TOP 100 REVIEWERon 29 June 2012
I make bold claims for this wartime film of one of Shakespeare`s greatest plays. Olivier had by then had the chance to see several of the audaciously innovative films of Powell & Pressburger ("the Archers") in particular The Thief Of Baghdad and the then recent Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp, both of which use colour brightly and with a bracing boldness which must have impressed the budding director. (Olivier had also had a role in their 1941 film 49th Parallel.)
Everything in this astonishingly fresh and courageous film is a joy, and one can only imagine what it must have looked like to those who first saw it at the end of November 1944 on its release near the denouement of an exhausting, bloody war. Not only must it have been a source of pride (in a more jingoistic, patriotic age) but a feast for the eye and mind too.
It still is.
The initial conceit, to begin the play in a mock-up of the Globe - not yet restored to its present glory! - was an inspired and happy one. We not only get a `real` audience, who were encouraged to cheer, heckle, and generally make their presence felt, but plenty of surprisingly slapstick theatrics from the actors in the opening scene, having first been introduced by the then-famous Leslie Banks as Chorus with those stirring, inherently theatrical words:
"Oh for a Muse of fire..."
The players in the first scene include Felix Aylmer and Robert Helpmann, as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely, whose `business` together is genuinely funny. We also get the legendary, invariably fruity actor Robert Newton as Pistol, who is here used as a kind of substitute Falstaff, such is his ebullience and mock-bravado, in a performance of rascally glee. I can`t help but wish Shakespeare had had the foresight to give Pistol at least one "Aaggh, Jim lad!"...
Olivier soon arrives on the `wooden O` stage, but only after we`ve seen the actor coughing nervously offstage before his entrance: a lovely touch.
The action of the play/film famously opens out and (for the viewer) leaves the confines of the stage and `becomes a film` when we go to war. The scenes at Harfleur and Agincourt have been justly praised, such is their beauty and cinematic inventiveness; let`s not forget the budget can`t have been big, however great the filmmakers` ambitions.
After the war is won, the wooing of Katherine is delightfully directed and played. Here I must mention Renee Asherson as the French princess - as well as mentioning that, as of the typing of this review, the actress is still with us at 97! She gives a performance of pitch-perfect wit and blushing, yet knowing, innocence. Ms Asherson was fluent in French, which must have helped, but she adds a much-needed and most welcome feminine touch to what is, by necessity, a very male film.
Many of the actors will now be obscure to anyone under about sixty, though nobody can fail to notice John Laurie as a stereotypical Scotsman in the battle scenes, or the 19 year-old George Cole in his second film, as `Boy`, a young pal of Pistol and his cronies.
Freda Jackson gives Mistress Quickly`s eulogy on the death of Falstaff with simple and grave dignity, while old Falstaff himself is seen, in dumbshow, for a few precious moments in bed before his sad demise, and is played by Sir George Robey, a legendary comedian then known as the `Prime Minister of Mirth`. A rare appearance indeed.
Max Adrian is a suitably fidgety and florid Dauphin, Harcourt Williams plays the French king - Charles VI, known as `Charles the Foolish` - with pernickety relish, and Valentine Dyall has a wonderful few minutes as the Duke of Burgundy, as he looks out over a conquered France - it is here the set designs really come into their own - his words eloquent accompaniment to a lengthy tracking shot of the French countryside that is partly a studio set, partly painted. It`s one of many such scenes of unforgettable cinematic daring in this always sumptuous work of art, and one of its aspects that most reminds one of Powell & Pressburger`s filmic quirks.
For work of art is surely is. Olivier, with his cameramen, editors and designers made one of the great British films, of any age.
There is even an effective, reflective scene in which the very young Anthony Newley plays a boy in the soldiers` camp - possibly the most likeable performance he was ever to give.
But there are so many wonderful, sometimes heartstopping touches, such as when a bright blue banner fills the screen, then we see an extended arm as if pointing to it, only for the camera to move a little to show us one of the Frenchmen mid-yawn, arm naturally outstretched. Few directors would have bothered with such a seemingly facetious touch, but it is both witty and, in an odd way, moving.
William Walton composed the insistent, vibrant score, using (uncredited) quite a few passages from Canteloube`s then not so famous Songs of the Auvergne. Did he think we wouldn`t notice?
Oh, and by the way, contrary to one or two ridiculous, dismissive reviews here, not only are the costumes and sets brilliantly conceived, but Olivier (before his 1947 knighthood, let alone his later peerage) never puts a foot wrong. His ability to use the inbuilt rhythms and long-breathed phrases in Shakespeare`s poetry, whether to stir up his soldiers or to woo a princess, is awe-inspiring. He may not have had as `beautiful` a voice as Gielgud or Redgrave, but boy did he know how to speak verse.
A stirring, stunning and ultimately moving masterpiece.