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Laurence Olivier in Henry V

The world was still at war when, at the request of the British government, Laurence Olivier directed, produced, and played the leading role in a film of Shakespeare's Henry V.  Elaborate costumes like the one he wore for this hand-colored publicity photograph added to the cost of production, which ultimately exceeded that of any previous British film. But the result has been called "one of the canonical works of the Shakespearean cinema." Olivier also gave the Folger Shakespeare Library this copy of the shooting script of Henry V, with a gracefully phrased inscription in his own hand.


The movie was not only a remarkable treatment of Shakespeare's work but also a brilliant piece of wartime propaganda. It presented a hopelessly outnumbered band of Britons prevailing over a Continental foe—and all through the words of the Englishman who has been called history's greatest playwright. Few at the time of filming could have missed the relevance of Henry's cry before the siege of Harfleur of "Once more unto the breach, dear friends," although the war was on the way to its European conclusion by the time the movie was released in late 1944.


Filmed in brilliant Technicolor, Henry V was a remarkably successful attempt to solve the problem that had defeated so many others—putting the archaic language and staged situations of an Elizabethan play into the modern medium of film. In a directorial sleight of hand, Olivier set the first portion of the play inside the Globe theater—the "wooden O" of the prologue—so that when the camera at last moved outward to the greater world audiences felt liberated, and the inherent "staginess" of the work was obscured. He also audaciously cut Shakespeare's original text by almost half, and in some scenes incorporated surrealistic painted backdrops based on period illustrations.


Inside the Collection

More images from Laurence Olivier's film of Henry V

Publicity photograph of Laurence Olivier in Henry V, 1945, courtesy of Carlton International.

Laurence Olivier. Shooting script for Henry V. London, 1944

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Infinite Variety
To find similar stories about other items from the Folger collection, look for Infinite Variety: Exploring the Folger Shakespeare Library.

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