Riches of Clare: Laurence Olivier Letter

Clare Champion, Friday, December 6, 2002

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the county's history over 6,000 years using authentic artifacts. In the latest article examining the artifacts, curator John Rattigan writes about a letter penned by Laurence Olivier to a Clarecastle man…

In 1943 at the height of the WW2, Laurence Olivier starred in and directed the film classic "Henry V".

Shot in Ireland and based upon the Shakespearean play set during the 100 Years War between England and France, Henry V was Olivier's directorial debut. By the 1990's, the Irish Government provided tax incentives to encourage Hollywood studios to use Ireland as a location for film-making. As a result, blockbusters such as Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan were shot on location here. However, in 1943, no such tax incentives existed. Ireland was chosen as the location for Henry V as wartime Britain was by then resembling an armed camp and the wide open spaces required for many of the battle scenes were simply not available in the United Kingdom.

In common with the two recent Hollywood movies, Henry V had a central battle scene. The Battle of Agincourt required a large number of extras and the Irish Local Defence Forces (LDF) provided the extras for the infantry. For the cavalry requirement, men with experience of horses were particularly sought after and one of these extras was John (Jack) Mc Namara from Patrick Street, Clarecastle. The two and a half hour film reached its climax with the 15 minute Battle of Agincourt scene, which cost £80,000.

After filming, which took place at Powerscourt, County Wicklow, Laurence Olivier wrote to John Mc Namara from studios in Powerscourt to thank him for his services. Dated 23 July, 1943, Olivier wrote, "I am so pleased to take this opportunity of thanking you most gratefully for your fine work for "Henry V". It had been a great joy to work with such fine men and such grand sportsmen as you and indeed all the horsemen have been. I hope too that we shall have a chance of meeting and perhaps working together again one day".

Laurence Olivier was one of the greatest Shakespearean stage and film actors and directors. He appeared in his first film, The Temporary Widow, in 1930 and quickly became typecast as an innocent hero. His performances on stage in Shakespearean roles cemented his reputation as an intense actor but then the outbreak of war interrupted his career. Olivier spent his time promoting the sale of war bonds. When the Allied victory seemed assured. Olivier returned to films and began preparations for the making of Henry V.

The British government gave its permission for the project because of its patriotic theme. It reminded Britons of a past glorious victory against a European enemy at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The blatant propaganda agenda behind Henry V is underscored by a dedication at the beginning of the film, "To the commandos and airborne troops of Great Britain, the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture in some ensuing scenes, this film is dedicated".

To this end the film was a success. Its release coincided with the Allied Invasion of Europe in 1944 and the film proved very popular. The propaganda power of Henry V did not distract from the standard of Olivier's direction and acting in this film - Henry V is a classic. He won an Outstanding Achievement Award for his direction of this film at the 1947 Academy Awards and was also nominated for Best Actor. The typed letter Olivier, has been donated to Clare Museum by Mc Namara's daughter Nora Healy.

As the letter acknowledges, we should not forget the small but important contribution made by John Mc Namara of Clarecastle in Henry V, the first successful Shakespearean film ever made.

See Letter from Laurence Olivier

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