The Hollow Crown: Henry V


Battle of AgincourtAs I started to watch the last film in the Hollow Crown series, I wasn’t sure whether Tom Hiddleston was up to playing the iconic role in Shakespeare’s most patriotic (and jingoistic) play.

I thought Hiddleston’s Prince Hal in Henry IV had just a little too much of Loki – and maybe the bully – in it for me to see him as a majestic king. But I was quickly won over. Whether the movie itself was good Shakespeare is another question.

First a note on the lighting and sets: in Richard II, it was all light, bright and colour (until the end, where Richard’s fall is marked by darker sets and shadows). Henry IV P1 and P2 were both shot in muted tones: greys, blacks, dark browns, with shadowy sets and little colour outstanding. Henry V is a mix of the two, more conventionally lit.

The play contains the story of Henry’s challenge to France – claiming he is the true king of France and demanding King Charles hand the crown over. When the French say no, Henry invades with an army of roughly 12,000. He has some initial successes, including the siege of Harfleur. Then the campaign becomes a weary march to safety where soldiers suffered more from illness and dysentery than from the enemy. Henry’s men set out for Calais – at that time an English-held city – with only 9,000 of his original besieging force (some sources say he had fewer men – 7,000). More would be lost on the march.

The campaign culminates in the remarkable victory at Agincourt, where a bedraggled and dispirited English force defeated a much larger French one. It is the highlight of the play. Or should be.

Who can forget Kenneth Branagh making the famous and inspirational  “band of brothers” speech to the army on the eve of the battle? Yet in the Hollow Crown, Henry makes it privately to his captains, not the massed army:

Hiddleston’s quiet speech is, to me, the more emotional and personal compared to Branagh’s loud and histrionic rendering. But how does this rouse the army’s spirits? Well, maybe Henry isn’t concerned about the soldiers: it’s the nobles he’s courting here, the leaders he needs to rally the men when they are hard pressed.

A few notes about Agincourt. The movie really doesn’t portray the battle well – or always correctly – and you should read more about it before watching the film. It was a remarkable victory, but not unique: the victories at Poitiers and Crecy a century early had set the stage, but the French had not fully learned to appreciate the devastating effect of the massed English longbow, even after that time.

Henry had about 7,000 longbowmen and 1,500 foot. The archers were lined up behind a row of pointed stakes to deter cavalry and close melee. A good longbowman could fire six arrows a minute. Wikipedia calls it “the machine gun of the Middle Ages: accurate, deadly, possessed of a long range and rapid rate of fire.”

Arrayed against him were three French lines or battles: roughly 7,500-8,000 men at arms (or perhaps as many as 10,000, depending on the source), 1,500 crossbowmen, two wings of 600 and 800 mounted men-at-arms, and the main battle of about 8,000 heavily-armoured French men-at-arms. Estimates of the French force range from 20,000-30,000 total. However, reports suggest the French placed their archers and crossbowmen either off to the side or even behind the main force, where they had no effective role.

Between the two armies was a narrow, freshly-plowed field made muddy by recent rains and bordered by thick woods on both sides. The ground dipped in the middle and the field was narrower at the English side (750 yards) than the French (1,200 yards). It was about 900 yards wide in the middle. That meant was that the wings of the French army, when it advanced, would be crowding the centre from the sides. There was no easy way to outflank the English line.

The English advanced and then the French cavalry charged. But the charge was uncoordinated; the first line of men-at-arms followed, but jostled in the constricting funnel to follow them, unable to properly wield their weapons in the small space, and slowed by the mud. The cavalry could not move quickly in the mud either, nor get through the English stakes. When the cavalry tried to retreat, it was blocked by the advancing men-at-arms. The English bowmen slaughtered hundreds, but more pressed forward.

More French died as the rear ranks joined the advance. The men-at-arms closed slowly, the sheer weight of numbers pushing them forward, while the English archers found easy targets among the compressed mass. Although the French men-at-arms eventually reached the English men-at-arms, they could not break them. The field became congested with bodies as the French stumbled forward and the bodies piled up. English archers dropped their bows and took up swords to attack the French from the flanks. It was a massacre.

