Films as Necromancy

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

William Shakespeare, Prologue, Henry V

My bride and I, along with our son, will finally see Darkest Hour, the film that depicts the period in 1940 when Churchill became Prime Minister.  I will have a full review next week.

Churchill was a remarkable man for  any number of reasons, but I have always been intrigued by the fact that he was both a first class statesman and a first class historian.  He understood the turning point in history where he stood, and his speeches resonate with that knowledge:

 

What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

How to bring such a man to the screen?  Of course the film making industry has a dismal record when it comes to historically based film.  Generally the history is mangled and the film produced has all the historical value of a bobble headed toy depicting a historical figure.  As the Shakespeare quote at the beginning of this post indicates, this was a problem that long predated films when it came to entertainment recreation of a tale from history.

However, there are exceptions to the usual run of failure of historical epics.  Failures in costuming, and the telescoping of events, even distortions of fact do not bother me, if the film gives us a good evocation of the period.  The film Spartacus (1960) comes to mind.

 

The film is full of historical howlers, par for the course for Hollywood. Crassus, the richest man in Rome, was not a proto-Fascist dictator. Spartacus, who is a shadowy figure because the source material is sparse (only Plutarch’s Life of Crassus and a brief section in Appian’s Civil Wars), did not simply march to the sea to escape Italy with his liberated slaves, but marauded throughout Italy, defeating several Roman consular armies in the process. There was no Senator called Gracchus, magnificently portrayed in the film by Charles Laughton, who led the opposition to Crassus, and Crassus wasn’t interested in personal dictatorship in any event during the time he put down Spartacus and his slave army.  The formations used by the legions in the battle sequences were two centuries out of date. The list of substantial factual errors in the film could go on for considerable length.

However, all that is beside the point. The film is a magnificent work of art, and it gets the atmosphere of the late Roman Republic right: old Roman morality being forgotten, a growth of decadence fueled by ever more wealth from foreign conquests, endless amounts of slaves flooding into Italy from the same foreign conquests, factions in the Senate engaging in what amounted to a cold civil war between bouts of hot civil war, the Roman Republican government teetering on the brink of military dictatorship, the movie presents all of these elements more clearly than any classroom lecture could.

 

Similarly the film Lincoln (2012) captures with preternatural accuracy both the man and his time:

 

Shakespeare in Henry V, with his magnificent poetry, brought to the Englishmen of his day the pride their ancestors had in their great warrior kings.

 

 

Next week I will report if Darkest Hour may be numbered in this august company of movies and plays that get history right.  If it does, I assure you that Churchill will be smiling in the world to come.

3

Agincourt the Battle

 

 

October 25, 1415 was an amazing day for the English.  The English longbow had long proved during the Hundred Years War to be a devastating weapon in the hands of skilled archers, but rarely had the English faced such long odds as they did at Agincourt.  Approximately 6,000 English, exhausted and worn from their march, faced approximately 30,000 French.  About five out of six of the English were archers with the remainder men-at-arms, knights and nobility.  The French had about 10,000 men-at-arms, knights and nobility, and 20,000 archers, crossbowmen and miscellaneous infantry.

 

The English established their battle line between the woods of Agincourt and Tramecourt, which offered excellent protection to both of their flanks.  The English archers made up the front line with stakes set in the ground before them to impale charging horses.  Archers were also placed in the woods to provide flanking fire against advancing French.  The men at arms and knights and nobility, were divided into three forces behind the archers.  They fought on foot.

The terrain between the woods that the French would have to cross in their attack of the English consisted of newly ploughed, and very muddy, fields.  Having walked through muddy fields on several occasions in rural Illinois, I can attest that simply getting from point A to point B in such terrain can be exhausting, let alone fighting at the end of the tramp through the morass. Continue Reading

3

Death of Henry V

Henry-V-effigy-head-72-Westminster-Abbey-copyright

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry’s death!
King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long!
England ne’er lost a king of so much worth.

John Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, Henry VI, Act 1, Scene 1

 

Henry was too famous to live long?  In any event, he did not.  At the age of 35, during his siege of Meaux, he contracted dysentery, always the greatest killer of soldiers before the last century.  He lingered for three weeks before dying in the small hours before dawn of September 1, 1422.  By the standards of his devout age he was judged quite pious in his observation of the Faith.  He was liberal in his alms to the poor and ever gave an attentive ear to the cries for justice of the weak.

