A movie for people who don’t normally like costume dramas about kings and queens, this adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s play is great entertainment from head to toe. Richard Burton gives one of his better late-career performances, and Geneviève Bujold is a dynamo in a tiny package. It’s an impressive portrait of male power run amuck.
Anne of the Thousand Days
1969 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 146 min. / Street Date , 2018 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: Richard Burton, Geneviève Bujold, Irene Papas, Anthony Quayle, John Colicos, Michael Hordern, Katharine Blake, Valerie Gearon, Michael Johnson, Peter Jeffrey.
Cinematography: Arthur Ibbetson
Film Editor: Richard Mardon
Original Music: Georges Delerue
Written by Bridget Boland, John Hale, Richard Sokolove from the play by Maxwell Anderson
Produced by Hal Wallis
Directed by Charles Jarrott
Anybody still saying that the Production Code made movies better? One minor effect of Code Enforcement was the routine bowdlerization of movies about history, to clean up patterns of vice, sex misconduct and anti-social events unsuitable for a Sunday school lesson. As we learned in high school, English history was packed with R-rated sex and criminality, all of which was heavily downplayed in older Hollywood movies. Released in 1969, Universal’s Anne of the Thousand Days made legit use of the new freedom of the screen to present the parade of depravity under the English monarchs, in all of its glorious sinfulness. The story of King Henry the VIII and Anne Boleyn may technically address issues of royal succession and the conflict of church and state, but it’s obvious what really makes the wheels of power go ’round: Sex.
Anne of the Thousand Days continued producer Hal Wallis’s run of classy English history lessons initiated with his 1964 Becket. Some school history teachers tried and failed to force lists of names and dates down our throats, when they could have gotten our full attention just by saying what bad boys and girls the English monarchs had been. If Henry VIII isn’t trying to cheat the law to marry whatever woman pleases his fancy, he’s risking his nation’s future by disturbing the balance of power between church and state. We might argue that getting The Holy Roman Empire out of England’s business might have been a good thing, but Henry didn’t buck the status quo for the right reasons. What really trips up the monarch is dealing with the feisty Anne Boleyn, who determined to come out of the game as a queen and not another castoff royal plaything.
The story is about getting power and keeping power, and retaining one’s head under an absolute ruler with an unstable temperament. King Henry VIII (Richard Burton) wants to divorce Katherine of Aragon (Irene Papas), who hasn’t given him a son and heir. He takes up with Anne Boleyn (Geneviève Bujold), but Anne refuses to become Henry’s common concubine, having witnessed the example of her own sister Elizabeth (Katharine Blake), whom Henry has already bedded and discarded. Anne holds, out: no official marriage, no sex. Anne must also defy her father (Michael Hordern), a toady who has grown rich by offering his daughters up for Henry’s amusement. Cardinal Wolsey (Anthony Quayle) cannot secure for Henry the necessary Papal divorce, because Katherine’s father King Ferdinand of Spain has invaded and taken control of Rome.
Anne plays a risky game, tempting and then repelling Henry until he takes stern measures against Wolsey, and then overthrows the separation of church and state. Proving her power, Anne succeeds in marrying Henry. She gains the throne, even if Henry’s subjects denounce her as a whore. Alas, she bears him a daughter, not the desired son. By the time she’s on the defensive, Henry has grown weary of her and already has eyes for beautiful Jane Seymour (Lesley Paterson). He furiously decrees that Jane be made one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting. Caught in the middle of Anne and Henry’s struggle is Thomas More (William Squire), Wolsey’s supposedly ‘pliable’ replacement. He’s not cooperating with Henry’s my-way-or-the-highway attitude either. Following Henry’s orders, Cromwell fabricates a case against Anne that will allow him to dispose of her by royal decree.
We’re told that the screenwriters revised Maxwell Anderson’s play with plenty of saucy dialogue about Henry’s sexual appetites, thereby making Anne of the Thousand Days more accessible to film audiences. The name of the game at the English court is to indulge the sovereign and hope for his kind generosity, which includes allowing the king to bed nearly any woman he wants. Michael Hordern’s Count Boleyn is terrified of losing his ill-gotten properties, gained because his daughter Elizabeth has been sleeping with Henry and is now pregnant by him. Anne has her own ideas about this royal abuse. After Henry thwarts her desired marriage to a man she loves, she opts to play the power game on her own. As long as Henry desires her, Anne can do no wrong; Henry will turn his kingdom and its laws upside down to get her into his bedchamber. But once he possesses her, Henry predictably loses interest. It doesn’t matter that she’s fallen in love with him. When she doesn’t give him a male heir, she becomes a liability.
Anne of the Thousand Days reframes the pageantry of a great monarch as a story of a really rotten marriage. Because politics preclude any pretense of equality or honesty, Anne must fight with whatever weapons she has on hand. Men both important (Wolsey) and great (More) are destroyed in the process, while Anne’s bad luck of bearing a daughter condemns her to a terrible fate. If we like Anne it’s because she’s alone: her parents think it her family duty to prostitute herself, and the corrupt Wolsey would never think of taking her side. Anne must rely totally on her wits. Previously seen briefly in La guerre est finie and in the cult film King of Hearts, Geneviève Bujold shines. The spirited, strong-willed Anne can get away with calling Henry “spoiled, vengeful and bloody” because he wants her so badly. Sex is the key.
Richard Burton’s Henry VIII is a despicable louse incapable of separating his caprices from God’s will; to put the right woman in his bed he’ll send his kingdom into a tailspin. Henry puts good men to death for disagreeing with him. That practice elevates the conniving lawyer Thomas Cromwell (John Colicos) into a position of unearned power, twisting the law and forcing testimony from innocent victims to support whatever the king wants to do. When a second divorce is rejected, Henry gets rid of Anne through false claims of adultery, incest and witchcraft.
Irene Papas has a number of very good scenes as the faithful Queen Katherine, and Anthony Quayle is excellent as old Wolsey, harassed and outflanked by a mere girl. Anne of the Thousand Days is a bit like a marriage and divorce from Hell. When Anne adds up what she’s accomplished in life, she can only find 100 days of happiness. The rest of her time was spent resisting Henry, manipulating him or being persecuted and abused by him. Anne has the character to carry herself with dignity, all the way to the end. Anne earns our respect by refusing to compromise her honor.
Richard Burton is a known quantity who has no difficulty whatsoever in making himself into the charismatic but deadly sovereign, a man who runs his court as a toy box to satisfy his whims, and who considers the palace ladies-in-waiting to be his personal harem. Geneviève Bujold is yet another post- Golden Age actress that overcame difficult casting opportunities to snag several key roles. My favorite of hers is Brian De Palma’s controversial Obsession, where she plays a mother and then that woman’s daughter at two ages, and effectively ‘transforms’ from a child to an adult in one shot, without a cut.
The show saves Anne’s cruel fate for an almost overpowering final scene. Politics is a much less dangerous profession these days. Not only does one not have to stake one’s life on every decision, one can dodge the consequences of one’s actions with a meaningless vow to ‘take full responsibility’ for one’s actions. Anne called the tune and has to pay the piper when things go wrong; the ironic element is that her daughter Elizabeth I will wield more power and glory than Henry ever had.
Unsung in the movie (and unknown to me in ’69) are Valerie Gearon as Mary Boleyn, Esmond Knight as Kingston, Nora Swinburne as Lady Kingston and, in smaller roles, T.P. McKenna, Nicola Pagett, Kynaston Reeves, Marnie Maitland and (reportedly) Elizabeth Taylor in an uncredited cameo, behind a mask. Director Charles Jarrott does not get in the way of the fine drama, which is commendable; he had the great misfortune to take on the direction of the Lost Horizon remake in 1973.
Universal’s ‘sister’ release to Anne is often 1971’s Mary, Queen of Scots with Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave. Mary is about two hard-driving, ambitious career women, playing a take-no-prisoners game — it’s Feud 500 years earlier. Anne is about a woman in a rigged system, who loses to a serial sexual predator who holds all the cards in a system with no sexual harassment laws. It takes little imagination to guess which one is currently in theaters as a remake.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Anne of the Thousand Days is to my eyes a flawless presentation of a film that always looked and sounded great. The costumes and dressings are even better; the film doesn’t give the olden days in London full fill light suitable for a sitcom.
Georges Delerue’s score is ready to be heard on its own track. Julie Kirgo’s insert essay emphasizes elements the absolute power of the king, and the impressive Hal Wallis, whose career continued apace long after his glory days at Warners.
A big surprise is that the encoding (provided by Universal) has no English subtitles. This is the first Twilight Time disc without subs that I can remember.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Anne of the Thousand Days
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: December 27, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson