Second Reel

A Chorus' Lines

One of the challenges of adapting Henry V to film lies in reconciling Shakespeare's Chorus with the seemingly limitless capabilities of film. The Chorus appears repeatedly, outside the "diegesis," or "world of the film's story," to remind the audience that what is being presented is only a feeble imitation of the actual historical events — due, apparently, to the shortcomings of the current players and of theater itself — and to practically apologize for the current production's inability to faithfully depict those events. Film, however, is capable of showing virtually anything, and showing it in a way that its audience will accept as "realistic." The filmmaker, then, needs to find a way to keep the Chorus' claims, explanations, and apologies from contradicting what is shown on-screen. The filmmakers responsible for the two most reknowned attempts at this filmic conversion — Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh — succeed in doing so, though each in a different way:

  • Olivier spreads the artifice of the stage across the unlimited expanse of film
  • Branagh confines film's ability for realism to the small space of the stage

Olivier's Method

The Chorus on stage
The Chorus on stage
Olivier's film opens in a way that perfectly contains the Chorus' claims and keeps its lines entirely relevant. By presenting the Prologue and the first several scenes as a stage production in the year 1600, the Chorus' lines are entirely appropriate: the Chorus is not begging the pardon of the film audience, but of the stage audience being depicted on film. The Chorus appears as just another actor on the stage of the Globe Theater, and because of the relative simplicity of the stage we are shown, the Chorus' lines seem natural and justfied — there is no way that small stage could ever hold the "vasty fields of France."

Harfleur: Removed from the stage, but not from the artifice
This opening allows us to gradually and comfortably accept the notion of the Chorus in the film — we are watching a filmed stage play, and the Chorus' comments correspond with our expectations of what can be shown on the filmed stage. As Olivier leads his film off stage, however, he must compensate for the loss of those elements which previously gave his Chorus immediate relevance — the physical stage, the theater's interior, the reacting audience — and he does so by spreading the artifice of that stage across the larger filmic environment he subsequently presents. By taking his play/film off of the stage, Olivier frees it of the stage's spatial confines and begins to show the larger expanses that film can more easily present, but at the same time keeps everything in those spaces looking artificial, stage-like. Perspective is skewed; clothing is very colorful and ornate, more like costume than wardrobe; the acting style remains similar to the style of the stage play just previously demonstrated. All of these things appear in front of painted backdrops which, though they imply greater depth than the small stage of the theater, are obviously painted, artificial. Though we have left the Globe, the most obvious reminder of the play's existence as a play, we are bombarded with a very pronounced theatrical artifice.

Even when Olivier repeals the artifice of the painted backdrops to show us a natural landscape, he dresses that landscape with much of the same artifice he uses on his sound stages — fancy costumes and banners, colorful and theatrical sets — or he obscures it with fog, preventing its clear recognition as something familiar or real. These natural landscape shots are also often intercut with shots of the same landscape noticeably recreated in miniature. Other times deep-perspetive live action is presented before a very artificial landscape backdrop, combining the artificial depth of the painted set with the natural depth of field the camera can achieve.

The French attack the boys and luggage
The French attack the boys and the luggage
This method allows Olivier to fill his screen with much of what the Chorus tells us can not be shown — the vast battlefield, the huge armies fighting, the horses, the lavish costumes. He can show us these things because he keeps them looking artificial and imaginary: he follows the Chorus' instruction to imagine that which can not be shown on stage and projects for us one possible imagining of Shakespeare's play, an imagining directed by the Chorus on stage at the Globe Theater in 1600. Therefore, it is not the case of Olivier making concessions in order to keep the Chorus relevant to his screen adaptation, but of the Chorus guiding Olivier's production in the same way it would guide an audience member's imagination at the Globe.

Olivier's Chorus
"On your imaginary forces work"
Realizing this, it becomes apparent why so many of the Chorus' directives are included in Olivier's adaptation: "Linger your patience on," "Still be kind / And eke out our performance with your mind," "Suppose that you have seen," "Play upon your fancies." It also becomes apparent why such emphasis is given to the first instance of these directives, during the Prologue: As the Chorus address the audience at the Globe, there is a long pause after the line "That did afright the air at Agincourt," during which the Chorus walks to the front of the stage and looks right into the camera in medium close-up (at the audience in the theater sitting right in front of him, perhaps, but most definitely at us, the film audience) before continuing with "On your imaginary forces work."

See Also:
Olivier's Visual Reference
Olivier's Henry V and Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky
Olivier's Lesson
Stage vs. Screen: Henry V in the Park
Comparative Text: Olivier's Adaptation of Henry V

Branagh's Method

Branagh's Chorus behind the scenes
Branagh's Chorus behind the scenes
Branagh begins his film in a "behind the scenes" fashion similar to some of the early moments of Olivier's version, but where Olivier shows us the backstage preparations of stage players, Branagh takes us behind a movie set to a space cluttered with the trappings of film production. He presents the Prologue among assorted props and light riggings in a scene that instantly confirms the Chorus' claims of artifice — from this vantage point, we can see that what we are being shown is all artificial, or "just a movie."

