Second Reel

A Chorus' Lines

Olivier's Visual Reference

If we accept that Olivier's film is the projected imagination of the audience he depicts at the Globe Theater in 1600, then the artificial sets and backdrops are not just devices used to keep the Chorus' lines relevant, but elements of that audience's imagined vision. Olivier's artifice-rich mise-en-scene, which recalls the perspective and composition of 15th century painting, seems to be based on the assumption that an audience of 1600 would have no other visual reference of Henry's time than the artwork produced in it. Therefore, the imagination of Olivier's depicted audience is based greatly on paintings made in Henry's time.

Granted, all of this is filtered through the perceptions of much later decades. I thought this way in the year 2000 (when this essay was first written) about a film made in 1944 about how an audience in 1600 would imagine the early 1400's. Therefore, putting an exact range of dates on a certain group of paintings is perhaps unnecessary: as we recognize that much of Olivier's film reflects a 1944 perception of Shakespeare's time, we must also allow that an audience in 1600 would have its own perceptions of Henry's time, and that perception could be influenced by a general style of painting without strict attention to dates. (To be really technical, it is likely that many of the groundlings at the Globe would not have had access to such paintings...)

It is also interesting that the natural landscape is used in Olivier's film, primarily at the field at Agincourt, perhaps because a large empty field would look the same to people in 1400, 1600, and 1944. Olivier's shots of the battlefield, then, are set in nature — a nature common to people throughout time and therefore able to be recalled and imagained by people throughout time — but the non-natural elements which furnish that landscape — the horses' and soldiers' costuming, the banners, tents, castles, etc. — are part of the imagined vision which references the artwork of an earlier time.

When I set out to find (via internet search, using keywords like "15th century painting," etc.) specific works to illustrate my thoughts on Olivier's visual reference, I eventually came across a group of paintings from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, a "book of hours" painted in the early 15th century by the Limbourg brothers. These paintings not only show the stylistic elements I saw recreated in Olivier's film (the earlier form of perspective, the arrangement of people in clusters, etc.), but seem to provide an actual blueprint for certain of Olivier's scenes.

I later learned that Les Tres Riches Heures was used as reference and inspiration during the making of the film, though I was unaware of this when I was looking for examples (though once I found Les Tres Riches Heures, I made the assumption that it must have been consulted). I mention this not to tout my powers of observation, but in support of my belief that while all "meaning" rests with the viewer, filmic communication is not entirely random: in many instances a filmmaker's "intentions" can be communicated succesfully, even when they are not entirely superficial.

Example 1

Henry before the gates of Harfleur

The French king and his lords at the table
"January" from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, painted by the Limbourg brothers, c. 1412 - 1416

The French soldiers positioned on the upper right portion of Olivier's Harfleur gate are arranged in a similar clustered fashion as those in the top of the January painting. The view of the table at which the French king and his lords sit simulates the method of perspective used in the painting — we see more of the tabletop (which is tilted forward on Olivier's set) than we should for a relatively straight-on side view.

Example 2

"February" from Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, painted by the Limbourg brothers, c. 1412 - 1416

The three frames at left, from the shots preceding 5.1, suggest a composite version of the February painting. The top frame shows the snow-covered hills and the distant village, seen in the top left of the Limbourgs' painting, the center frame shows a faithful re-creation of the open-sided hut and other of the painting's barnyard elements, and the bottom frame echoes the capped mule-driver at the top of the painting in the form of the capped man walking behind Fluellen and Gower.