I was surprised to find that I had a free Sunday afternoon in August. But I did, so I went to Netflix and browsed my considerable “To Watch” list. The King caught my eye. The trailer evoked a sense of epic-ness, with politics and war and a character undergoing a personal transformation. The King came out in 2019, but I put off watching it, because it was the kind of movie I needed to be in the right mood to see. I was in the mood. I gave it a shot.
Prince Henry (Timothee Chalamet), known to his friends as Hal, does not want to be king. He despises war and despises his father, King Henry IV (Ben Mendelson), a man who sees enemies everywhere and has plunged England into civil unrest. Once his father dies, Hal takes up the crown, vowing to be a different sort of king than his father. However, his reign is quickly tested by a series of provocative gestures from France. With his loyal friend and military advisor Sir John Falstaff (Joel Edgerton) and with the taunts of the French Dauphin (Robert Pattinson) in his ears, the young King Henry V advances to war, where his rule and his character will be put on display on the fateful field of Agincourt.
I have seen historical epics screwed up so many times. But this movie got it right. I loved The King. It was the kind of movie that seemed tailor-made for me. One of the things I most appreciated was that it didn’t attempt to women by throwing in a tedious romantic subplot. I like romance, don’t get me wrong, but Hollywood screws up it up so often that I’d rather they didn’t attempt it at all. The few women characters who did show up in The King were insightful and unique and treated with respect. Most of the movie dealt with a very masculine and male-orientated culture--and I was perfectly fine with that.
Prince Hal is initially portrayed as a drunken, debaucherous prince, the insinuation being that he is unfit to rule. The trailer asks how this foolish, immature prince can be transformed into a respectable king. However, once I started to watch the movie, I quickly understood that it was not Hal's character that was in question. Prince Hal’s revelries are portrayed as a reaction to the violence that permeates Medieval Society. In these times, lords and princes did not stay cloistered in their castles; they fought and killed, in the battlefield, in the most intimate sort of way--Hal, included. Hal’s drinking is a kind of protest against his father’s rule, against the pointless death and killing, and against society itself. The old king calls Hal sickly and weak, and yet he turns out to be a damn good fighter. The nobles think he is shirking his responsibilities, and yet Hal will intervene when he deems it important. The problem is not Hal’s character; the problem is society. Society not only perceives Hal wrongly, it is, in fact, sick. Pointless feuds and violence are destroying the souls of its men, Hal’s included.
As much as I was enjoyed Hal and his journey, my favorite character was, hands down, his loyal friend, Sir John Falstaff. Falstaff, more so than Hal, plays the role of a drunken fool, but he has an inner strength and wisdom born of hard-won experience. Falstaff has shades of Uncle Iroh, from Avatar: the Last Airbender, which I say with the highest respect, because Iroh is one of the few characters I not only love, but aspire to be. The beating heart of The King is the relationship between Hal and Falstaff, and I would absolutely take their friendship over any contrived and shallow romance.
The first half hour of The King is a lead-up to Hal becoming king, and it serves to inoculate the audience into Medieval society. Some people may find this slow, but I was fascinated by this glimpse into a very different culture; it reminded me of why I loved history. I did have a bit of trouble understanding dialogue, which could be due to the sound quality on my TV. I remedied this by turning on the subtitles. The dialogue, by the way, is peppered with modern curse words, but on the whole, I think it did a good job of giving us the flavor of the era while still being relatable. The King felt Shakespearean but translated for a modern audience.
Once Prince Hal becomes King Henry V, the plot builds to the Battle of Agincourt. Now, I don’t consider this a spoiler, because The King is historical fiction, and so it seems fairly obvious that the event that made a famous person famous is going to be addressed. But if you are sensitive to spoilers, I will make it now known that I will be discussing an event that takes place toward the end of the movie.
Most people, I think, would either know British Medieval history and realize that the Battle of Agincourt took place during King Henry V’s reign or else have no knowledge whatsoever about this time in history, and therefore have not the slightest idea of what Agincourt signified. I have to be one of the few people that knew about the Battle of Agincourt without connecting it to Henry V. And the reason for this is that I studied battles while writing my epic fantasy, The Changelings. Agincourt was one of those big, big battles that changed the world, so I tried very hard to understand the mechanics of what was going on, while having very little clue as to the context.
The King gave me context. First, it showed the political events leading up to the declaration of war. Then is showed the war campaign. It laid out the stakes as to why the battle was important for both sides involved. It explained the strategy. And finally, it showed the actual battle, in which all the rhetoric and strategy broke down to a brutal mob fight in the mud. And I know as I write this, it sounds boring, but it wasn’t. It was clear! Finally, finally I understood what was going on. I’ve studied history, and it is confusing, and so to have a moment of clarity was wonderful! And, by the way, the combat was exciting and accurate. At least, it seemed accurate to me, the girl who had no idea that the Battle of Agincourt took place during the reign of King Henry V.
Although the movie is very good at explaining battles, it is, at heart, a character study. King Henry V begins his reign vehemently against war, yet oversees and personally fights in one of the most famous battles of all time. How did this happen? How did an idealistic prince become a war-hardened king? The King shows his journey. The very end contains a plot twist which, although the audience might see it coming, shocks Henry to the core and made me contemplate the nature of history and how we perceive it.
(Warning: Spoilers! I am going to talk about the very end of the movie.)
Why exactly is the Battle of Agincourt so important in world history? As an American with very little knowledge of British or even world history, I couldn’t explain it. But at the very end of The King, Hal realizes the answer--it wasn’t. The strategy and the tactics were novel and would help to change the way battles were fought. But Agincourt was simply one more violent row in an ongoing feud between France and Britain. Hal thinks France had provoked the war; he learns that his own advisor orchestrated those provocations, out of some vague ideal of English unity and a very practical desire for French land.
Hal wants to steer England on a different course than his father. Instead, he fulfills his father’s greatest ambition. He wants to be different, but the only difference is his effectiveness. He sacrifices his ideals--for nothing. He personally executes his cousin and loses his one true friend--for nothing. He has the blood of English and French men on his hands--for nothing. Agincourt is the crowning achievement for King Henry V, but for Hal, it is surely the pinnacle of failure. By being king, he thought to change society, but instead society changes him.
The movie ends with this realization. We don’t really know what King Henry V will do with this knowledge. Will he return to his earlier ideals? Will he give in to the pressures of society? Will he continue to try to change the culture or will he cave and give in to it? I don’t really know. And while I suppose I could look it up, I am content not knowing. The point is not whether this historical figure acted in one way or another. The point is how you will act. When you realize that you have been pressured and manipulated into acting against your own beliefs, what will you do about it?
It also forces me to contemplate the history we learn and the history we celebrate as part of our culture. Everyone likes to feel we “won” at something, but do we ever bother to dig deeper into what we fought for and what it cost to win? Do we even know if something is a victory or a failure? Are the victories we celebrate, in fact, massive failures? Will history show them to be failures down the line? Do we force a meaning onto events because we can’t bear to think that something so big and costly was, in fact, a waste of time? Are we capable of learning from history, if what we are taught is myth and illusion?
I know, when I was younger, I could not bear to stare too hard into the darkness of history. It was too much. I wanted to know the good things about it, so I could feel good about myself. And I still think it is important to find good things. But I also think it’s important to understand events, to look at them clearly and honestly, and, at times, to question history and not just slavishly accept the narrative told to us. I'm still learning, of course. The King reminded me of the importance of history and the importance of questioning it.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.