Apart from Sam Taylor’s The Taming of the Shrew (1929) (with its legendary title card reading, “by William Shakespeare, additional dialogue by Sam Taylor”), John Barrymore being let loose on a soliloquy from Richard II in Warner Bros.’ Show of Shows (1929), the “radicalized” Max Reinhardt version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), the teaming of overaged Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard in Romeo and Juliet (1936), and Paul Czinner’s rather clunky As You Like It (1936) — the talkies pretty much gave Shakespeare a wide berth, until Laurence Olivier made Henry V (1944). Despite budgetary constraints and the need for the film to serve as propaganda in order to boost morale for British troops during WWII (no dark undercurrents to this King Henry), Olivier’s film is really the first completely serious attempt to bring Shakespeare to the sound film.
And it remains a surprisingly good attempt — perhaps not in quite the same league as Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) or his Richard III (1955), but not too far from them. While its propaganda status may make one hesitant, it’s worth remembering that that’s pretty much what Shakespeare intended for an earlier time. The film suffers a bit from too small a budget (though Olivier wisely saved his money in order to have a full-blown battle at Agincourt), but it benefits not only from intelligent direction by Olivier, but a performance from him before he started subsuming his talents with a bag of showy tricks. For that alone, the film is worth seeing — to see how good Olivier could be.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke