Sunday, January 27, 2019

Vital Viewing (Anglo-Saxon Cinematic Chronicle Edition)

I know at times this blog can be pretty America-centric, or, if you want to be technical about it, United States-centric ("America" is more like the nation's nickname.) What can I say? My Polish, Slovak, Hungarian, and Irish ancestors chose to settle here rather than in, say, Greenland. I mean, this country is my birthplace, my homeland, my reference point, the reason I speak English--

Wait a second. English? But I'm not English, I'm American. Except there's no American or United States language to speak of, so English it is. And if I'm going to do a post about a foreign country, why not use my own vocabulary as a starting point and make it about England? Or Britain. Or Great Britain. Or Britannia. Or the British Isles. Or the United Kingdom. (See how good my English vocabulary is? I know all the names!)

More specifically, this post is about British history. Even more specifically, this post is about British history as it's been portrayed in motion pictures. I've always found movies (as well as PBS miniseries) that take place during some part of Britain's long history interesting. Of course, there's been dozens, even hundreds, made both in Hollywood and Britain itself (as well as made in Britain and financed in Hollywood--and vice-versa), but due to time constraints--mine and yours--I'm going to focus on just three very good ones that taken together cover almost a millennia. And I'll throw in a little historical research of my own to set up each clip.    

 The serious-looking dude pictured above is Sir Thomas More, Lord High Chancellor of England (among other duties, he was in charge of the country's judiciary) during the reign of King Henry VIII. Well, he didn't hold that position during the entire reign, as he was forced to resign. Here's what happened. Henry's wife Catherine of Aragon couldn't give him a male heir, thus raising the prospect of a war of succession once the monarch died. So Henry, who was Roman Catholic, as was most everyone else in England at the time, asked the Pope to grant him a divorce. The Pope refused, so Henry went and started his very own religion, the Church of England (Episcopalians belong to the American branch.) More was against all this, and refused to sign an Oath of Supremacy stating that a king doesn't have to defer to a Pope in matters of faith, especially holy matrimony. More's refusal to say one thing and think another was turned into a play titled A Man for All Seasons in 1960 by British writer Robert Bolt that had successful runs in both the West End and on Broadway. It was turned into a 1966 movie directed by Fred Zinneman (From Here to Eternity, High Noon), with a screenplay by the playwright. Bolt doesn't necessarily declare More the greatest or most noble person who ever lived, and presents whatever criticisms that he has through the views of More's exasperated family and friends as he steadily descends into a self-contradictory martyrdom  (More agrees that the then-Pope was little more than a unprincipled shill for the Holy Roman Emperor, but supports him anyway, thinking the Bible leaves him no other choice.) However, Bolt does appreciate and sympathize with More's basic dilemma: how to be true to oneself without bringing ruin down on oneself, and that's really what A Man for All Seasons is all about. More isn't trying to overthrow the King or prevent the King from doing what he has his mind set on doing. More just doesn't want to pretend to agree with it. That's not too much to ask, is it? (Yes, as it turns out.)  Bolt also puts into More's mouth several stirring speeches about the Rule of Law that play well in these increasingly corrupt times. Such as in the following scene. More (Paul Scofield in an Oscar-winning performance) has just let a man who may (and in fact does) represent a threat leave his house, much to the astonishment of his wife (Wendy Hiller), daughter (Susannah York), and daughter's suitor (Corin Redgrave) :    


While More was defending the rule of law, new laws were being passed making it a crime to disagree with the King (played in the film by Robert Shaw.) More's disagreements were never stated outright, but just assumed by his unwillingness to sign or take various oaths. He refused to attend the coronation of Anne Boleyn (played by Corin's sister Vanessa) as Queen, and refused to sign the Oath of Succession, acknowledging any children Boleyn should have (a daughter, eventually) as a rightful heir to the throne. The latter was the last thing More refused, not due to any change of heart but because he was arrested and thrown into the Tower of London. He was found guilty of treason, and beheaded in 1535. It wasn't much consolation to his friends or family who by then were long gone, but in 1935, the Vatican, still smarting from the loss of one of Europe's most prominent nation-states, made More a saint, and in 2000 Pope John Paul II declared him the patron saint of statesmen and politicians. Pray to him the next time Trump tweets.

Now, for our next British history film, let us go back in time about 400 years to the 12th century and...

...Eleanor of Aquitaine. Aquitaine is actually a region of France, where Eleanor was from originally. In fact, she was queen consort of France for a while, and actually participated in the Second Crusade. But her marriage to King Louis VII was doomed for a variety of reasons, including an inability to give him a male heir (that again), her unpopularity with some of the barons of France, and the fact that she didn't seem to like Louis all that much. So they divorced, Louis got the kids, and Eleanor got land, a lot of land, that, as the Duchess of Aquitaine, had been hers originally. In fact, these lands made her quite a catch.  More than that, it made her a potential kidnapping victim, as that was a not uncommon form of marriage proposal back in the 12th century  (and you think male privilege is bad now.) This is where British history comes in. To protect herself, Eleanor married Henry II, soon-to-be King of England. Now, Henry had one of British history's more interesting reigns. I almost chose another film about him concerning Thomas à Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, of whose murder Henry may been complicit. It seems Henry and Becket disagreed on the limits of papal authority (wasn't I just talking about that?) But the film I chose instead deals with Henry and Eleanor's children, two of whom went on to become king, the Crusades-happy Richard the Lionhearted, and John II, who, under duress, issued the Magna Carta, which started England (and eventually its offshoot, the United States) on the long and winding road to democracy. However, 1968's The Lion in Winter, based on James Goldman's Broadway play (though, unlike A Man for All Seasons, this one closed early), takes place before all that. If Henry VIII's problems arose because of the lack of a male heir, Henry II (played in the film by Peter O'Toole) had far too many, and that proved a problem. One son, also named Henry, led a revolt against him! For some odd reason, he was made king while his father was still alive, and still king himself, but in name only. Henry the Younger wanted more than just a title, and that's where the trouble started. Eleanor supported her son's revolt, which turned out to be the wrong side of the revolt, and spent the next 16 years in prison. She did sometimes get a holiday furlough, and that's starts this movie off. The film opens with Katherine Hepburn, as Eleanor, returning to Henry's French getaway (originally the estranged wife's getaway.) The son that had revolted was now dead from dysentery, a common battlefield ailment throughout most of recorded history (even as recent as World War II), and that left Richard and John in competition for the kingdom, even though the guy who it belonged to was still alive! Eleanor supports Richard, Henry supports John, and that forms the basis of the plot. I should say plots, counter-plots, and general skullduggery, not all of it historical in nature, but given the dog-eat-dog nature of medieval politics, is hardly out of place. Also, in this version of history, Richard is gay. Actually, that's the subject of much debate among non-Hollywood historians (LGBTQ scholars likely finding it more believable than those who may feel history and homosexuality are mutually exclusive terms.)  What's missing from A Lion in Winter, missing from the movie (though not the stage) version of A Man for All Seasons, missing from most movies about royalty, missing from most movies about any kind of leader, even a democratically elected one, are the people the rulers, and would-be rulers, want to rule over. At best, they're afterthoughts. But that's not so surprising. As anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and, yes, historians, have long known, rank is everything, even if one doesn't much care for the responsibilities that come with rank. In the following scene, it's the loss of rank that's got Eleanor bummed:    


 She might as well be singing, nobody knows the troubles I've seen...

The movie ends with Eleanore on her way back to the pokey. But it's not the end of her life. After Henry II died, Richard the Lionhearted, who won the succession battle, sprung her from prison, and she actually ruled England while her son was off fighting a Crusade. When Richard was kidnapped by the Holy Roman Emperor on his way back (as chronicled in Ivanhoe and numerous Robin Hood movies), she helped raise the ransom and negotiate his release.  She survived Richard, and lived well into the reign of her other monarch-son, John. When she was almost 80, she became a prisoner of a war between England and France (royals in one country owning so much property in another is bound to cause tensions.) This time it was John's turn to spring her from prison, which he did with help from his army. Eleanore eventually retired to, of all places, a convent in France, Fontevraud Abbey. She took the vows and died a nun. After her death, she was entombed next to her estranged husband on the Fontevraud grounds. No longer an abbey today but instead a tourist attraction, you'll find next to the tomb her effigy (not the bad kind but a statue lying on its back.) Eleanore is shown reading the Bible, though the drama of her own life matches anything she's likely to find in that book.  As for Katherine Hepburn, she picked up her third Oscar (and she wasn't done yet!)

Now I'm going to jump ahead about 800 years to...

 ...George VI, on the throne from 1937 to 1952, from the British Empire to the British Commonwealth. George never expected to become king. That position was reserved for his older brother Edward, who did indeed sit on the throne for about a year before he decided he'd like to marry an American divorcee and was forced to abdicate (Edward probably could have gotten away with it today as the royal family and its supporters look more kindly upon American divorcees than it once did.) So George got the job. But what exactly was this job? The Magna Carta had finally come to full fruition, and George was what they call a "constitutional monarch", the head of state but not the head of government. Under this system, a monarch has very limited powers. Among them, the power to select the Prime Minister, the power to strike down a law passed by Parliament, the power to dissolve Parliament, and, what we'll get to in a moment, the power to declare war. Actually, that sounds like a LOT of power to have! But in reality a king or queen would be reluctant to do any of those things without Parliament's OK for fear of provoking renewed calls for the abolishment of the monarchy, rioting, maybe even a civil war (go watch the 1970 movie Cromwell to see how the last one turned out for the crown head.) Let's face it, if since the late 19th century the main argument in favor of royalty is that it ensures stability, it behooves a royal not to do anything destabilizing. So George's job was mainly ceremonial, inspecting the troops, laying down wreaths, working the scissors at ribbon-cutting ceremonies, that kind of thing. Then one day, for the second time in a quarter of a century, Britain found itself in a war with Germany. Somebody had to go on the radio and rally the English people. Of course, Winston Churchill would be doing quite a bit of that in the next few years, but he was not yet Prime Minister. The man who was, Neville Chamberlain, did go on the radio, but doubts were beginning to be raised about him (doubts that would soon hit the stratosphere.) So the duty fell upon George. And besides, Britain technically wasn't at war until the King said it was at war. But there was a problem: George's stutter. Stuttering (also called stammering) is today believed to be a neurological condition, one that's very difficult to control, especially if the stutterer is an adult. But back in the 1930s, many people still saw it as a character flaw. More to the point, stuttering made a person seem nervous, frightened even. George understandably did not want to go on the radio sounding like this: "I ask th-them to s-stand c-c-c-c-calm, f-f-firm, and uni-ni-nit-ted in this t-time of t-t-t-t-t-trial..." If that had gone out over the airwaves, the entire population might have fled to the Arctic Circle! So George (played in this clip from The King's Speech by Colin Firth, who won an Oscar--British history certainly comes in handy at awards time) and his speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by Geoffrey Rush) went to work:

