But it was actually 1989’s groundbreaking “Henry V,” written by William Shakespeare and directed (and starred in) by Kenneth Branagh, that kicked off the genre. It introduced medieval mud battles—the now, oh-so-familiar legions of thundering horse hooves churning up muck, with flaming arrows whistling overhead, and acres of muddy, primal battle gore. (Actually, it was Monty Python’s “Jabberwocky” and “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” that truly put the sheer, massive amounts of mud that humans dealt with in the Middle Ages on the screen.)
Netflix did a mud movie just last year, “Outlaw King,” more or less a “Braveheart” retelling from the perspective of Sir Robert the Bruce. This year, with “The King,” we’ve finally come full circle—back to the “Henry V” story, where the British boy-king Henry V (Timothée Chalamet) goes up against the French Dauphin (Robert Pattinson) for control of 15th-century France.
So it’s more or less a medley of the Shakespearean “Henriad”—that is: Richard II, Henry IV (Part 1), Henry IV (Part 2), and Henry V—co-rewritten by Aussie actor Joel Edgerton (who plays Falstaff), and who specializes in playing warriors. It’s co-written and directed by Aussie director David Michôd.
And Brad Pitt produces.
So word-wise, it’s sort of Shakespeare lite, but Pitt’s got good taste in movies touting manliness (“Fight Club,” “Troy”) and, um, motorcycles. And the star of this movie, Timothée Chalamet, may be the best actor of his generation, so “The King” has some heft. If you like manly, muddy, medieval war movies—it’s a must-see.
Chalamet has done this transition before, from innocent to mature and jaded, most recently in “Hot Summer Nights,” where he morphed, in one summer’s time, from a moody, shy, innocent boy into a cutthroat, highly effective drug dealer.
Here, he’s young Prince Hal, the prodigal son of brutal, ambitious King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn). Chalamet turns in a rather millennial Hal; he’s no bawdy lad, but delicate, like some chiaroscuro painting of a languid satyr, with pale skin and dark locks, but with a voracious appetite for the ladies, and more of a humanitarian core compared to his father’s land-grabbing politics. Hal has no interest in ruling Merry England.
That is, until dad falls ill and dies in the sobering way that people did in the Middle Ages—fast—but not before handing the keys to the kingdom to Hal’s younger brother Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman). This leads to the rebellion of Harry Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney), which finally rouses Hal, who, seeking to shield his little brother, kills hotheaded Hotspur in single combat, sparing the armies—and grabs the crown.
In Branagh’s “Henry V,” Hal’s drinking buddy Falstaff is the linchpin of Hal’s explosive transition from wastrel and naif to ruthless, full-blown, power-wielding king: Hal has Falstaff hanged. Not here. This is some serious rewriting, since even in Shakespeare’s original, Falstaff dies. Here, Falstaff is kept on as counselor, aide-de-camp, and surrogate dad.
As king, the newly appointed Henry receives gifts from other kings and countries, elaborate ones with flowery notes. The king of France, though, sends a primitive leather ball—a child’s plaything (with nary so much as written word) that Henry V’s wisemen interpret as an insult and a challenge to war. Next, a French assassin is apprehended. Henry’s got no choice: He must go and put the smackdown on France forthwith.
But before the battles kick off, Henry meets the French Dauphin (the eldest son of the king of France) in a tent at night, for some kingly trash talk. Robert Pattinson (of the “Twilight” vampire series), wielding a theatrical yet highly accurate French accent, utterly hijacks this scene, excoriating the young English king with barbed witticisms and later backing up his threats with some bloodcurdling butchery of children that one would really prefer to un-see. That said, it does prime the audience’s revenge lust. And the payoff is considerable.
Cue the hyper-muddy Battle of Agincourt. Hacking, whacking, crunching, clanging, bow-twanging, thumping, excellent trebuchet-whanging of great gobs of flaming what’s-its (I’m guessing boulders wrapped in cloth, slathered with pitch, and set on fire), dying horses, groaning men … and everywhere is mud.
Post-mud, there’s a fine scene of the beauteous Lily-Rose Depp (daughter of Johnny) as Catherine of Valois, the French king’s daughter, who’s to be given to Henry to unite the countries in conciliatory fashion. She insists he win her; she won’t simply submit, and she speaks truth to power admirably.
Why did you start this war?
They sent me a ball.
They. Sent. You. A. Ball …???!!
In addition to Chalamet’s Midas touch in demoing a blistering boyhood-to-manhood rite of passage, and Edgerton’s workmanly aide-de-camp Falstaff, and Miss Depp’s giving notice that she’s here to stay, and Pattinson’s fireworks—there’s also an excellent turn by Sean Harris as courtly adviser William Gascoigne, steering the fledgling king and, in doing so, attempting to attach some marionette strings to Henry’s sleeves. It’s a ploy that eventually backfires vehemently.
If you’re a traditionalist and find the concept of rewritten Shakespeare into Shakespeare lite an abomination, I’d have to agree from a conceptual point of view. However—it works. There may be no “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead.” Nobody can mess with (as Joni Mitchell calls him) “Willy the Shake.”
But—I don’t know about you, but any time some actor gets on a horse and starts riding up and down in front of a ragtag army of extras playing starving patriots ready to lay down their lives, and starts yelling “Freedom!!” I start bawling. Suffice it to say, if you feel patriotic mud battles in your bones, you will find “The King” most satisfying.
In closing, the medieval mud movies remind us that without our modern conveniences, human existence is a muddy existence. Without air conditioning, central heating, and bug spray, humans boiled in the summer, froze in the winter, and got eaten alive by bugs. And always there was mud.
Director: David Michôd
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Robert Pattinson, Lily-Rose Depp, Sean Harris, Ben Mendelsohn, Dean-Charles Chapman, Tom Glynn-Carney, Thomasin McKenzie, Andrew Havill, Edward Ashley, Tara Fitzgerald
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 1
Rated: 4 stars out of 5