Variations on a Speech for the Ages

If one searches the Web for videos of the “St. Crispin’s Day Speech” from Shakespeare’s Henry V, one will find that there are a lot of folks, including girls and even one boy on his third birthday who’ve had their renditions archived at YouTube for all the world to hear. One will learn of these attempts at oratorical glory if one is seeking a clip for an article on a movie by the name of Anonymous, as I was recently. At the beginning of my search I found the famous movie and stage actors who’ve played Henry (a.k.a. Prince Hal, Harry of England, Hank Cinq, etc.), and their performances vary and evoke different emotions. Let’s view these variations.

In Anonymous, we get only the last 95 words of the speech, so that’s all we’ll look at from the other videos. But before we screen these performances, here’re the 95 words that form the ending of the “St. Crispin’s Day Speech”:

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered---
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

I don’t want to prejudice your viewing by commenting on the performances, so I won’t opine just yet. I’ve preset the beginnings and endings of the clips and each is under one minute. Just click in the middle of the video boxes and the videos will stop at the right time. You should watch the clips in full-screen mode, especially the fourth one. You can do that by clicking on the button in the lower-right corner of the video boxes, and when the excerpts end, press the Escape button in the upper-left corner of your keyboard. Enjoy:

You may continue reading if and only if you’ve screened the above clips. By the way, if you want to screen the entire video, then click the Replay button in the lower-left corner of the video boxes. And to re-watch just the defined preset portions of videos, press the Refresh button of your browser. In any event, now that you’ve seen the clips, read on.

Our first clip is from Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944). Were some tribunal to honor someone with the title “The Greatest Actor of All Time,” Sir Larry would certainly be in the running. In my youth, I mydamnself thought Olivier was the very apex of acting; I’m even fond of his performances in “lesser” movies, like Love Among the Ruins, The Betsy, The Boys from Brazil, A Little Romance, and Marathon Man. One of his finest outings was as Crassus in Kubrick’s Spartacus; e.g. “I shall not violate Rome at the moment of possessing her.”

A case can be made that Olivier’s Henry V is more of a theatrical performance than a cinematic one. Though the speech was shot out of doors, and in one shot, it still seems like it’s for the theatre. What stands out is the quality of Olivier’s voice; it’s so bright and steely.

Next we have Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989), and like Olivier, Branagh played the title role and directed. Branagh’s film is certainly more cinematic than Olivier’s. And rather than Olivier’s one long shot, the scene is edited with shots of Henry’s host of combatants responding to his call to arms. Also, the close-ups allow Branagh to deliver some lines sotto voce rather than with the stentorian declamations of Olivier. So, Branagh’s St. Crispin’s is a quite different animal than Olivier’s. But, what is it that makes Branagh’s “feel” so very different than Olivier’s? Think about it for a bit and I’ll get back to you.

The third clip is of Tom Hiddleston in the BBC’s Henry V (2013), which is a part of The Hollow Crown, a multi-year series of adaptations of “The Henriad.” The only part of this TV series that I’ve seen is the clip here. It’s included because Hiddleston’s approach to the speech provides a big contrast with the other videos here. By the way, I clipped the ending of Hiddleston’s rendition because it contains a distraction: the actor playing York. One might wonder if the BBC were using Shakespeare to advance some multicultural PC narrative.

(The BBC also broadcast Henry V in 1979, featuring David Gwillim in the title role. The production was part of the BBC’s complete works of Shakespeare, which aired from 1978 to 1985. I couldn’t find a clip of Gwillim’s St. Crispin’s, but one can see the whole play HERE. A commenter there writes that the St. Crispin’s is “underplayed” and “very subtle,” which would put Gwillim in Hiddleston’s camp. If that appeals to you, you might also like Mark Rylance’s interpretation.)

Next we have the aforementioned Anonymous (2011), which is what started this little adventure. Anonymous has several very short excerpts of the Bard’s plays within it, including the first ever staging of Henry V, which was at the Rose, a theatre that predated the Globe; the clip even shows the author in the gallery. (Read more in my article “A Powerful Film Defies the History Books.”)

Because the conceptualization of this scene is so fine, I wanted to ascertain the name of the actor playing the actor who played Henry (sic). That necessitated a peek into the screenplay, where we learn that the screenwriter named the actor playing Henry as “Spencer.” Spencer also plays Romeo and other characters in Anonymous, and Spenser is played by Alex Hassell. Mr. Hassell is surely the least known actor here, but he played Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2015, and to glowing reviews.

Finally, we have the audio of Richard Burton in 1951, (here’re some photos). Burton’s steely voice might put one in mind of Olivier. Burton was a bit of an international “bad boy” back in the 1960s, but he was a helluvan actor. He said this of his beloved Elizabeth: “Her breasts were apocalyptic, they would topple empires.”

Uh, where was I? Oh, right -- what makes Branagh’s version “feel” so different from Olivier’s? Serious cineastes will know immediately, it’s Patrick Doyle, the composer who scored Branagh’s film. Doyle’s stirring music undergirds Branagh’s entire speech, and props up the ending with a rousing crescendo, whereas Olivier delivers his speech with no accompaniment.  Doyle’s score is so dominant that it makes it difficult to contrast the two actors’ performances. But what if some precocious knave leveled the playing field by combining Doyle and Olivier? We might then be able to compare and contrast. The following takes 135 seconds, and it may lead you to conclude that the world needs its knaves:

So, which of the performances do you like the most? If you’re a frustrated thespian, don’t be glum, you were meant for some other honorable endeavor. The thing about great works of drama is that they can accommodate multiple interpretations and readings; here’s one that I find rather charming. But please, for the love of St. Crispin, don’t hold your manhoods cheap.

Photo credit: YouTube screen grab

Jon N. Hall of ULTRACON OPINION is a programmer from Kansas City.

If you experience technical problems, please write to