Daily Archives: April 6, 2021

King John (1899)

*. Filters. Somewhere, now lost in the mists of time, there was a real King John. Then there was the mythical King John, a cultural construction (we typically think of him today as “bad King John”). Then there’s the historical King John, or more accurately the King John of the historians. Then Shakespeare’s King John, which may have been largely derived from an earlier play by someone else.
*. Shakespeare’s King John isn’t a historical figure or even the King John of myth. We don’t see him, for example, signing Magna Carta (indeed it isn’t even mentioned in the play), or losing all of his continental properties to the King of France. All in all, he’s an odd duck, and a bit of a marginal figure in his own drama, taking a back seat to figures like the pathetic Arthur and Arthur’s raging mother Constance.
*. Then there’s this film, or what’s left of this film. Time and the frailty of celluloid have proven to be another filter. This King John is a fragment, running only a little over a minute. It’s one of four short films, each of which was a heavily edited scene from the play. They were meant to be shown together but this is the only one that survives.
*. It depicts a passage from Act 5 Scene 7, which is the last scene in the play. In it we get King John dying after having been poisoned, dying on his throne.
*. It’s not even a terribly representative fragment, as the character with the largest speaking part in the play (Philip Faulconbridge, or the Bastard) isn’t here. Actually, he only appears in the last of the four films. Nothing of the play’s major theme, which has to do with the legitimacy of power, is touched on. And finally the biggest filter is the fact that it’s a silent so we don’t actually hear any of the lines. We are left to imagine John saying things like “There is so hot a summer in my bosom that all my bowels crumble up to dust!”
*. Perhaps its biggest claim to fame today is that it is the earliest surviving film based on a play by Shakespeare. It also captures a wonderful bit of stage business by the famous Shakespearean actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree who plays King John (and who was, for all you trivia fans, the father of Carol and grandfather of Oliver Reed).
*. By “business” I mean something extra to the plain text that an actor or director adds to a performance and that goes on to become a kind of trademark or part of their repertoire. Here we have Tree expiring in a wonderful manner, rolling his eyes and spreading his legs at what seem to be painful if not impossible angles. The evolution of different methods and styles of acting is another filter, and by the end of his career Tree was apparently seen as a bit of an old-fashioned ham for overselling moments like these. Still, I find it enjoyable. He might have made a great silent film star.
*. It’s interesting to see what changes and what stays the same, what is lost and what remains, when it comes to cultural artefacts. I don’t think there’s anything of interest here aside from Tree’s writhing in place. That’s enough, however, to make me wish we had more. The business might have seemed out of fashion at the time, but these things have a way of being rediscovered as the wheel turns.