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.

29 thoughts on “King John (1899)

  1. Over-The-Shoulder

    1899! Harking back a few years here. Love a bit of Shakespeare, so searched this up and watched it. King John looks like he’s giving birth to a baby satan. Would of been great to hear it with audio, but the silence provides an amazing atmosphere and adds to Shakespeare’s legend. For the breadth of plays he wrote, he’s pretty astonishing.

    1. Alex Good

      Yes, acting in the silent era was full of big gestures. The interesting thing though is that this is likely how Tree played it on stage as well. Styles of acting change quite dramatically. I remember an interview with one old-timer commenting on a movie he’d done in the ’20s or ’30s and saying how totally ridiculous it looks today, mainly for being overdrawn, but at the time it was considered the pinnacle of screen acting.

      1. Over-The-Shoulder

        Really, it’s fascinating how it’s changed. I think part of it is down to how we depict reality. 1920 was incredibly different to 2020, for example. And also the introduction of method acting has affected it. It’s no longer massive actions, but more real, personal ones.

    1. Alex Good

      Good question. Where is Kong vs. Godzilla? Not at your site. You’re doing some podcast rom-com. Guess I’ll have to stick with getting reviews of real movies from the Telegraph.

      1. Alex Good Post author

        Hmm. Care to make a wager as to whether the movie you’re going to review on Friday is still going to be talked about 120 years from now?

    1. Alex Good Post author

      We don’t have a lot of film that survives from this far back. I’m thinking of making Tuesday’s Shakespeare on Film days and this seemed a great way to kick things off.


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