Second Reel

A Chorus' Lines

Olivier's Henry V and Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky

I first watched Olivier's Henry V shortly after having seen Alexander Nevsky for the first time. I noticed during the battle of Agincourt several shots which strongly echoed certain shots from Eisenstein's battle on frozen Lake Chudskoe, which got me thinking about how Olivier's film originally functioned in a way that Eisenstein's did — as political propaganda. I'm assuming much has already been written on the role of Olivier's film as World War II Allied propaganda (or pep talk, at least), and I'm not going to attempt any in-depth examination here. What follows is a brief overview, anyway.

Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky was made in 1938, six years before Olivier's Henry V, and is based upon an actual victory won by a relatively small army of Russian soldiers, led by Nevsky, over invading Germanic forces in 1242. As in Henry V, this small army is led against a seemingly overwhelming force by a well-loved leader and eventually triumphs in a climactic battle. Eisenstein's anti-Axis message is quite clear, as his film pits Nevsky's Russians against actual Germans, while Olivier's suggestion is only a little less direct, with the English fighting for control of France, which was held for a time during World War II by the Nazis.

In an attempt perhaps to rally Allied sentiment, Olivier eliminated from his film many of the more savage and warlike tendencies Shakespeare attributed to Henry. Henry's threatening at the gates of Harfleur is gone — only Nazis, after all, could have been associated with the atrocities Henry claims his troops would commit should the town not surrender — as is his order to kill all prisoners during the battle of Agincourt (Branagh also eliminates this command, though keeps much of the graphic Harfleur threatening intact). The discovery of the three traitors in Act 2 is banished from Olivier's film, as is the mention of Bardolph's hanging, perhaps to spare Olivier's Henry from having to give any direct order to kill, especially an order to kill Englishmen.

The pivotal moment in Eisenstein's battle on the ice occurs when Alexander challenges the Germanic leader to one-on-one combat on horseback. Alexander is successful in toppling the German from his horse with a blow to the face, and the battle is subsequently won by the Russian army. Olivier's Agincourt contains a similar moment, when Henry, angered by the murder of the boys, rides to challenge the Constable of France and knocks him off his horse in similar fashion. This sequence borrows from Eisenstein's duel quite directly, as do other moments of Olivier's Agincourt from other moments of Eisenstein's ice battle. Even William Walton's musical score for Olivier's Agincourt echoes at times Prokofiev's music for Eisenstein's clash on the ice.

While I'm not prepared at the moment to examine this relationship in any more detail (nor to extend it to include Branagh, though the comparison of Branagh's and Olivier's methods tempts a hasty comparison with Eisenstein's early and later works — the montage of the early films implying larger space through the quick editing of various close-ups [Branagh?], the slower style of the later films presenting vast landscapes and armies in much wider framings and longer takes [Olivier?]), I have provided stills to illustrate the similarities.

Henry V

Alexander Nevsky

The French army advances under a large cloud The Teutonic Knights advance under a large cloud
The advancing French army seen through the stakes planted by the English The advancing Teutonic Knights seen through the pikes of Nevsky's army
The camera tracks alongside the charging French army Eisenstein simulates a tracking shot alongside the charging German forces
The clash of English and French The clash of Russians and Germans
Henry and the Constable duel on horseback Alexander engages the Teutonic Master
Henry takes a blow to the head Alexander strikes a horn from the
Teutonic Master's helmet