What follows, though, starting in the following scene (1.1) and continuing throughout the film, appears anything but artifical. The acting, costumes, and sets all seem to match what an audience of the late 20th century would consider "realistic," or acurate for the period depicted. Branagh shows us much of what Shakespeare's Chorus asks us to imagine or to supplement with our minds — horses, kings dressed in authentic costumes, the seige of Harfleur. He does so, however, in a way which ulitimately keeps the Chorus relevant. Branagh's method centers on his presentation of space.

Bardolph and Nym
Branagh's Eastsheap: Tight framings in small spaces
Branagh imposes spatial limitations on his film by confining the action within small spaces. In doing so, he conceals from us the larger expanses of Henry's surroundings and references a larger world, a world accessible to the characters on screen but witheld from us. Much of the film is shot in tight framings, with scenes unfolding in a series of close-ups or medium shots, without an all-encompassing establishing long shot of the characters' environment. Interiors are shot in small rooms, confined spaces which suggest the characters' larger environments but do not actually show them. The Eastcheap scenes, for example, show us only one room of the boarding house. Characters enter from and exit to other rooms (a couple of extras walk into other rooms before Bardolph's first line, Pistol and Nell enter from an adjoining room, Nell goes upstairs to check on Falstaff, the men go downstairs when departing for France), but the camera remains in the main room, never allowing us to move throughout the larger space implied by the mobile characters.

Henry enters the room in ShouthamptonIn little room confining mighty men: The trap at Southampton
The apprehension of the traitors is another example. The walls and the ceiling of the room at Southampton are shown to emphasize this restricted space and to emphasize a feeling of entrapment — the traitors set a trap for Henry, but walk into one themselves. Branagh and cinematographer Kenneth MacMillan keep the focus shallow and the framings tight. The deepest shot in this scene is the first one, which looks across the room at the three traitors. Even then, though, our view is obstructed at first by the woodwork in front of the camera, reducing the sense of uninterrupted visual access to large spaces.

The Chorus introduces the traitors
The introduction of the traitors: rising land and a white sky obstruct a view of the horizon
Even when Branagh ventures out into open, natural spaces, he confines them with relatively tight framings. Never is there an extreme long shot showing the French countryside, not even during the most significant outdoor scene, the Battle of Agincourt. The closest Branagh comes to revealing a vast outdoor landscape is at Southampton, as the Chorus introduces the traitors. Even here, however, Branagh fills his background with a grassy cliff rising behind the Chorus, concealing from us the infinite depth possible as perspective fades into the horizon.

Henry passes by a wall in shadow
Henry passes the Archbishop's antechamber: a larger space is implied with shadow.
Essential to Branagh's spatial restriction is his lighting. Many shots are darkly lit, so that hidden from our view is not only the space beyond the frame, but the space immediately surrounding the characters in the frame. The first scene after the prologue is a good example — the Archbishop and Ely are kept in tight framings, engulfed in darkness. We see very little of their surroundings, just the door the archbishop closes behind him and the faint glimpse of one of the antechamber's walls. When the Archbishop peers out the door to see Henry walk by, escorted by his guard, we do not see Henry or the guards except in shadow. By showing only a brick wall, one prop (a candelabra), and the shadows of a pillar and five walking figures, Branagh implies a larger area — a pllar-lined hallway leading to Henry's presence chamber.

Henry's presence chamber
Henry's presence chamber
Even when surroundings are shown, the sets are relatively plain. Unlike Olivier, whose sets, though artificial-looking, are nonetheless very ornate and complex, Branagh keeps his sets relatively sparse. Many, whether they are darkly lit or not, are simple despite their apparent realism. Henry's presence chamber, in which he hears the argument presented by the Archbishop concerning Salic law, contains his chair, the chairs of the lords and nobles, and a few candlesticks. The rest of the room is concealed by darkness and by the selective presentation of Branagh's camera. The equivalent French room, while more brightly lit, gets the same selective treatment — we never see a long establishing shot of the entire room, just close-ups and medium shots of the speaking characters in it. Once again, there is little in the way of a set featured — there is a set, of course, but because we are shown so little of it, it does not need to be large and eloborate.

This strategy of presenting sparse sets in tight framings, of witholding from our view the "complete picture" of Henry's surroundings, allows Branagh to present his film with great economy, but also to create a sense that something is missing, which is just what the Chorus claims to be the case. Furthermore, this method adheres to the spatial restrictions imposed on the production by the Chorus in the Prologue. The Chorus and its claims, therefore, do not contradict what is shown on screen. This method is most effective during Branagh's depiction of Agincourt, where it assumes thematic significance, and where it does something more important than keep the Chorus relevant to Branagh's film — it keeps the film relevant to Shakespeare's Chorus.

Branagh's Agincourt

Perhaps the most striking element of Branagh's adaptation is his battle of Agincourt, which certainly runs counter to the low expectations set by the Chorus — it is graphic, violent, dirty, and bloody. There is little need during the battle to compensate with our imaginations for a lacking sense of "realism." Nonetheless, Branagh's method is still at work, imposing the same spatial restrictions on the battle as it does on the rest of the film. (Upon recent watching, I noticed a certain "theatricality" to Branagh's "realism" which I may write about in the future. For now, suffice it to say that for all immediate purposes, the film presents a much more graphic depiction of the battle than Olivier's.)

