Sunday, April 04, 2010


Most of my knowledge of British history ("Cromwell, Robin Hood, Jack the Ripper," to quote Katharine Hepburn in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY) comes from the movies. Here's what this movie--more focused and detailed than Charles Laughton's earlier film about the monarch--tells me about the early years of Henry VIII (Richard Burton): He was forced into a politically advantageous marriage with the Spanish Catherine of Aragon; she bears him a daughter but no sons (they are all stillborn), and the main motivational force in his life seems to the desire for a male heir. Though he has adulterous affairs, any progeny from those would be "bastards" and not eligible for the throne. When he tires of his latest mistress, Mary Boleyn, he chases after her younger sister Anne (Genevieve Bujold); she gives him a hard time but Henry wears her down until she finally agrees to have sex with him if he can get a divorce from Catherine and marry her--so that her children will be legitimate. Of course, the Pope isn't happy about the divorce, and when Cardinal Wolsey (Anthony Qualye) can't broker a deal, Henry's sly advisor Cromwell (John Colicos) talks the King into splitting with Rome and essentially starting a whole new church, all for the sake of a potential male heir. Henry marries Anne (whom the people consider not a real queen but an ambitious whore) and they're happy for a short time, but when she bears him a daughter and then a stillborn son, the handwriting is on the wall--the thousand days of the title is how long she was Queen.

For better or worse, they don't make movies like this anymore. It's typical of the 50's and 60's Hollywood historical epic in that it has lots of public pomp, private scandal, colorful costumes, and elaborate sets, and has a bloated running time (at 145 minutes, it should be no longer than 2 hours). But this is a notch above the average, mostly due to fine acting all around. Burton would seem to have been born to play Henry, and he actually underplays the role a bit, which is all to the good. He's a rogue and a bastard, but he comes off as a flesh-and-blood person. The lovely Bujold, in her first starring role, is every bit Burton's equal; her only weak moment is when she suddenly professes to be honestly in love with Henry, and that is the fault of the writers (it's based on a Maxwell Anderson play). Just as good are Quayle as Wolsey (though he gets sick and dies offscreen halfway through) and Colicos as Cromwell--early on, they function together almost as a Greek chorus, providing commentary and foreshadowing. For its day, just a couple of years after the end of the Production Code, it has some surprisingly frank dialogue about adultery, incest, and sexual behavior. It's also lovely to look at. I guess I developed a taste for this kind of movie after having seen A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS in a theater when I was 11--and in fact, Thomas More, the subject of that movie, is a minor character here. Nowadays, this kind of movie would have less attention to detail and a murky colorless look, so all the more reason to enjoy the gorgeous print on the current Universal DVD.

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