We Few, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers

At 6:30AM on June 6th, 1944 — 65 years ago today — American, British and Canadian soldiers assaulted the beaches of Nazi-occupied France in the first day of the return of the land war to Western Europe in World War II. In some sectors of the 50-mile-long section of coastline chosen for the landings, defense was minimal and soldiers slogged stolidly through the surf and onto land. In others, especially the American Omaha Beach, the first waves came under a withering barrage of machine gun and mortar fire which nearly completely wiped out the first waves.

The bravery of young men in such conditions, and the fears and sadness of their loved ones back home, constitute the sort of heroism, sacrifice and tragedy which have moved human hearts from the most ancient epics until the present day.

In one of the British landing craft, an officer played for his men a phonograph recording of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V. And so it seems a fitting tribute to the bravery of all the men from throughout the English-speaking world who huddled in their boats in the terrifying minutes before battle sixty-five years ago to post this, one of the greatest martial speeches in English literature, in the rendition from Kenneth Branagh’s outstanding production.

And afterward:

4 Responses to We Few, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers

  1. Donald R. McClarey says:

    And here is Olivier’s performance of the speech from his 1944 version of Henry V. The British government supported the production of the film to raise morale, and the “extras” in the film who portrayed English soldiers were British commandoes who went on to fight in France.

  2. The Olivier and Branagh versions of Henry V strike me as one of the best pairs of Shakespearean adaptations to compare. Both are very good, though I must admit I prefer Branagh’s to Olivier’s.

    Olivier’s was made with hope of victory in WW2 in mind while Branagh had set out to make a “post-Vietnam Henry V”, and you can see it in the differences in how scenes were framed between the two productions. Branagh’s camera is always angled down, you almost never see the sky in the whole production. While Olivier’s frame always catches the sky.

    I wish I knew what recording was being played on record in the landing boat — I expect it would have sounded much more like Olivier’s rendition than Branagh’s, Olivier being the absolute top Shakespearean actor at the time.

  3. Kyle R. Cupp says:

    I prefer Branagh’s as well, even without Doyle’s marvelous score.

    Interesting note about the extras, Donald.

  4. Donna V. says:

    Prayers for the brave souls who fought and died on those beaches and for all our WWII veterans.

    I haven’t seen Branagh in anything for quite some time. What a gifted actor, with a beautiful voice. Olivier, of course, was one of the greats. A much older neighbor once told me she had the good fortune of seeing Olivier’s black-face “Othello” in London in the ’60’s and it remained the most powerful performance she had ever seen in her life.

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