Though a highly acclaimed film, The King's Speech has had some criticisms directed toward it. Like any historical movie, it contains historical inaccuracies. For instance, the prominence of Winston Churchill. At that particular point in time, Churchill was still seen as a has-been politician, and wouldn't have been at the King's side on the royal balcony (though later on he was more than welcome there.) And then there's the film's very premise. George's stammer is made to seem central to world events of the day, when in fact it really was no more than an interesting sidelight (a sidelight that many didn't even know about.) Still, the King did go on the radio, and people were rallied. And he rallied the country in other, equally impressive ways as well. Instead of watching the war play out on a Canadian newsreel, George, his wife, and two daughters remained in London, and barely escaped being killed when a couple of bombs fell on Buckingham Palace (he and his family were eventually persuaded to spend at least their nights at Windsor Castle, outside of London, though this was kept a state secret.)  George subjected himself to food rationing, even bathwater rationing, and went without central heating for extended periods of time, in a successful effort to show the English people that they were all in this thing together. Overcoming his shyness (practically a symptom of stuttering), he made morale-boosting visits to the troops in war zones, and took regular tours of London's heavily bombed East End. As with Churchill (the original comeback kid) during those dark days, George became a symbol of the national will, the epitome of the famed British stiff upper lip. Royalty really is the luck of the draw. Had Wallis Simpson not flirted her way into Edward VIII's heart, a man who many believed to be a Nazi sympathizer would have sat on the throne of England (maybe Wallis should have been knighted for her service toward the nation.) George VI, an egalitarian at heart, got everything back on track again. British history could have easily ended in 1940 or so, but didn't. In fact, British history persists to this very day. Speaking of which...

...I can't wait for the movie.


  1. King Henry VII was quite merciful in a reign where he had to settle a lot of Plantagenet and pretender loose ends.

    His son Henry VIII sure made the axeman work overtime over the whole religion thing.

    1. And then, Adam, the first of Henry VIII's two daughters to ascend to the throne tried to reverse the whole religion thing (hence the name "Bloody" Mary.)

  2. I've never seen "The Lion in Winter" although it's been on my "to see" list for a long time. The other two movies I have seen and enjoyed very much.

    Two little tidbits of trivia -- St Thomas More is also the patron saint of lawyers and Richard the Lionhearted was as queer as a three dollar bill.

    1. Debra, here's how, Roger of Hoveden, a contemporary of Richard the Lionhearted, described it 1187:

      "Richard, [then] duke of Aquitaine, the son of the king of England, remained with Philip, the King of France, who so honored him for so long that they ate every day at the same table and from the same dish, and at night their beds did not separate them. And the king of France loved him as his own soul; and they loved each other so much that the king of England was absolutely astonished and the passionate love between them and marveled at it."

      Sounds like they spent every penny of that three-dollar bill.

  3. Enjoyed the first two movies very much but The King's Speech is one of my favorite movies. I loved the movie the art directions is fabulous.

    cheers, parsnip

    1. The art direction really convinces you that you're among royalty in pre-World War II Britain, parsnip.

  4. Hi, Kirk!

    I demand to know what happened during that 800 year gap! :)

    This is an epic post, good buddy, one that must have taken years to research and write. I appreciate all you put into it.

    << new laws were being passed making it a crime to disagree with the King >>

    This thinking was imported to the U.S. in Nov. 2016.

    << since the late 19th century the main argument in favor of royalty is that it ensures stability >>

    That is key and enables me to understand why royalty continues to exist.

    Mrs. Shady and I watched The King's Speech a couple of years ago and enjoyed it. She is a history buff and especially keen on English history and entertainment. Detail oriented, I cannot abide historical inaccuracies, and they are in great abundance in popular films. History itself is exciting enough. Why the need to deviate from the facts as they were?

    Thanks again for doing your homework and coming up with such an interesting and well written summary of British history and three films based on it, good buddy Kirk!

  5. Shady, I appreciate that you think I spent years on this post, but all that historical stuff is just a click away on the internet. All I do is rearrange words in a sentence so it's not out-and-out plagiarism.