Sunday, 17 January 2016

Henry VIII and His Six Wives - The Film

 Extravagant, lusty, tyrannical, and larger-than-life, Henry VIII, the King who married six times, created his own Church, and outdid Alice in Wonderland's Queen of Hearts in lopping off heads, was tailored made for the movies. He was brought to the silver screen in Ernest Lubitsch's Anna Boleyn (also called Deception), with famed German-Austrian actor Emil Jannings in the role, and in 1933, Charles Laughton played the King in the well received The Private Life Of Henry VIII.1  Later, prominent actors including Frank Cellier (Nine Days a Queen), James Robertson Justice (The Sword And The Rose), Robert Shaw (A Man For All Seasons), and Richard Burton (Anne Of The Thousand Days) would also give their take on 'Bluff King Hal'.

   Television too saw the potential of Henry VIII as a crowd pleaser. In 1970, the BBC produced a six part miniseries of his life in relation to his succession of queens. The Six Wives Of Henry VIII was a hit with audiences. Critically acclaimed as well, it won many awards, including an Emmy and a BAFTA for Australian actor Keith Michell in the title role.

   Hoping to duplicate the success of the series on the big screen, in 1971, EMI Film Productions set out to make a film version of it re-titled Henry VIII And His Six Wives. Michell, whom many agree gave the definitive portrayal of Henry VIII - from a handsome young ruler of 19 to the obese autocrat of his later years - was the producers' first and only choice for the starring role.

   However, six new actresses were signed on to play Henry's queens. The most well known were Jane Asher (as Jane Seymour), Charlotte Rampling (as Anne Boleyn), and Lynne Frederick (as Catherine Howard). Both Asher and Rampling had appeared in a number of motion pictures, while Frederick was a promising young star on the rise.2 Rounding out the cast were Bernard Hepton, repeating his television role as Archbishop Cranmer; Michael Gough, best known for his many appearances in British horror films and later as Alfred the Butler in two Batman movies, as the Duke of Norfolk; and the prolific Donald Pleasence as Thomas Cromwell.

   Whereas the series was written by a team of six playwrights (one per wife), the script this time around was assigned to only one screenwriter - Ian Thorne who had penned the Jane Seymour episode. Thorne was probably picked because his sensitive treatment of Henry VIII's third wife had won him the prestigious Prix Italia for 'Best European TV Drama' for the year 1970. Waris Hussein, who had a number of movie and television credits under his belt, directed the picture.

   Putting Henry VIII on the big screen demanded higher production values than the original series allowed. Whereas the television episodes were filmed like plays - in small studios, often with minimal scenery, the film made use of elaborate large scale sets. Actual historical properties, such as Hatfield House and Allington Castle, were used as shooting locations, while the interiors of the long gone palaces of Westminster, Richmond, and Greenwich were convincingly recreated on big soundstages.

 Great care was given to the costumes as well. Unlike more recent Tudor-themed productions - The Tudors and Reign come to mind - where the designers were evidently given carte blanche to create Tudor-inspired fantasies which often look nothing like what was actually worn in the 16th century, Henry VIII And His Six Wives took great pains to ensure authenticity. The film's costumes on the whole were well researched and historically accurate, many of them copied from contemporary paintings and such. They were also improved upon from the tv show. Whereas financial constraints had forced costume designer John Bloomfield to make do with what resources he had at hand for the series - mostly 'cheap heavy materials' decorated with paints, resins, fiber pens, and screen print to create the illusion of sumptuous court dress3  - the movie's bigger budget allowed him to build richer and more magnificent pieces suitable for a motion picture.              

 Authenticity was equally important when it came to the film's music. The late David Munrow, an expert in Early Music, contributed pieces that had the distinction of being 'scored entirely for historical instruments'.4  The soundtrack includes music from the Tudor period, along with some medieval and Renaissance inspired compositions by Munrow himself.
 Unlike the television series which was presented chronologically, from Catherine of Aragon's arrival in England in 1501 to Catherine Parr's widowhood in 1547, the film, with Henry VIII as its focus rather than his wives, unfolds in flashback. The movie opens in December 1545. The King, six times married, much aged and in poor health, but still the wonder of all Europe, addresses what he knows will be his last Parliament. Far from the tyrant many of his subjects have come to know him as, Henry appears as the loving and magnanimous ruler; a father to his nation. He thanks the Lords and Commons for a grant to further his war with France, and he reminds them how, in his reign of almost forty years, he has preserved peace in the realm. Bidding them all to live in 'charity and concord' with one another, the old King then hobbles away not to be seen again.
 The film then shifts to Henry VIII on his deathbed. As King, his dying is a public affair. He is surrounded by his court and is attended to by his last wife Catherine Parr and his daughter Princess Mary.5  When he is told that he has not long to live, and that he should 'weigh his past life and to seek for God's mercy', Henry reminisces. His first memory is of himself as a young man, good looking and athletic, jousting in celebration of the birth of his son by Catherine of Aragon. The couple are very much in love, and at the revels following, a jubilant Henry wears golden letters with their initials upon himself.
 Of the many actresses who have portrayed Henry VIII's first queen, Frances Cuka is arguably the most successful in actually looking like her. The historical Catherine was fair, not stereotypically Spanish as most filmmakers imagined her to be, that is with dark hair and an olive complexion (think Greek actress Irene Papas in Anne Of The Thousand Days).

   Besides her appearance, the film also defined her character well. The actual Catherine, though she was generally submissive to her husband as convention and religion expected her to be, was also tough and forceful during the many difficult times in her life. The movie has an excellent scene showing Catherine's strong nature when provoked. During an argument with the King where he reproves her for her inability to give him a living son, an exasperated Catherine shoots back, "Then give me a healthy child!" Henry is absolutely dumbfounded, and a look crosses his face that perhaps Catherine is speaking the truth. The fault might actually be his. This exchange between the couple is entirely fictitious, but we can imagine that it was something Catherine might actually have felt.
 By the mid 1520's, Catherine was dowdy and ageing, and this could not be more evident than in the introduction of the King's new love. After repeated miscarriages (except for the singular joy of the Princess Mary in 1516), the King and Queen make yet another religious pilgrimage in hopes of a son. At prayers, Henry looks in disappoint upon a sorrowful Catherine as she venerates a statue of the Virgin and Child in desperation. The scene then changes to that of a young woman bathed in sunshine coming over a rise with two hounds at her side. She is most striking with her slender figure, her dark looks, and her black hair flowing behind her.

Henry VIII (Keith Michell) with Anne Boleyn (Charlotte Rampling)

 Every story needs a villain - or in this case a villainess - and in Henry VIII And His Six Wives it is Anne Boleyn. For her part in triggering the English Reformation, Anne is a controversial figure with opinion both for and against her. On one hand, she was 'that virtuous Queen' as described by the martyrologist John Foxe, and on the other, 'the scandal of Christendom' who destroyed all that was good in the kingdom and herself in the end. The film script evoked an Anne Boleyn of the latter, and Charlotte Ramping played her as such. "Anne wasn't a nice girl, I'm afraid, and had dangerous qualities of spitefulness and arrogance," the actress was quoted as saying.6  Besides being jealous and demanding, she is also too flirtatious for her own good. The movie gives the impression that Anne was indeed guilty of the charges of adultery later brought against her.

 That Anne Boleyn is not a nice girl is evident by her physical flaws. Attractive though Rampling's Anne is, she is of bad character as suggested by the rudimentary sixth finger on her hand, and by the mole on her neck, both which she takes pains to hide. Whether the real Anne Boleyn was 'deformed' as such (as described by the Elizabethan Catholic polemicist Nicholas Sander) remains uncertain. Nonetheless, the filmmakers clearly chose to have their Anne in this manner to present her in a negative light.7  

   How different Henry VIII's wives were from one another is again obvious with the introduction of the lady who would become his third. At a masque where a wild-like Anne Boleyn, decked out in an exotic costume of red and gold, and her face blackened as the Ethiop Queen, scandalizes the court by mocking the late Cardinal Wolsey,8  Jane Seymour (Jane Asher) is shown as a demure, plain looking young woman dressed in virginal white standing at the sidelines. Her soft-spokeness while in conversation with the King is in marked contrast to her mistress. Seeing her husband attracted to her lady-in-waiting, the Queen becomes unhinged. She breaks into maniacal laughter, shocking all those around her.
 After the tempest that was Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour was Henry VIII's calm after the storm. From his point of view, he could not have asked for a better spouse. Jane is kind, gentle, and devout. She reconciles her husband to his estranged daughter Princess Mary (Sarah Long), and she cries mercy for those in rebellion to his government. Before Anne Boleyn's downfall, Jane had even spoken kindly of her, telling the King she had no wish to come between him and his wife.

 A woman of great piety, one of Jane's chief pleasures as a girl was to visit the Abbey of Hailes to see the Holy Phial containing the blood of Christ. As fate would have it, when she later becomes Queen, the Abbey is suppressed and the Phial confiscated. It is discovered to be a trick. The truth is brutally revealed to Jane by the King, angry and disillusioned by the abuses within the Church. His rage causes Henry to breakdown, and he begs his wife to ease his doubts otherwise he would lose himself entirely. It is a powerful scene, even if it gave some viewers déjà vu. Ian Thorne had taken it directly from his script for the television episode on Jane Seymour.

 The tragedy of her premature death is relieved by the comedy of her successor Anne of Cleves (Jenny Bos). The story of Henry VIII's fourth Queen seemed to have been a challenge to past screenwriters. Historically, the match was short lived and relatively uneventful in comparison to the drama of the King's other wives. To boot, Anne could only speak her native German. To alleviate such problems, The Private Life Of Henry VIII had Anne of Cleves already knowing English, and she was put in an invented storyline of trying to get out of her marriage in order to wed her true love. Likewise, in The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, Anne was a competent English speaker who was equally determined to escape the royal bedchamber.

 In truth, Anne of Cleves was determined to be Queen of England. Her divorce in 1540 was upsetting, and incredible as it was, she had even hoped that Henry VIII would take her back. Thus the film is accurate in regards to Anne's desire to be married,9  though her scenes are played for laughs. When she is presented to the King, she is excited and entirely oblivious to his distaste for her. Anne is made to appear unattractive with a pocked marked face and an unceasing grin ("She smiles at me. Indeed she never stops smiling at me. From morn till night she is perpetually smiling. It's enough to make a man run mad!" Henry later complains to the Duke of Norfolk).10  When Anne, expecting to be kissed by her fiancé, shuts her eyes and puckers her lips, Henry gives her a quick peck on the hand instead. Then as she rattles on in Dutch,11  Henry, obviously annoyed, declines Cranmer's offer of an interpreter. There is further farce on their wedding night. The King, already in dismay, is aghast when one of her maids passes before him. She is seen carrying her mistress' hair - actually a wig. When Anne finally emerges, she is again smiling, and is most eager to consummate the marriage!
 Much more screen time is given to the story of Henry VIII's fifth Queen. In contrast to The Six Wives Of Henry VIII's interpretation of Catherine Howard as a greedy, conniving, and cold blooded creature (she is not opposed to murder to get her way),12 the film version gives a more sympathetic portrayal. Here, Catherine (Lynne Frederick) is of a kinder nature. She is very childlike and rather naive. Even her flirtation with the King at their first meeting is entirely innocent - out of amusement, like a teenager looking for a little fun. Catherine has no desire to be Queen, but when it is evident that the King has taken a fancy to her, she is forced to marry him by her ambitious uncle the Duke of Norfolk.

Henry VIII (Keith Michell) with Catherine Howard (Lynne Frederick)

 Catherine makes the best of it, and is rewarded by the fine clothes and jewels befitting a queen that her besotted husband piles upon her. However, she finds his lovemaking repulsive. When Henry fondles her during their visit to the North, Catherine reacts in disgust. She clearly prefers the company of his young and handsome attendant Thomas Culpepper. In the film, there is no question as to the nature of their relationship. When Archbishop Cranmer later confronts the young Queen with accusations of infidelity, her violent collapse betrays her guilt.
 Perhaps the misconception that Catherine Parr was one of Henry VIII's less interesting wives made her appearance rather brief in the movie. This is a shame as scholarship into Catherine's life confirms her as an individual of considerable abilities. A woman of great religious zeal, she was an author of spiritual works, and in recognition of her intelligence and good judgment, Catherine was appointed Regent by the King during his absence at war with the French. However the film only focuses on her influence in the domestic sphere. Catherine (played by Barbara Leigh-Hunt) brings peace to Henry VIII's final years by being a good wife and a loving stepmother to his children.13  In this assurance of calm, the old King breathes his last.14

Princess Anne greets the cast of the film (Frances Cuka, Jane Asher,
Charlotte Rampling, and Donald Pleasence.

  Released in 1972, Henry VIII And His Six Wives had the prestige of a Royal Command Performance attended by the Queen's daughter Princess Anne. However, the film did not prove as successful as its tv forerunner. With audiences favouring more fashionable pictures with gritty, cutting edge, or offbeat storylines and themes (such as The Godfather, Last Tango In Paris, Cabaret, and Deliverance, all released that same year), Henry VIII And His Six Wives seemed hopelessly outdated. It was largely ignored by critics, and it was not the box office hit the producers had hoped. Decades afterwards, the movie remains a curiosity, and is still little known beyond a handful of Tudor enthusiasts. This is unfortunate. As a piece of entertainment, it succeeds with good storytelling and splendid visuals. Its strength is its historical accuracy, which is largely correct. In light of the recent trend to update the 16th century for a more 'hip' audience, Henry VIII And His Six Wives is refreshing. Director Waris Hussein had not seen fit to reinterpret or reinvent history to invigorate it. His Henry VIII was the Holbein image come to life, not Jonathan Rhys Meyers' Elvis strutting about Hampton Court in black leather pants as seen in The Tudors. And even with the sexual liberation of the 1970's, there was no desire to titillate viewers with a naked Catherine Howard on a swing.15

 With the renaissance of Tudor themed movies and television thanks to Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth back in 1998, and continuing interest in England's most famous royal family after the present day House of Windsor ,16 hopefully Henry VIII And His Six Wives will be rediscovered by a new audience, and be re-evaluated and recognized as a commendable piece of work - on par with its television predecessor.


1. Laughton played Henry VIII again in the film Young Bess (1953).

2. Jane Asher is also well known for her former relationship with Paul McCartney of The Beatles. Lynne Frederick's later celebrity was in her marriages to actor Peter Sellers and to journalist David Frost. Her untimely death at the age of 39 in 1994 was attributed to issues with substance abuse.

3.Masterpiece Theatre: A Celebration Of 25 Years Of Outstanding Television by Terrence O' Flaherty, QKED Books, San Francisco, p. 25.

4.Liner notes from the album Henry VIII And His Six Wives: Music From The Film Soundtrack (Angel, 1972). David Munrow also provided music for The Six Wives of Henry VIII and for Elizabeth R. His career was sadly cut short by suicide in 1976.

5. In actuality, neither of the two ladies were present at the King's deathbed.

6. Henry VIII And His Six Wives publicity press book (Anglo-EMI Film Distributors Limited).

7. Interestingly, other presentations with Anne Boleyn as the antagonist - for example, A Man For All Seasons (1966), The Other Boleyn Girl (2003 and 2008), and Wolf Hall (2015) - did not feel it necessary to malign her with any sort of physical blemishes.

8.The  masque was based on a real performance at court. Its mocking of the unpopular Cardinal Wolsey was actually well received, and the production was later printed up by the Duke of Norfolk, no friend to the disgraced churchman.

9.On the other hand, the novelization of the film (Fontana Books, 1972), written by Maureen Peters based   on Ian Throne's screenplay, has Anne equally disliking the King.

10. From the novelization of the film, pg. 145.

11.The movie had Anne speak Dutch (rather than German), in which actress Jenny Bos is fluent in.

12.In the television version, Catherine Howard was played by Donald Pleasence's daughter Angela Pleasence.

13.The novelization of the film adds more to Catherine Parr's story including her famous near arrest for heresy from arguing theology with the King.

14.The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, less sympathetic to the King, includes the tradition of him uttering in remorse or in terror of the monks he had persecuted during his reign.

15.As seen on The Tudors, Season 3, episode 8.

16. For example, Thomas Imbach's Mary Queen Of Scots (2015), the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, and the ongoing series Reign. There has also been  many Tudor themed theatrical productions as of late.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.