted by the music. The irony of this scene is obvious – the victorious English are miserably marching wet and weary down the road while the French are warm and dry inside their castles. The utter pointlessness of war that Branagh obviously feels is also shown through this, because although English men have been killed and they have won, they are still no better off than had they lost the battle.
The battle at Agincourt is the climax of the play, and gives us an excellent indication as to Branagh’s views on war. The wet and muddy field of Agincourt in which the battle was held assists the feeling of preeminent loss and the pointlessness that the viewer images the soldiers feel. The actual battle takes place rather quickly, but Branagh uses the opportunity to show medieval battle for what it really was.
All over the field are small groups of men, beating each other to death with swords too blunt to cut, often resorting to almost wrestling in unbearably uncomfortable and heavy suits of armour. The violence of the scene, although not gory, is shocking, as I’m sure Branagh intended it to be, accentuated by the slow-motion shots of the fighting, and in particular the death of the horses, who are obviously scared already by the situation, but are maimed and fall helpless to the ground where they lay unattended as the fighting continues around them. This naturally evokes emotion in the viewer, who understands that the horses are innocent, but are brought into the battle for no reason whatsoever. This also leads the viewer to question the very soldiers involvement – they are just normal men from all over England who follow their King’s command.
When the battle ends, the true devastation is realised. The field of Agincourt is littered with the dead, from both sides, and the viewer cannot help but feel the sadness and loss as the camera moves around the field, revealing slain men, lying in bloodied puddles, lying with sharpened wooden stakes stabbed through their bodies, with blood dribbling form their lifeless mouths. When the sheer number of dead men is shown to the viewer, it makes the war seem even more worthless. Although Henry won France, at what cost? And was it worth it? Are questions that flow through the viewers’ minds as these images of devastation fill the screen, particularly those of the dead youngsters who stayed with the wagons – those that played no part in the war at all, but where slaughtered nonetheless.
When Henry picks up the Boy and carries him over his shoulders towards the wagon, and the music begins, the viewer has a chance to consider what he has seen and is influenced by the backdrop of the bloodied, wet field, filled with dead men. The conclusion he will come to is fairly obvious and this was Branagh’s intention in the way he directed the film – to show what he felt was the ‘true’ nature of war, the futility, the pointlessness and the sheer loss that in the end amounted to nothing.