If you’ve watched The Tudors on BBC Two over the last few years, you’ll have seen Henry VIII as a young man. He was regarded as handsome, athletic and intellectually curious during the early years of his long reign (1509–47). The legendary Henry is the ageing, rotund and ill-tempered king who struggled to produce a male heir and sent two of his six wives to the executioner’s block. His story has been told innumerable times, in different styles and from many vantage points, and interest in it shows no signs of abating. Nevertheless, an early talkie, made in 1933 and on a modest budget, remains the definitive portrait of the man.
1. The Private Life of Henry VIII
Dir: Alexander Korda, UK, 1933. With Charles Laughton, Robert Donat, Merle Oberon, Elsa Lanchester
As the title suggests, Alexander Korda’s film takes a through-the-keyhole vantage point on Henry, preferring his marital affairs to affairs of state. Catherine of Aragon is swept aside in the flippant opening titles (“her story is of no particular interest – she was a respectable woman”) and the film opens in 1536 as Anne Boleyn (played by Merle Oberon) faces execution with resigned, quiet dignity. It then makes its way through Henry’s marriages to Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie), Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester), Catherine Howard (Binnie Barnes) and Katherine Parr (Everley Gregg). Much of this is played for laughs. “It’s all chop and change,” one character observes from the sidelines, and Henry himself groans about “the things I’ve done for England” as he reluctantly enters into marriage with the unattractive Anne of Cleves.
This is history as it would play at the music hall: filled with saucy comments, naughty puns, and a lusty hero whose appetites render him ridiculous. It is doubtful the film would hold together were it not for Charles Laughton.
From the moment he strides into the frame, assuming the aggressive image made famous by Hans Holbein’s full-length portrait of Henry, Laughton manages to imbue the iconic figure with humanity, tragedy and humour. This Henry, like Holbein’s, is a middle-aged figure striking a powerful pose, but the film is daring enough to play this for laughs. No other actor or film has found this combination of malice and mirth in Henry.
Yet as memorable as some of its jokes and its central performance may be, The Private Life of Henry VIII is actually a little too scrappy and rough around the edges to be a true film classic. Its status as a landmark in film history relies as much on its reception as its aesthetic qualities.
In the early 1930s, British films rarely travelled well and historical films were out of fashion, but this was an international success and it brought many more historical films in its wake.
But is it accurate?
Most historians were not impressed. Some complained about the film’s focus on the private life, and its complete disinterest in worldly matters. There is no mention of the break with Rome or the English Reformation. Others complained about a plethora of tiny details, including the incorrect placement of the buckles on Henry’s shoes. Audiences did not share these concerns, and Korda followed a similar path with his subsequent films about Catherine the Great, Rembrandt and Nelson.
2. Anne of the Thousand Days
Dir: Charles Jarrott, UK/USA, 1969. With Richard Burton, Geneviève Bujold, Irene Papas, Anthony Quayle
Korda’s film was made during the Depression, and portrays Henry as the embodiment of the people’s will. In the 1960s–70s, however, filmmakers regarded Henry’s reign as divisive and authoritarian. Censorship had loosened and religious issues were no longer off-limits, but this view of Henry also suited an era which questioned authority and saw the establishment as corrupt and self-serving.
In Anne of the Thousand Days, Henry (Richard Burton) is portrayed as a man eager to justify his actions. He searches his soul, but finding it shallow, arrives quickly at conclusions that suit his own needs.
As soon as he spots the young Anne Boleyn (Geneviève Bujold) he is eager to divorce the loving, but also ageing and clinging, Catherine of Aragon (Irene Papas). He courts Anne, but she has been warned by her sister Mary (Valerie Gearon), who is pregnant with Henry’s child, that “the moment you’re conquered he’ll walk away from you”. Anne therefore sneers at his promises of riches and favours, and insists that she’ll only sleep with him if they are married, so that their offspring will be in line for the succession.
The break with Rome thus serves as Henry’s means of conquering the wilful Anne. When they are married, and Elizabeth is born rather than a son, Henry quickly wearies of Anne and so he readily believes the accusations of adultery and incest that lead to her execution.
Based on a popular play by Maxwell Anderson, the film is a bit stagey and overly long. Richard Burton also lacks the gusto that might be expected of Henry, but Bujold just about manages to make Anne spirited rather than merely shrewish. There is also ample production gloss in this Hollywood film: stunning photography, lavish sets, beautiful costumes and some attractive location filming.
But is it accurate?
The film compresses events that took place over many years and fits them into a tight storyline. A more questionable aspect is Anne’s defiance of Henry. While it is true that she resisted becoming just another one of his mistresses, it is unlikely that she was hostile to him or berated him in the manner heard here.
The ending – when she defiantly declares that “my Elizabeth shall be queen and my blood will have been well spent” – gives her the last word, as well as a sense of historical vision, but she would not have imagined this so confidently. Elizabeth’s future was far from certain at the time of Anne’s execution.
3. The Other Boleyn Girl
Dir: Justin Chadwick, UK/USA, 2008. With Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana, Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott Thomas
Henry VIII (played by Eric Bana) is pushed to the sidelines in this account of the aspirational Boleyn family. Based on Philippa Gregory’s bestselling novel, the story primarily concerns sisters Anne (Natalie Portman) and Mary Boleyn (Scarlett Johansson) and their rivalry for Henry’s affections.
The story itself is speculative, insofar as it tries to imagine what went on behind closed doors and in lives (especially Mary Boleyn’s) about which comparatively little is known. It takes considerable liberties. For example, Mary Boleyn was regarded as a ‘wanton’ woman in her lifetime and not as the sweet and innocent girl portrayed here. Mary had an affair with Henry, but there is no evidence that she was his true love (rather than Anne) and most historians disregard rumours that Mary had a child by Henry.
There is no record of Mary attending Anne’s execution, and afterward she certainly did not kidnap Elizabeth and raise the future queen herself, as the ending of the film suggests. And while Anne was accused of incest, alongside the accusations of adultery, the charge is generally regarded as unjust. The film, however, suggests that Anne and her brother at least contemplated incest, as a desperate means of producing Henry’s much-needed heir.
Where Anne of the Thousand Days portrays its heroine as fiery and formidable, the Anne of The Other Boleyn Girl is grasping and manipulative. Mary Boleyn is the more sympathetic figure, but Scarlett Johansson looks out of place and her blank expressions are uninvolving. Bana, as Henry, is given little to do other than look mean and moody.
The film occasionally comes to a halt as the characters speak in paragraphs to explain the historical basis of the story. But this is really an old-fashioned melodrama, complete with ominous lashings of thunder and lightning, a minxish heroine who meets with her comeuppance, and, in Henry, a brooding and unpredictable hero not unlike Heathcliff.
But is it accurate?
No, but many people enjoyed seeing the story told in this form rather than as worthy and serious historical drama. It is not for everyone, but if the idea of a 16th-century version of Footballers’ Wives is appealing, then this is the film for you.
Other films about Henry VIII
(Dir: George Sidney, USA, 1953)
Charles Laughton reprises his role as the king in this portrait of Queen Elizabeth I’s youth.
A Man for all Seasons
(Dir: Fred Zinnemann, UK, 1966)
Henry (Robert Shaw) is seldom seen in a film which focuses on Thomas More (Paul Scofield) and his execution.
Henry the Eighth and His Six Wives
(Dir: Waris Hussein, UK, 1972)
This is in some respects the opposite of the Korda film: more serious, more accurate and less entertaining.
Mark Glancy teaches film history at Queen Mary University of London. His next book will be Hollywood and the Americanization of Britain (forthcoming from Tauris in 2011)