He had suppressed Lollardy, his age doubtless viewing the concept of freedom of religion as strange as we would someone asserting a freedom to sell tainted milk or moldy bread.  The overwhelming majority of people in Western Europe were Catholic, which they were certain was the True Faith.  Anyone trying to promulgate another version of Christianity was regarded by those same people as a dangerous purveyor of false and dangerous beliefs that would lead people to Hell.

On his deathbed he expressed only one regret, that he had not achieved his life’s goal of leading a Crusade to redeem Jerusalem. Continue Reading

2

God for Harry, England and Saint George

 

The Saint Crispin’s speech gets most of the attention in Henry V, but I also always admired the “unto the breach” speech.  The performance of it by Jamie Parker, love his interaction with the audience, is the way the speech should be delivered:  a full throated rallying cry:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man,
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger:
Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage:
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let it pry through the portage of the head,
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide;
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English,
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought,
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument.
Dishonour not your mothers: now attest,
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture: let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit; and upon this charge,
Cry ‘God for Harry! England! and Saint George!’

1

Jane Austen on Henry V

henry-austen

 

 

When she was fifteen Jane Austen wrote a satirical history of England.  Here is her passage on Henry V and his son:

 

Henry the 5th 

This Prince after he succeeded to the throne grew quite reformed and amiable, forsaking all his dissipated Companions, & never thrashing Sir William again. During his reign, Lord Cobham was burnt alive, but I forget what for. His Majesty then turned his thoughts to France, where he went & fought the famous Battle of Agincourt. He afterwards married the King’s daughter Catherine, a very agreeable Woman by Shakespear’s account. Inspite of all this however, he died, and was succeeded by his son Henry.

Henry the 6th

I cannot say much for this Monarch’s sense. Nor would I if I could, for he was a Lancastrian. I suppose you know all about the Wars between him & the Duke of York who was of the right side; if you do not, you had better read some other History, for I shall not be very diffuse in this, meaning by it only to vent my Spleen against, & shew my Hatred to all those people whose parties or principles do not suit with mine, & not to give information. This King married Margaret of Anjou, a Woman whose distresses & misfortunes were so great as almost to make me who hate her, pity her. It was in this reign that Joan of Arc lived & made such a row among the English. They should not have burnt her – but they did.  Continue Reading

Holigost

 

After six centuries one would think that nothing about the Agincourt campaign could still be “news”, but a discovery just this month demonstrates that this assumption would be erroneous:

 

The wreck of Henry V’s warship the Holigost has been found buried deep in the mud of a Hampshire river after being lost for hundreds of years.

The flagship of the Duke of Bedford was the second of four ‘great ships’ built for Henry’s campaign against the French in the Hundred Years War, and joined the fleet just a month after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

It was spotted by historian Dr Ian Friel while studying aerial pictures of a medieval breaker’s yard at Burseldon on the River Hamble where Henry’s own flagship The Grace Dieu had been found in the 1930s. A subsequent search through records from the time revealed that the Holigost had indeed been laid up at the site.

Now Historic England is to launch a large scale archaeological investigation into the warship which played a crucial role in two battles which broke French naval power and enabled Henry to conquer France in the early 15th century.

 

Continue Reading

5

Henry V, Shakespeare and Just War

Five hundred years ago Henry V and his army won an amazing victory over a French army that heavily outnumbered his.  Shakespeare in deathless language has ensured that this victory will be indeed remembered until the ending of the world.  It was a brilliant victory, but was it won in a just cause?

 

In answering the question we must first examine how the formulation of the Just War doctrine has changed from the time of Henry V to our time.

Over the centuries the precise content of the just war doctrine has varied.  The classic definition of it by Saint Thomas Aquinas is set forth in Part II, Question 40 of his Summa Theologica:

“I answer that, In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. Moreover it is not the business of a private individual to summon together the people, which has to be done in wartime. And as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them. And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers, according to the words of the Apostle (Rm. 13:4): “He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil”; so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies. Hence it is said to those who are in authority (Ps. 81:4): “Rescue the poor: and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner”; and for this reason Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 75): “The natural order conducive to peace among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority.”

Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says (De Verb. Dom. [*The words quoted are to be found not in St. Augustine’s works, but Can. Apud. Caus. xxiii, qu. 1]): “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.” Continue Reading

2

600 Years Since Agincourt

Riding a small, grey pony – a page leading a great war-horse behind him – he rode up and down the line in front of his troops. His eve-of-battle speech struck a familiar note – he “was come into France to recover his lawful inheritance and that he had good and just cause to claim it”. He warned the archers that the French had sworn to cut three fingers off the right hand of every English bowman captured. “Sirs and fellows,” he promised his army, “as I am true king and knight, for me this day shall never England ransom pay.” When he had finished they shouted back, “Sir, we pray God give you a good life and the victory over your enemies!”

Contemporary account by an anonymous chaplain of Henry V at the battle of Agincourt.

 

 

 

 

 

This Sunday, October 25, 2015, will be the six hundredth anniversary of Agincourt and we will give it a fitting remembrance here at The American Catholic.

WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

KING. What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin, Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
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.

 

8

598 Years Since Agincourt

We are in God’s hand, brother, not in theirs.

King Henry V

The anniversary of the long ago battle of Saint Crispin’s Day gives us yet another opportunity to recall the immortal “Band of Borthers Speech” that Shakespeare put into the mouth of Henry V, a speech that could put fight into a dog dead three days, or, mirabile dictu, even a live Congress Critter:

WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here

    But one ten thousand of those men in England      

That do no work to-day!

  KING. What’s he that wishes so?

    My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;      

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow

    To do our country loss; and if to live,

    The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

    God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more. Continue Reading

4

Agincourt

 

Something for the weekend.  Agincourt by the ever talented folks at History for Music Lovers, to the tune of As Tears Go By, by Marianne Faithful.

October 25, 1415 was an amazing day for the English.  The English longbow had long proved in the Hundred Years War to be a devastating weapon in the hands of skilled archers, but rarely had the English faced such long odds as they did at Agincourt.  Approximately 6,000 English, exhausted and worn from their march, faced approximately 30,000 French.  About five out of six of the English were archers with the remainder men-at-arms, knights and nobility.  The French had about 10,000 men-at-arms, knights and nobility, and 20,000 archers, crossbowmen and miscellaneous infantry.

The English established their battle line between the woods of Agincourt and Tramecourt, which offered excellent protection to both of their flanks.  The English archers made up the front line with stakes set in the ground before them to impale charging horses.  Archers were also placed in the woods to provide flanking fire against advancing French.  The men at arms and knights and nobility, were divided into three forces behind the archers.  They fought on foot.

The terrain between the woods that the French would have to cross in their attack of the English consisted of newly ploughed, and very muddy, fields.  Having walked through muddy fields on several occasions in rural Illinois, I can attest that simply getting from point A to point B in such terrain can be exhausting, let alone fighting at the end of the tramp through the morass. Continue Reading

10

Henry V, Shakespeare and Just War

In the comments to  my post last week, Henry V Times Four, which may be viewed here, and which had four versions of the immortal “band of brothers” speech, commenter Centinel posed a very interesting question to me:

Mr. McClarey,

I’ve come to respect your knowledge of history and your insights. I just wanted to get your honest opinion on oneissue. As I understand it, Catholic doctrine would say that wars of aggression are not justified (most of the time). Though I enjoy Shakespeare’s plays, it bothers me that Henry V was fighting a war of aggression – hence, an unjust war.

From Henry V’s point of view, the war was about his (legitimate?) claim to the French throne. But from the point of view of the French peasantry, whichever dynasty sat on the French thronedid not really make any difference in their lives. They were merely caught in the middle; the longer the war lasted, the greater the collateral damage to French civilians. Besides, Henry V already had the Kingdom of England. Hence, it was just pure greed driving Henry V to claim the French throne.

I would appreciate your opinion on this.

My response:

Centinel thank you for very kind words and for inspiring a forthcoming post! The more I thought about your question the more complicated my answer became and only a post length reply, which I will attempt to do in the next week, will do it justice. The short answer is that Henry V, by the just war analysis of his day, had a defensible claim to be fighting a just war, while under the just war analysis of our day his war would be unjust. However, there is much more to say than that, and I will attempt to do this intriguing question justice in my forthcoming post.

In answering the question we must first examine how the formulation of the Just War doctrine has changed from the time of Henry V to our time. Continue Reading

3

October 25, 1415

WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
    But one ten thousand of those men in England
    That do no work to-day!
 
KING. What’s he that wishes so?
    My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
    If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
    To do our country loss; and if to live,
    The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
    God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
    By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
    Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
    It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
    Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
    But if it be a sin to covet honour,
    I am the most offending soul alive. Continue Reading