Compared to the comedies and tragedies, Shakespeare’s history plays haven’t been adapted for cinema much at all—by my count, there are only five sound-era Anglophone films! The BBC and ESC (English Shakespeare Company) have produced several more for the small screen, but with the exception of The Hollow Crown series (2012-ongoing), I shan’t talk about them here.
Since there are only five cinematic histories, I’m listing list them all, by production year.
Henry V (1944)
Directed by Laurence Olivier
Laurence Olivier, Renée Asherson, Robert Newton, Leslie Banks
Even though the film might seem out-dated today, this was the first critically and commercially successful Shakespeare film adaptation—ground-breaking stuff! If you look at the date, you’ll notice it was made during WWII. Yup, it was partially funded by the British government, and was actually intended as a propaganda film (I’ve written a bit about that here). 10% of the production budget went into shooting the epic Battle of Agincourt, which was the only sequence filmed on location (in the neutral Republic of Ireland, near Dublin).
Richard III (1955)
Directed by Laurence Olivier
Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Claire Bloom, Cedric Hardwicke, John Gielgud, Laurence Naismith, Norman Wooland
And it’s more Olivier! There’s a lot of solid acting here from Olivier and the rest of the cast, and some serious plotting and villainy. Personally, it’s not my favourite performance of Richard III, but it’s worth checking out if you’re an Olivier fan, or if you’re looking for something more ‘old-school’ and ‘traditional’.
Chimes at Midnight (1966)
Directed by Orson Welles
Orson Welles, Keith Baxter, John Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau, Margaret Rutherford, Marina Vlady, Fernando Rey
Orson Welles had a pretty special relationship with Shakespeare, and directed several film adaptations. Here, Welles conflates 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV, and uses bits and pieces from the other history plays (as well as The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was written between the two Henry IVs and contains many of the same characters). Welles himself plays Falstaff, featured as the film’s protagonist. Welles’s artistry certainly shines through (especially given the difficulties with budget!), and although the dialogue is a bit hard to catch at times (the original sound was poorly recorded), it’s very much recommended if you’re looking for an ‘unusual’ experience of the histories.
Henry V (1989)
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh, Paul Scofield, Derek Jacobi, Ian Holm, Emma Thompson, Alec McCowen, Judi Dench, Christian Bale
Back when Branagh was a wee boy, he founded the Renaissance Theatre Company, and then Renaissance Films, and then made and starred in a movie, and then got lots of kudos for said movie. Unimpressed? This was also when studios were staying (galaxies) far away from Shakespeare, because adaptations had become financial black holes back in the 1980s—in fact, we have Branagh to thank for spurring the awesome cinematic adaptations over the last three decades. Still unimpressed? Watch the film, and marvel at Branagh youthful features. Or watch the film for Emma Thompson, because Emma Thompson.
Richard III (1995)
Directed by Richard Loncraine
Ian McKellen, Annette Bening, Jim Broadbent, Robert Downey Jr., Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith, Adrian Dunbar, Dominic West
A cinematic ‘extension’, if you will, of Richard Eyre’s stage production of the same play for the National Theatre, this cinematic version was adapted by and also stars Ian McKellen. Its imagined setting in a fascist, 1930s’ United Kingdom casts a fascinating light on Richard III’s tyranny and the circumstances that might’ve facilitated it. While I’ll always lament not being able to see McKellen’s live performance in all its villainous glory, this wonderful, filmed version will certainly do.
The Hollow Crown (2012)
Directed by Rupert Gold, Richard Eyre, and Thea Sharrock
Ben Whishaw, Jeremy Irons, and Tom Hiddleston in the titular roles
The entire series is wonderful, with stellar performances from an emerging generation of actors: specifically on the young-actor front, Ben Whishaw and Tom Hiddleston are superb as Richard II and Henry V, respectively. Everything else I say will be gushy, so I’ll let the series speak for itself (and I really hope you’ll decide to check it out!).
And the best thing? There will be more! The second tetralogy, The War of the Roses (1-3 Henry VI and Richard III), features Benedict Cumberbatch as Richard III. The BBC has scheduled a tentative 2016 airing to coincide with Shakespeare 400 this year (of which you’re also a part if you’re taking on the Bardathon Challenge—yayayayay!).
Have I missed any cinematic histories? Have you seen any of these adaptations, or are there any you can’t wait to check out? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!