Eric J. Burnett
Professor Feuer
Humanities 530
16 October 1999

The Modifications of History

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shal ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered- (Shakespeare 4.3.56-59)

With these words, King Henry sought to inspire his men in the moments leading up to
England’s epic struggle against their French foe at Agincourt. The men that fought that
autumn day have been remembered, but could Henry V have known to what extent his deeds
would be embellished through the centuries? Oftentimes, the history interpreted through the
visionary eyes of authors and film makers varies significantly from the events which actually
transpired. One must always keep in mind the preconceived notions and motivations of the
artist recounting the events. This reality emerges when looking at the stark contrasts between
the historically accepted view of the struggle at Agincourt and that presented in the film and
play version of Henry V. In recreating the Battle of Agincourt, William Shakespeare and
Laurence Olivier modify and omit crucial events to suit the demands of their chosen medium
while transforming King Henry into a hero of unquestionable valor and self-sacrifice.


The Battle of Agincourt can be divided into three primary components. First, both the
French and English organized their troops across a field nearly 1200 yards wide. Following
this period of preparation, the conflict between the undermanned English and the decorated
French began. This second episode witnessed the intermingling of life and death struggles
between archers, men-at-arms and the cavalry. The final act of this historic struggle was King
Henry’s order to exterminate the prisoners following a raid by the French of the English
baggage park. After looking at each of these incidents, the historical account presented by
John Keegan in The Face of Battle appears quite unlike the story told in the theatrical and film
version of Henry V.


In the hours preceding the inevitable battle, the English gradually strengthened their
determination to face the French army which outnumbered them, was not suffering from the
exhaustion of a sustained military campaign, and who fought on familiar land. Where did
these destitute men summon the courage to wage battle against a seemingly insurmountable
foe? One potential factor could have been dull senses due to alcohol consumption. “The
English, who were on short rations, presumably had less to drink than the French, but there
was drinking in the ranks on both sides during the period of waiting and it is quite probable
that man soldiers in both armies went into the melee less than sober, if not indeed fighting
drunk” (Keegan, 114). Another primary motivation was the “prospect of enrichment” (115).
A soldier could enter battle a poverty-stricken simpleton yet improve his station substantially if
he were to defeat a wealthy combatant. King Henry also empowered his soldiers by his
willingness to fight alongside his followers. “The personal bond between leader and follower
lies at the root of all explanations of what does and does not happen in battle” (114). For
Henry V, what happened in the Battle of Agincourt was remarkable and his effect on the men
can not be underestimated.


Both William Shakespeare and later Laurence Olivier magnified the importance of
Henry V while ignoring any other possible motive among the English soldiers. Both the play
and the film fail to recognize the potential significance of alcohol or the prospect of enrichment.
However, both artists construct their king as an assured leader willing to sacrifice his life
alongside his fellow men for the honor of his country. In the hours preceding the fight,
Shakespeare has his Henry walk amongst the men promising eternal brotherhood for the man
willing to fight by his side:

 

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; (Shakespeare 4.3.60-62)

 

One must wonder what role Olivier’s ego played in determining to what extent other
character’s would influence the outcome at Agincourt. Because Olivier almost wholly
transcribes the dialogue from Shakespeare’s play, when words or deeds are omitted one tends
to suspect the director’s intentions. For example, in the play York enters and volunteers:

 

My lord, most humbly on my knee I beg
The leading of the vaward. (4.3.130-131)

 

This scene remains absent in the novel. After rousing the spirits of his soldiers with an
energetic plea for brotherhood, no one and no event can steal the moment from this virtuous,
passionate hero.


Gradually, as the scene at Agincourt becomes a bloody battle distinctions again
surface between the accepted historical facts and the subsequent artistic interpretation. For
Shakespeare, his medium limits his ability to carefully outline the events of that day. Due to
the restrictions of set design and available venues, Shakespeare’s battle scenes are limited to a
brief conversation between two combatants, one of whom ends up pleading for his life.
Because of this inequity, Olivier’s film version offers the only legitimate comparison.


In the film Henry V, Olivier utilizes his creative license and alters the order of events,
the participation of the infantrymen and men-at-arms, and the violence on the battlefield to
present a stale version in which his hero, King Henry, alone alters the fate of his people.
According to Keegan, after Henry ordered his archers to release their first launch, “The
French, provoked by these arrow strikes, as Henry intended, into attacking, launched charges
by the mounted men-at-arms from the wings of the main body” (Keegan 83). Olivier fails to
note how the English essentially instigated the battle. This would take away from his need to
present the English as righteous soldiers only drawn into battle by their hated aggressors, the
French. Instead, the onslaught of racing horses appears an insurmountable obstacle for the
English archers who wait faithfully in unison.


