Shakespeare's Henry IV part 1 is the greatest of all history plays and, in fact, arguably the best play ever written by anyone. The play's plotting is fantastically ingenious and the show is packed with extraordinary characters. Although this may seem a flippant comparison, you judge the success of some kinds of art, for instance, TV sit-coms, by the vibrancy of their supporting characters, the secondary figures who inhabit the world presented and act as warrants of its authenticity. Mary Tyler Moore will also be virtuous, brave, and kind-hearted -- there are no profundities to her character. But in her TV sit-com, she was surrounded by indelible secondary presences -- the egomaniacal anchor-man, her melancholy alcoholic boss, the loyal friend, her quirky next-door neighbors, the lustful older woman. It is these supporting characters and the entanglements that they create that provide the complexity to the program. Similarly, Prince Hal, even when slumming with the denizens of the Boar's Head Tavern, will always be the paragon of princes, a two-dimensional character to which modern critics impute sinister attributes, I think, largely unintended by Shakespeare. But, in the trilogy of plays focusing on his wars, Shakespeare surrounds him with vibrant, profoundly realized, and fascinating supporting characters, including the most effective and charismatic second-banana in Western theater, Sir John Falstaff. Henry IV, part One manages to be both a patriotic myth establishing the foundations of the House of Lancaster and, at the same time, a penetrating and thorough-going critique of the political and military machinations comprising those foundations. Henry IV, part One is the epic theater to which Brecht's work aspired -- and, indeed, the play is thoroughly modern in its implicit cynicism, its insistence that the personal is the political, and its generosity of perspective: for every valiant knight, we see about a half-dozen grubby proles for whom the knight's valor is an unmitigated catastrophe. With Brecht's Mother Courage, Shakespeare's Henry IV (Part One) is the most clear-sighted of all plays about war and its consequences.
Not all productions of Henry IV (One) are equal. The cinematic scope of the play provides great challenges, particularly when the show is mounted in a theater as opposed to presented as film. Nothing surpasses Orson Welles' astonishing Chimes at Midnight, although in fairness, we must note that this film is really a pastiche on Shakespearian themes and more a creation of Welles than the Bard. (That said, Welles was imbued with Shakespeare, dyed, as it were, in his poetry and world-view, and so Chimes at Midnight is a superb guide to the ethos and unique timbre of Shakespearian theater, even though it isn't exactly Shakespeare itself.) Like many of Shakespeare's greatest works, the play is more powerful in the imagination than on stage -- at least, this is often the case. The cinematic character of Henry IV (One), its crosscutting between plot-lines that seem remote to one another until they all converge on the blood-soaked plains at Shrewsbury, doesn't necessarily sit well on stage -- Shakespeare here (as in Antony and Cleopatra) discovers film four-hundred years too early. The BBC Hollow Crown production is handsomely mounted, but, unlike the weirdly tremulous and moving Richard II, takes no chances. Matinee idol, Tom Hiddleston, plays Prince Hal and he is reliably charming. (In one scene, he literally rolls his eyes at Falstaff's grandiose deceitfulness -- Falstaff claims to have killed Hotspur when, of course, we have just seen Hal do that deed. Hiddleston's facial expressions when Falstaff makes this claim run the gamut from disgust through rage and, then, indifferent amusement -- it's a master class in acting.) Falstaff is portrayed along the lines that Shakespeare seems to have intended for this character -- he is a dirty rogue, a lord of mis-rule and no particular effort is made to make him seem warm and cuddly; in fact, the old monster seems to be a direct peril to Hal's soul. Jeremy Irons is gruff and distant as the aging King Henry IV. (There is a very funny scene in which Hiddleston imitates the demeanor of his father by parodying the speech patterns and wounded gravitas that Irons displays -- in effect, Hiddleston does his impression of Irons and it has a Saturday Night Live sort of zing.) The BBC shows fidelity, in general, to Shakespeare's text -- a couple scenes are played in different order but, by and large, we get the play complete. Therefore, we see more of the Welsh court than often appears in redacted versions of the play -- including a lovely musical interlude. Hotspur looks a lot like Kiefer Sutherland and brings the swagger of a young Jack Bauer to his part. The film presents two important soliloquies (Hal's initial explanation of his slumming and Falstaff's catechism of honor) as voice-over speeches -- I think this technique is unsuccessful. It's best to have the characters address the camera directly. This is shown near the end of the film when Falstaff looks straight into the camera and, rather profanely, tells us what he is going to do with the corpse of Hotspur to self-aggrandize his valor at the battle. The battle scenes derive directly from Orson Welles' imagery in Chimes at Midnight including the pictures of men writhing in the mud as they strangle and stab one another. Welles seems to have figured-out how to shoot a battle sequence that is simultaneously horrific and stirring on a very low budget -- and, although the BBC production is not low budget, it certainly economizes: the money is on display in the star turns by people like Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston. The preparations for battle and the battle scene with its aftermath are convincing and have shocking force -- although there is nothing as startling as the scene in Chimes at Midnight showing heavily armed knights hoisted by winch onto their horses. Shakespearian comedy is often not too funny -- although some of the scenes in Henry IV are exceptions. In this version, everything is too squalid and dirt-caked to be funny. (The film begins with close-ups of meat being cut in an alley outside the Boar's Head tavern.) There is a lot of whispering in this production and Falstaff has the habit of speaking in a very husky, growling voice, a "hearty medieval tone" midway between a shout and a belch, and this makes it very hard to hear and appreciate the highly complex Shakespearian language.