The Chorus gives a look The Chorus walks among the electric lights The Chorus and the candles
York is killed by the French Pistol finds Nym dead The boys, murdered by the French

Williams watches the French charge
Williams watches as the French forces charge
Branagh withholds from our view the larger space of the battlefield by shooting most of the action in medium to close framings. As the English await the charging French, for example, we see close-ups of their faces, never an extra wide shot of the entire army. Nor do we see the French army charge en masse as we do in Olivier's film — instead we are shown only the key speaking characters (the Constable, the Dauphin, Orleans, Montjoy) in a medium shot right before their charge, then more close-ups of the English faces who see the charge denied to our view. The suspense and tension we feel for the imminent clash is created by the looks on the faces of the English and the off-screen sound of beating hoofs growing progressively louder. The subsequent fighting is also shown in tight framings: even as York is bloodily skewered in slow motion, we have very little sense of his greater surroundings.

Soldiers listening to Henry's Crispin's Day monologue
Band of brothers: A large army implied by shots of smaller groups
Instead of showing the two large armies with hundreds of extras in sweeping long shots as Olivier does, Branagh implies greater numbers through multiple close-ups of familiar characters. The above-mentioned charge of the French is one example, as is the St. Crispin's Day speech. During Henry's pep talk only a relative few of the English soldiers are shown in the same frame as the king. A greater number is referenced, however, by Henry's offscreen looks and by shots of the individual soldiers responding to Henry's words. By using medium shots of the previously-introduced speaking characters (Macmorris, Nym, Exeter, etc.) with a handful of extras behind them, Branagh is able not only to imply a large army without the use of long shots crammed with extras, but also to adhere to another of the Chorus' directives, one which Branagh edits from his Prologue but could just as well have been left in place: "Into a thousand parts divide one man." Granted, Branagh's actors do not double up on roles, but their repeated presentation in close-up creates an effect similar to one long shot filled with many characters.

Still, while Branagh's spatial strategy creates a formal "lack" in accordance with the Chorus' disclaimers, the graphic nature of the fighting seems to violently contradict them. This contradiction seems further complicated by Branagh's editing of the fourth Chorus, although unlike the above-mentioned line ("Into a thousand parts divide one man") which was excised though it seemed relevant, in this case Branagh includes five lines which seem to greatly contradict the subsequent realism shown on screen:

And so our scene must to the battle fly;
Where — O for pity! — we shall much disgrace
With four or five most vile and ragged foils,
Right ill-disposed, in brawl ridiculous,
The name of Agincourt.

The Chorus on St. Crispin's Day
"And so our scene must to the battle fly..."
Not only are these lines not removed, but they are displaced from the top of act four to the moment just before the French charge and the bloody battle begins. This displacement, as elsewhere in Branagh's adaptation, gives the Chorus' exposition — and its reminders of artifice — immediate significance. We are told, it would seem, right before the battle begins, that what we are about to see is but a feeble and artificial imitation of the actual event, though what follows does not appear so.

Why, then, would Branagh not only include these lines, but place them so close to the action they seem to contradict? The answer is derived both from Branagh's innovation and ideas Shakespeare included in his play four hundred years ago, ideas absent from the wartime film Olivier made. To see it, we must jump ahead to Shakespeare's Epilogue, which is edited substantially in Olivier's film but which Branagh keeps intact. It reminds us, after the exhilarating St. Crispin's Day speech, after the agonizing victory at Agincourt, after the lighthearted courtship of Katherine, that under the reign of Henry VI, the son and successor to Henry V, England would lose the land won by Harry and his "band of brothers":

Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown'd king
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France, and made his England bleed:
Which oft our stage hath shown; and for their sake,
In your fair minds let this acceptance take.

The Chorus at the Epilogue
"In your fair minds let this acceptance take."

The last line — the Chorus' last instruction — bids us to accept a historical fact which more than somewhat deflates the victory just depicted. Now it becomes clear why Branagh included the lines from the fourth Chorus. The mention of the "four or five most vile and ragged foils" is not meant to imply that the subsequent filmed battle will look artificial, but rather that no depiction of war, no matter how seemingly "realistic," can convey its true horror. Likewise, the "brawl ridiculous" does not refer to the feeble imitation of battle shown on stage or screen, but to war itself: it is often pointless and fought in vain. Branagh uses his filmic realism to graphically enhance Shakespeare's ideas about the nature of war1.

1Or at least this war. Shakespeare may have intended the comment to apply specifically to Agincourt and to the redemption Henry's victory seemed to give his lineage [see Henry's prayer in 4.1]. However, Branagh's film makes these ideas applicable to any time. (One of my college professors described hearing some of the audience cry during the St. Crispin's Day speech when he saw the film during the early days of the first Gulf War.)

See Also:
Branagh's Other Methods
Branagh & the Muse of Arc Light
Stage vs. Screen: Henry V in the Park
Comparative Text: Branagh's Adaptation of Henry V