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The Use of flashback in Kenneth Branagh's HENRY V

J.C. Macek III

English 408

Dr. James H. Lake

April 23, 1997

The Use of Flashback in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V

In Kenneth Branagh’s filmic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henry V flashback is used at key moments to comment on the action and to explain points in Henry’s past, and how that past effects his present judgment. Certain scenes and lines are borrowed from parts one and two of Shakespeare’s Henry IV to do this. The result is an amalgam of scenes, lines, and characters which brings about a telling expose of Henry V, and the man he was before becoming king of England. Flashback is used in this adaptation directly, to establish key points and players in Henry’s life, as well as in a less direct manner, coming through in his current actions, to show his sovereignty, what that means to him and why.

The initial flashback scene displays a memory of Pistol’s concerning Sir John Falstaff (portrayed by actor Robbie Coltrane). The flashback occurs while Falstaff is on his deathbed, and his remaining friends lament his impending loss. Branagh gives Pistol a line of Falstaff’s, describing Falstaff in his own words as "A goodly, portly man, in faith," (1 Henry IV. II. iv. 421), apparently to establish Falstaff as the well loved character he seems to be in the Branagh film. Falstaff is shown as the jolly jester in this flashback, and not at all as the dangerous, mischief making deceiver he is in the texts, themselves. Branagh focuses on the pathos of Falstaff, to display his rejection as an unfortunate one. It is in this flashback that the audience sees the Machiavellian seeds being sewn in Prince Hal’s personality as he shows his willingness to banish "valiant Jack Falstaff", however it is not shown where these seeds came from. Falstaff advises his young friend not to banish him from his company, saying "banish plump Jack, and banish all the world" (1 Henry IV. II. iv. 479-480). In the text Prince Hal promises to do just that saying "I do, I will." (1 Henry IV. II. iv. 181), but in the film Branagh chooses to keep these poignant lines internal and use a voice over effect to deliver them. Despite Hal’s apparent silence, the slight hardening of his face cause all present to understand his meaning as well as if he had said the lines aloud. This effect is given to show the slight unwillingness to admit his disloyalty to his friends, but also his inability to control the feelings he harbors. Even without an actual incantation of his intentions, Hal’s emotions bubble forth on to his face and into the minds of the onlookers. Displaying them as all the more powerful. Falstaff’s reply "We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master [Harry]." (2 Henry IV. III. ii. 214-215),coupled with a pained look of rejection gives the audience more of a sense of pathos for Falstaff. Another voice over delivers Henry’s actual rejection line of "I know thee not, old man," (2 Henry IV. V. v. 47). The entire effect of this amalgam, for the layman or the scholar, is to show Prince Hal’s need to actually banish even those close to him in order to become the proper king he is as Henry V. It is at this point that Hal begins to use what he has been taught to become the true Machiavel he will be, and to ensure that no tie could stand in his way of replacing his father, Henry IV. The audience sees Falstaff’s importance, and, by Hal’s silence, the difficulty of the rejection of someone so well loved. What the audience does not see is the fact that the teacher was in no small part Falstaff, himself. Branagh shows all of the compassion and charm of Falstaff, but displays few of his bad points, therefor Branagh’s Henry seems to be more of a Machiavel than Shakespeare’s Henry. Branagh’s Henry is a man who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals even if it means destroying those who seem to be of good intention.

