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Remembrance of Things Passed 

What if a movie is perfectly easy to see, yet something we once saw in it is no longer there

Thursday, Aug 25 2005
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The Criterion Collection
This really happened. Laurence Olivier’s Henry V was an enormous emotional event as it opened in Britain in the spring of 1945. It was the most expensive film ever made in that war-torn nation. It cost nearly half a million pounds, and the ambitious producer, Filipp De Giudice, had been widely mocked for entrusting so much to a first-time director. But Olivier was inspired: You can still feel that, and see it in his wide, dangerous eyes — he is a king supposedly defeating an old enemy, the French, yet he could be a Napoleon (or worse), embarking on conquests. You see, it’s a film about victory, and no doubts or historical realities got in the way of that glorious attitude in the spring of 1945. Henry speaks of the vital defense of England, but the fighting is in France. It doesn’t quite fit.

I was four that spring, and my father had announced that I should see Henry V. I’m sure my mother had voiced some wonderings about all that verse, the Shakespearean talk. So it says something about my father’s love of movies, even his love for me, that I deserved it. It may have been the first film I saw.

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Why should you trust anything I think I recall of such an event? Yet I know the theater was packed and full of smoke; so it was natural enough that I was on my father’s lap, being talked through the film, and occasionally bumping against his hot pipe. I know I could not understand why, with all the talk of tennis balls, there was no tennis played. I recall a quickening as the film moved to the emerald fields of Technicolor — it was Ireland, I learned later, not the grayer ground of Agincourt. But then, as that battle swayed back and forth, it happened: I knew I had seen the faces of sleeping children burning. I screamed out at such a thing, and I had to be taken from the theater in tears. I believe my mother took me, so that my father could see the rest of the picture.

Now, in 1945, the cinema (I mean the entire enterprise) would not have thought of showing faces on fire. Today, it’s a different matter. Somehow, we have become cool about such things, or flame-resistant. Perhaps it’s just that we don’t care. Anyway, my mother explained to me that I had seen something that was not there. I was not yet hip enough to tell my mother that that might be poetry, or subtext or inwardness. So I accepted that I had been wrong, even if I could not erase the terror, or the imagery itself, from my mind. After all, you don’t need to have seen something to believe it, do you?

Well, years passed, and I was probably 12 or so when my school arranged a showing of Henry V — for educational reasons, to help introduce the boys to Shakespeare, and so on. Naturally, I was interested in re-encountering the film. I may even have been a little fearful, though in my early years in the dark, I had had to be taken out of other films in tears, too — from Scott of the Antarctic, I recall, when one of the polar explorers seemed to vomit his wretched dinner.

Of course, at that 1953 screening, my mother proved to be correct. There was no such image like the one I knew I had seen. But there was the incident where the French turn in spite on the English camp, and set fire to it. And it is implicit that some sleeping pageboys are killed — burned — in that fire. But it was tastefully done, and I could see now that my childish imagination had simply been “on fire.” Case settled, I thought, although at 12 I knew that I was beginning to be stirred by something in movies beyond the literal happening, or what you could find if you examined every frame of the celluloid strip with a magnifying glass. I didn’t call it poetry or anything like that yet, but I know only a couple of years later, on first seeing Citizen Kane, I felt aware that that film’s studious use of slow dissolves (just one of its pioneering ways) was drawing my feelings towards a kind of swamp where different shots of separate things came together like lovers.


Now suppose that 40 more years pass. I am living in San Francisco with my wife and our young son, Nicholas. He is an early devotee of videotapes, and I realize that — though he is only 4 — I am trying him out on things like Henry V. “Will he understand the language?” my wife asks. So, I am pragmatic: I fast-forward to the knights in armor and the battle, and he is content. Until one day, he comes out of the living room into the next room where I am working — I can hear the soundtrack, the rush of arrows in the air and the William Walton music — and he is in tears. He has seen a terrible thing. I ask him what it is. I take him on my knee. And amid sobs he tells me that he has seen children burning.

I know, it is a small story, and I’m sure it has more to do with chance than genes. But the older I get, the more I realize that, as we return to films that moved us once, so we see different films. It must be the poetry or the neediness in burning imaginations. So I miss the age of dissolves, for I still believe that in the merger and shift of electrons, there is magic.


Editor’s note: With or without burning children, Henry V is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.

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