Within 30 minutes, the first two French battles had been defeated. But a third battle remained intact, ready to attack. It was about this time that Henry received reports nobles and soldiers (and possibly peasants) from nearby Agincourt had attacked the English baggage train in the rear, and killed the small group left to protect the camp.

Henry made his most controversial decision at this point. The English had taken many prisoners, most of them men-at-arms for ransom. The prisoners represented a threat to his rear if the third battle attacked and overwhelmed the main line. There were more captives than in the entire English army – several thousand say some reports (the film shows a mere handful but it was a considerably larger number). They were still in armour and the battlefield was littered with discarded weapons. It wouldn’t take much to defeat the token guard and attack Henry’s weary forces. He decided to have the prisoners killed. Two hundred archers did the dirty work. (There are many controversies about the number of prisoners I won’t go into here).

Seeing this, the remaining French became demoralized and fled the field. The estimates of the French dead range between 7,000 and 10,000, with about 1,500 prisoners taken. Among the dead were most of the leading French military leaders and perhaps half of the nobility. The English lost around 450. Henry’s remaining army reached Calais four days later. Henry would return to France in two years to continue his campaign.

Back to the movie. First thing I noticed was that an important subplot – the conspiracy against Henry by some of his nobles – is completely cut out. To me, that is an important reminder that the crown does not lie easily on Henry’s head and he still has internal, as well as external, foes. And the whole justification for Henry’s claim to thee French throne is boiled down to a few lines (okay, it’s a lengthy, rambling scene of talking heads that modern day audiences won’t get, but it could have been better explained).

Shakespeances.com says that’s not all that went missing or got altered:

While she’s a most capable cinematic director, Sharrock takes many liberties with Shakespeare’s text that will leave purists crying foul. Clocking in at 2:18, this Henry V, in addition to jettisoning Henry’s keynote soliloquy, cuts the Southampton scene in its entirety, skips completely over the Salic law argument by the Archbishop of Canterbury that justifies Henry’s invasion of France, and drops the four captains, leaving just a bit of pribble prabble from Fluellen (the Welsh captain even leads a counter-attack by sneaking his army through the woods to surprise the French, which, look you, I figure Shakespeare’s Fluellen would consider clearly not in keeping with the disciplines of war). At Agincourt, instead of Pistol capturing a French knight, we see him succumbing to PTSD, and instead of the French attacking the boys guarding the luggage, one Frenchman—the Constable—stabs York from behind as the English nobleman is comforting Falstaff’s onetime page. The French lords’ scenes leading into Agincourt are reduced to just four lines in three quick-edit sequences juxtaposed with the three episodes that comprise the “touch of Harry in the night” scene. Rather than depicting the French as foolish, Sharrock gets rid of their comic banter and presents them as brave warriors, including the Dauphin.

So a ripping yarn, but butchered Bard. Still, it’s a powerful tale and one that moves along at a crisp pace. Unless you know the play fairly well, you probably won’t miss any of the bit left out. Liberties? Well, like I said in my first post about this series, all Shakespeare productions since him have been interpretations and tributes. Some – like these – are better than others.

The point to all of these plays is not to make Shakespeare in a perfect replica, conveying his every word in absolute duplication and verity, but rather to make his work popular and accessible. To tell his stories anew, to give them the beauty, the excitement, the passion and the humanity they carry within. To remind us again of just how meaningful he still is, five hundred years later.

The series is wonderful. Dazzling, really. It’s not to be missed. If you’re not familiar with the works, even if you’re not a fan of Shakespeare, you likely will be after watching these four films. They’re worth a second even a third viewing.

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PS. A little trick for those of you having a tough time with the dialogue or understanding what the actors are saying: turn on subtitles. Then you get to read the lines as well as hear them. It can make a real difference, especially in crowd or battle scenes where audibility may be less clear.