Olivier also fails to recognize the contribution of the infantrymen and men-at-arms.
On the field that day, the true fighting occurred on the muddy earth where French and English
forces fought in the midst of huddled masses. “Man of the French armoured infantrymen lost
their footing and were killed as they lay sprawling; other who remained upright could not
defend themselves and were killed by thrusts between their armour-joints or stunned by
hammer-blows” (84). However, Olivier employs this battle scene to showcase the artistic
talents which would later earn him a Special Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement as
Actor, Producer and Director. As with many directors, Olivier focuses heavily on the
opportunities to install symbolism while making his movie a visual spectacle. His filming of
the muddy ground under the feet of the horses foreshadows the impending doom for those
soldiers who will later trample the area. Actual combat scenes only appear for a brief instant.
Only after the majority of the battle has expired do we actually witness our first hand-to-hand
battle. Instead of focusing on the death struggles of the common man, Olivier uses this
moment as an opportunity to have his hero prance through the conflict with his banner carrier
close behind. As the English flag envelopes the screen, it slowly transforms into the French
colors held by the retreating leaders. Once again, in the film version, Agincourt becomes the
battle of one man rather than the struggle of an army.


Whether due to censorship or individual choice, at no point in the film do we witness a
death blow. For one hoping to view “a story of slaughter-yard behaviour and of outright
atrocity” (78) Henry V fails to deliver. Even though Olivier includes a contest between the
King and an armored soldier, the violence climaxes with a awkward blow to the head. Instead
of finishing off the enemy, the English again offer their support for their leader and parade off
in a feast of colors.


The final crucial omission which can not be ignored is Shakespeare’s and Olivier’s
utter failure to involve their hero in the atrocities dealt to the prisoners. Following an incident
where “a body of armed peasants, led by three mounted knights, suddenly appeared at the
baggage park, inflicted some loss of life and stole some objects of value” (84), Henry ordered
that the prisoners be instantly killed. Before Henry could rescind the order “very many of the
French had been killed; some of the English apparently even incinerated wounded prisoners in
cottages where they had been taken for shelter” (85) How was this slaughtering of innocents
dealt with by Shakespeare? In a passing conversation between Gower and Fluellen, Gower
comments:

 

Besides they have burned and carried away all that was in the King’s tent;
wherefore the King most worthily hath caused every soldier to cut his
prisoner’s throat. O, ‘tis a gallant king! (Shakespeare 4.7.7-11)

 

The only criticism which Shakespeare addresses comes in the form of Fluellen’s comparison of
Henry’s actions to the atrocities of Alexander the Great. Olivier takes the omission one step
further by not even mentioning the existence of prisoners. Only a coward would exact revenge
by slaughtering innocent prisoners. Would this action have been considered “expressly against
the law of arms” (4.7.1-2)? Instead, Olivier deletes the entire conversation between Gower and
Fluellen and the viewer watches a sensitive, pensive Henry V valiantly rides off alone to defeat
the armoured soldier in an evenly matched battle. In this instance, Olivier can not be forgiven
for his clear deletion of historic events solely for the sake of making King Henry an
indisputable hero.


Oftentimes, when literary or theatrical artists interpret historical events, the reality is
difficult to recognize. The treatment of the Battle of Agincourt by William Shakespeare and
Laurence Olivier exemplifies this blending of the truth with the artist’s own personal
motivations. Both the play and film version of Henry V emphasize the heroism of King Henry
and downplay the brutality and suffering of the common man on that historic day. These
omissions take away from what truly made Agincourt “one of the most instantly and vividly
visualized of all epic passages in English history, and one of the most satisfactory to
contemplate” (Keegan 78). Shakespeare and Olivier leave us with a stale, formulaic tale which
can never compare with the stark reality of that day.

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Henry V. Dir. Laurence Olivier. Perf. Laurence Olivier, Robert Newton, Rene Asherson, Leslie Banks, and Esmond Knight. Two Cities, 1944.


Keegan, John. The Face of Battle. New York: Penguin Books, 1978.


Shakespeare, William. Henry V. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.