Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Tudors & Stuarts on film - ed. Susan Doran & Thomas S Freeman

I mentioned comfort movies at the end of my last post & coincidentally I’ve just finished reading a book about historical movies. The Tudor period is one of my favourite historical periods & I’ve read countless books, both fiction & non-fiction, on it. A couple of my favourite movies, Anne of the Thousand Days & Young Bess are set at the Tudor court. The Tudors & Stuarts on Film is a collection of essays by distinguished historians about the many films set during this period of English history.

I love to read someone’s careful dissection of a movie, picking out all the inaccuracies, why so-and-so couldn’t have been in this scene because they weren’t born until 10 years later. Or how modern attitudes have crept into this movie or the makeup & hairstyles reflect the time the movie was made rather than the period of the action. It’s not all nitpicking though. The writers are as keen to praise as to blame. They recognize when a movie has captured the essence of an episode from history even though the historical accuracy leaves a little to be desired.

I found it interesting to read how the portrayal of Henry VIII has changed according to the latest historical thinking & the expectations of the audience. In the 1933 movie, The Private Life of Henry VIII, Charles Laughton played Henry as Bluff King Hal, striking poses reminiscent of Holbein’s great portrait of the king. But, as well as the tyrant chopping off the heads of wives & courtiers, & the glutton getting fatter by the minute, by the end of his life, he was shown as a henpecked husband & figure of fun. The ultimate end of this idea of Henry was Sid James’s performance in Carry On Henry. The more ruthless as well as the more attractive side of Henry’s personality has been highlighted in recent years with Eric Bana in The Other Boleyn Girl & Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the TV series, The Tudors.

Anne Boleyn has generally been treated sympathetically in the movies. Merle Oberon’s few scenes as the condemned Anne in The Private Life of Henry VIII showed Anne on the eve of her execution, bravely facing her fate. In Anne of the Thousand Days, Genevieve Bujold (seen above with Richard Burton) was an Anne for the 1960s, discussing her sexual experiences with her first love, Henry Percy, & showing a gift for prophecy & a touch of feminist triumph in her final taunting words to Henry, “My Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours!”

Carole Levin’s essay on Lady Jane Grey looks at two films, Tudor Rose (1936) with Nova Pilbeam (above) & Lady Jane (1986) with Helena Bonham Carter. Both films concentrated on Jane as a romantic girl, falling in love with her husband, Guildford Dudley, after their arranged marriage & entirely ignoring the religious context of her story & Jane’s strong Protestant faith. The 1986 film showed Jane & Guildford planning great social reforms to help the poor – a reaction to the social conditions of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain? - & romantically spending their last night before their executions together in Jane’s cell in the Tower of London.

The influence a successful movie can have on public perceptions of a historical figure is shown by the play & film of Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons about Sir Thomas More. More is portrayed as the saintly man stricken by his conscience & unable to obey his King, even at the risk of imprisonment & death. This has been the accepted view of More until very recently but historians have tempered the view of the saint & martyr with the view of More as a religious bigot who punished those he saw as heretics severely.

Then there’s Elizabeth. From romantic princess, in love with Tom Seymour in Young Bess (Jean Simmons & Stewart Granger above), to Virgin Queen as icon in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998), Elizabeth has appeared in more films than any other monarch. The essays by Susan Doran, Judith Richards & Christopher Haigh explore the many ways she has been seen by film makers. I wanted to get hold of this book after reading a reference to Ronald Hutton’s essay, Why don’t the Stuarts get filmed? As Hutton explains, the Stuarts have been filmed, of course, but not nearly as much or as successfully as the Tudors & he explores the reasons why. The Stuart century had civil war, the execution of a king, exile, restoration & Glorious Revolution, yet there have been few films about these monarchs. I’ve seen most of the movies discussed & I enjoyed revisiting my memories of them & discovering more about the decisions made by actors, writers & directors when they decide to make a historical film.


  1. Great post! Thank you very much. I wrote a very long comment and the computer ate it!

  2. I reviewed this book myself for History Today and was just looking for it in the house - that too has been eaten it seems! Nice to read your reminders

    1. Thanks for commenting, Leanda, it's a fascinating book, isn't it? I've just finished reading your new book, which I loved, & I'll be posting my review tomorrow.