A second flashback is brought about by Bardolph’s death during the invasion of France. As Bardolph, an old friend to Harry, is being prepared for his hanging Henry is forcibly reminded of his promise to Bardolph that he shall hang himself. This flashback shows Bardolph, Falstaff, Prince Hal, and company enjoying a night of revelry. Much like in the first flashback a line from a friend brings out the serious, and dangerous side of Prince Hal. In the Branagh film Bardolph says to Prince Hal, "Do not thou, when thou art king, hang a thief." (1 Henry IV. I. ii. 62). Prince Hal’s prophetic reply is "No, thou shalt." (1 Henry IV. I. ii. 63). Although the lines are spoken this time it is once again Prince Hal’s face that conveys the meaning. Slowly and slightly Hal’s face changes from a look of joviality to one of dire seriousness, showing not only his intentions, but his inability to deny them. In the film this line, and its accompanying glare seem almost to be a warning to Bardolph not to steal under Henry V’s reign, but this warning is ignored as Bardolph is caught looting a French church. King Henry condemns Bardolph to death with a mere nod as the memories come. Actor Richard Briers, who portrays Bardolph, gives a look not of betrayal, but of recognition as Henry gives the order for him to be hung. Bardolph realizes too late that he has hung the thief himself, and that he has sealed his own fate by ignoring Henry’s prophetic warning from years before. The entire situation portrayed in the film is one created by Branagh exclusively for this script, as, in Shakespeare’s text, the lines in question were spoken by, and to, Falstaff rather than Bardolph. The question of why the exchange was transferred from Falstaff to Bardolph can be posed. It is possible that the line, if left to Falstaff, would never come to fruition, as it is known that Falstaff dies in bed and not of hanging. It can also be speculated that Branagh assigned this line to Bardolph to show that Bardolph was never to be trusted even as a soldier, much like Falstaff himself in the text of Henry IV part 2. The main reason for the reassignment of this line to Bardolph is evidenced in the character of Falstaff that we see in Branagh’s film. In order for Henry to appear to be the true Machiavel that he is one must feel pathos for the rejected Falstaff, and therefor Falstaff’s evil is hidden from the film’s audience. It serves Branagh’s purpose much better to show Bardolph as the negative character, so as to keep Falstaff white, clean, and neat, and to set Bardolph up as deserving of the hanging he receives. This scene also brings to fruition another part of the first flashback scene. The paraphrased lines from Henry IV part 1 "Banish [Pistol], banish Bardolph, banish [Nym]," (1 Henry IV. II. Iv. 474-475) are fulfilled in part by the death of Bardolph, as, by giving the order to execute Bardolph, Henry is, in effect banishing Bardolph from all the world, just as he promised. This fulfills again Henry’s sense of duty to is crown outweighing his sense of loyalty to his loved ones (regardless of how base), which he feels is necessary for him to be the proper king he must be.

One flashback of sorts is taken directly from the text of Henry V, itself. During his invasion of France King Henry takes time between battles to mix incognito with his lower ranks. In this way Henry is once again Prince Hal, who felt most comfortable among the seedier levels of the kingdom. Here the soldiers question the actions of their king, not knowing that it is to the king that they are speaking. Henry finds himself defending the king, himself, to the soldiers, and although he is assuming a similar persona to that of his former self, Prince Hal (assisted by Branagh’s alteration of his voice to sound more like the prince), He sees that he is now in an opposite position to the one he previously held. While Hal had a penchant for criticizing his father’s state, he now finds himself in the company of those who would question his own. Thus he is forced to defend his ways, still incognito, to these men. In doing this Henry, in effect, defends his father’s ways to himself. This is heavily emphasized by Branagh, as he speaks the lines concerning a son’s duty to a father, and a servants duty to a master (found in act IV scene I, lines 146-160). The lines about the son’s duty to the father are heavily stressed, while the references to a servant’s duty to a king are mostly deleted in Branagh’s script. It is clear that although Henry is speaking figuratively of the soldier’s duty to the state as well as his king, he is reminded of his father in many ways. As he says "The king is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son… " (Henry V. IV. i. 155-157) he not only defends himself and his father, but essentially replaces him in full Machiavellian style. At this point his sovereignty is complete and unquestionable to him as his father’s should have been to him while he was king. It seems as if Henry V had to recreate the persona of Prince Hal in order to completely lay him to rest and become the king his father was. Branagh’s Henry reaffirms this by wasting no time after Bates’ closure of the ensuing quarrel before entering into the pensively introspective soliloquy concerning kingship in the lines between 230 and 284. Henry goes on to mirror his father as he recognizes Henry IV’s fault in the deposition of Richard II, with the lines "O, not to-day, think not upon the fault/ My father made in compassing the crown!/ I Richard’s body have interred anew," (Henry V. IV. i. 293-295), as Henry IV himself did in Henry IV parts 1 and 2. While once again questioning his father he nonetheless reaffirms his place as his father’s reflection. With this entire scene, Branagh asserts the importance of flashback (real or implied), while Henry V symbolically forgives, and becomes his father, reaffirming the importance of kingship and his role in it.

In Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henry V, Branagh uses flashback in more than one way to retell the classic story of King Henry V. Both in actual, and implied flashback Branagh shows the true character of Henry, along with what makes him the king that he is and what gets him to this point in his life. The byproducts of the humanization of Falstaff, and the vilification of Bardolph, coupled with the unique look at Henry’s image of his father gives the audience a very different look at this life story, but one which is nonetheless accurate, and entertaining.

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