This Day is Called the Feast of Crispian

So, Miguel at GunFreeZone posted video of the “Band of Brothers” speech from the excellent cinema version with the talented and committed Kenneth Branagh (then, about the age Henry V would have been). It’s our favorite version, but it’s far from the only one.

Here’s the traditional way of doing it. Mark Rylance, a great stage actor with a shelf full of Tony and Olivier best-actor awards, on stage at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, in 1997.

Rylance’s Henry leaves us cold; the quintessential English hero ought to have an English accent, and this rings to us as nearly a Scots one (Rylance is as English as a bowler hat, but grew up partly in America). He’s got a different sort of the common touch from the one Branagh delivers. Maybe you will like it — horses for courses, to quote another great Briton.

The classic performance pre-Branagh was, of course, the 1944 one by Sir Laurence Olivier, then in his late thirties. It clearly was inspirational to Branagh. Olivier (who was, like most of these actors, of quite common origins) perhaps takes the accent too far in the direction of “plummy.”

A recent TV version had a heartfelt delivery by Tom Hiddleston, complete with a suitably 2013 black York among his anachronistically diverse followings. This video is only the second half of the speech, but Hiddleston does well enough, and his accent strikes us as just about right:

Every military unit seems to have someone who can do the St Crispian speech — even fictional ones, like Private Donnie Benitez from the forgotten Danny DeVito vehicle (directed by Penny Marshall), Renaissance Man. In the movie, DeVito has to teach remedial English to a class of the sort of hollow-braincase losers that Hollywood imagines soldiers to be. Shakespeare turns out to be what engages them:

There’s a whole raft of parodies and ironic uses of the speech, but note that that was not the intent of the Renaissance Man version. Instead, it shows the development of the Benitez character, and bedamned if the drill sergeant character doesn’t undergo the very elevation of station that Henry V promises to his loyal few in the speech. It was a nice touch we didn’t notice on first viewing the film.

And, for comparison’s sake, here is Branagh, although you can go over to Miguel’s and see him there (and Miguel always has something to read).

For an idea of how The Speech has changed war itself, here’s an older and experienced Branagh reciting, word for word, the pre-war speech of Col. Tim Collins of the Royal Irish Regiment on 19 March 03, the evening before the Royal Irish went in.

Collins seemed to have taken Branagh’s performance as Henry on board — and now, here’s Branagh playing him. How recursive can one military tradition get?

Whilst most of the focus has always been on “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” this speech abounds in phrases that resound through the centuries, especially in the hearts of men who have faced combat.

“This story shall a good man teach his sons….” Yes. But our favorite must be, “All things be ready if our minds be so.” Amen.

Hat tip, Miguel, mi hermano.

5 thoughts on “This Day is Called the Feast of Crispian

  1. Aesop

    Sir Kenneth FTW.
    Not even a close thing, IMO.
    All the rest, including Lord OIivier, pale before his performance.
    Branagh was all of 28 and in only his fourth film when he did that flick. Unbelievable.
    Also no small help that the supporting cast in his Henry V looks like the cinematic version of Murderer’s Row from the 1927 Yankees: 15 Oscar nominations between them, and 5 wins, including five nominations but no awards for Branagh. His version was, at its widest release, only shown on precisely 134 screens in the US, but it stayed in general release for nine months. I think perhaps the BBC forgot they left it out there.

    1. Hognose Post author

      He’s a fantastic actor. His Gilderoy Lockhart is the best performance in all the Harry Potter films — Branagh takes a character who’s over the top to begin with and devours the whole screen with him.

      I don’t know how anybody can do it now, but people said that for years about the Olivier version, and Branagh’s is superior. I just thought it was educational to look at a bunch of ’em.

      1. Aesop

        It definitely was.
        Having glossed and never watched all of Renaissance Man, I’d forgotten it had the sadly departed Gregory Hines, and that excepted scene virtually excuses anything I had against the rest of the movie.

        The Potter films are another thing entirely: a veritable Who’s Who of phenomenal British actors, and not a clinker in the lot. It’s the only movie series that ever induced me to the read the book(s) afterwards. My favorite will always be Richard Harris in his last two performances, but Branagh’s Lockhart was scenery-chewing perfection, neither too little nor too much.

        But I’ll be pulling Branagh’s Henry V off the shelf and watching it. For Saint Crispian’s Day.

        1. Hognose Post author

          The private in the Renaissance Man scene is Lillo Brancato Jr., the kid who took his Sopranos role a little too “method” and became a criminal. He did a burglary with a friend and the friend killed an off-duty cop who challenged them. The friend got life, but it’s in New York so maybe he can serve it on weekends or something. Brancato beat the murder rap but went to Upstate for the burglary. He’s out now. I think he had a record before becoming an actor, too.

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