I enjoyed watching the new Netflix epic, The King, which celebrated the brief life of Henry V. And it wasn’t just because of Robert Pattinson’s ‘Allo ‘Allo French accent in portraying the Dauphin. What gave me the most pleasure as I watched the French cavalry fall beneath a blizzard of arrows at Agincourt was the knowledge that the film has infuriated the French.
One of their television channels has accused Henry V of being a ‘war criminal’, while Christophe Gilliot, director of the Agincourt battlefield museum, decried the film as perpetuating the myth started by Shakespeare that Henry was a gallant chap when in fact the opposite was true. ‘The image of the French has really been tarnished, the film leaves a taste of Francophobia,’ stormed Gilliot. ‘The British far right is going to welcome this. It will delight the nationalist egos over there.’
Is the film too generous to Henry? His ruthlessness is depicted several times: for example, when he gives the order after Agincourt to kill all prisoners, or when he stabs to death a helpless Harry Hotspur in a scene that is pure Hollywood fantasy. But that’s what cinema does, Monsieur Gilliot. Get over it.
As for the charge of Henry being a war criminal, that’s another example of judging the past by the mores of the modern age. There were no rules of war until the 19th century, and if Henry deserves to be in the dock then so too should most other medieval monarchs, none more so than William the Conqueror, whose ‘harrying’ [or genocide, if you prefer] of the north of England in the winter of 1069/70 caused the deaths of 150,000 men, women and children.
But if we Brits have what the French consider an unhealthy obsession with Henry V what about their infatuation with Joan of Arc? Yet another film has been released about her life this year, to go with the ones in 2017, 2012, 2011, 1999, 1994…you get the picture.
The latest one, Jeanne, received rave reviews in the French press and portrays an indomitable young woman hectoring Charles VII to wage total war against Perfidious Albion. ‘This rebellious and inflexible Jeanne, who refuses to the very end to submit to the laws of men and the church,’ purred L’Humanité in its review.
Sounds likes it delighted ‘nationalist egos’ over the Channel, and fortunately not a mention of those rumours that far from being a visionary Joan was in fact a paranoid schizophrenic.
‘Schizophrenic’ is how best to describe the way the French celebrate their Revolution. During the recent rugby World Cup, as I watched the French players blast out La Marseillaise, I suggested to a Gallic friend it might be time to find a new anthem more suited to the progressive nation championed by president Macron. Should they still be singing in 2019 ‘Let’s march, let’s march! Let an impure blood, Water our furrows!’?
He was aghast at the idea, and he was equally outraged when I suggested that having a Soviet-style military parade down the Champs-Elysées every 14 July is incongruous in this day and age. But to him, like the majority of French, the Revolution remains the proudest event in their history. Really?
So you stormed the Bastille and cut off the head of a king who ruled by divine right; and who succeeded him?
Robespierre and his totalitarian slaughter of thousands of innocents, the blood of whom watered the furrows of which the French like to sing. After Maximilien lost his head, along came another megalomaniac, Napoleon, of whom at the last count there have been twenty eight chest-thumping films. Most focus on his derring-do and not his despotism. Yet as Jonathan Fenby writes in The Modern History of France, Napoleon’s reign created a new oppressive elite. ‘While claiming to defend the revolutionary heritage,’ said Fenby, ‘Bonaparte’s meritocratic autocracy ushered in a gilded society for the new rich who amassed assets and titles.’
There’s no disputing Boney’s military genius. By 1808 he ruled half of Europe, his empire stretching from the Atlantic coast to White Russia, with 70 million people living under the French yoke. Just shows how having a tiny pecker can turn a man power-mad.
Napoleon was as vainglorious as that other lionised French leader, Charles de Gaulle, who came out top a few years ago in a TV poll to find the ‘100 Greatest French People’. Britain’s equivalent was won by Winston Churchill, who allowed de Gaulle to squat in London during the war years, although the Frenchman showed his host scant gratitude. In 1964, de Gaulle refused to attend the commemorations in Normandy to mark the twentieth anniversary of D-Day because he regarded it as “an Anglo-Saxon affair”. Not that that had prevented him declaring two months after D-Day that Paris had been ‘liberated by its people with the help of the French armies’. Talk about Anglophobic!
If Shakespeare and Netflix have been a little cavalier in mythologising Agincourt then the same can be said of De Gaulle’s sanitisation of the Second World War, such as his refusal to recognise the extent of French complicity in the Holocaust.
Jacques Chirac finally did the decent thing in 1995, and two years ago president Emmanuel Macron apologised once more in a ceremony attended by Benjamin Netanyahu. In his speech, the Israeli prime minister rightly acknowledged the ‘special heroism’ of those Frenchmen and women who had resisted the Nazi Occupation.
Netanyahu recognised the nuance of history, that a nation can be both good and bad, as can people.
Every country is guilty of simultaneously embellishing and airbrushing its heroes, like the USA and their veneration of that slave-owning slayer of Brits, George Washington. But we live in an intellectually-lite age. Our minds have become narrower thanks to social media and we are increasingly incapable of coping with the complexity of human nature, preferring to categorise people as either villainous or virtuous. Henry V was a great man who had his flaws, as were Wellington and Churchill, and Boney and de Gaulle.
So lighten up, France, because honestly the only thing criminal about The King is Henry V’s bowl cut.