*. Well, it’s for those who know what they like. Those who couldn’t get enough of Oscar-bait costume dramas like Becket (1964), A Man for All Seasons (1966), and The Lion in Winter (1968). And I don’t mean snobs. No, this is trash. But it’s trash with great actors delivering high drama in ringing lines full of booming passion and unsubtle wit.
*. You know the stuff I’m talking about. Just listen to what this movie sounds like (and note that the play it’s based on, by Maxwell Anderson, was partially written in blank verse, which the screenwriters had to adapt). Here’s Henry (Richard Burton), who has most of the good lines. “When I pray, God listens!” he bellows. When speaking the language of love he can be earthy with his rough wooing (“I think of nothing but you. Of you and me playing dog and bitch, of you and me playing horse and mare. Of you and me in every way. I want to fill you up night after night. I want to fill you up with sons!”) and grandiloquent (“I will marry Anne if it breaks the Earth in two like an apple and flings the two halves into the void!”)
*. Whew! And Anne (Geneviève Bujold) is no shrinking violet when it comes to emoting for the ages either. “Henry! I do love you! Henry, I love you. I love you with all my heart. I love you. Take me. Take me now. I want to be yours only!” Or here she is making a highly improbable prophecy of her daughter’s future greatness: “Elizabeth shall reign after you! Yes, Elizabeth, child of Anne the whore and Henry the bloodstained lecher, shall be queen! . . . And think of this Henry: Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours. She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built. Yes, My Elizabeth shall be queen, and my blood will have been well spent.”
*. You see what I mean by trash. Throw in some sideline banter and everything is set (“Thomas, this is a man’s world. The seat of power does not lie between a woman’s legs,” are some famous last words from Wolsey). It is, in short, the great Tudor soap opera, what the historian Antonia Fraser, in an essay on this film, called “The Taming of the Shrew meets Gone With the Wind.”
*. As I say, you know if this is your thing. I’ll confess I was laughing throughout the opening scene, what with Burton’s heavy overacting on being told that Anne has been found guilty and faces execution. Everything is done more by the book than with any imagination or creativity, but then it’s a movie produced in a style that is no longer fully accessible today. The acting, direction, and writing are all from another age entirely, closer perhaps to the Renaissance than our own time. We have our own versions of the Tudor story, from biopics of Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots to the series Wolf Hall, but they’re done in an entirely different manner.
*. It was an old play, over twenty years old in 1969, but apparently they hadn’t been able to produce it because it dealt with matters of adultery, illegitimacy, and (clearly fictional) incest and they thought this would get them in trouble with the Code (which was only abandoned around this time). At least that’s what I hear. But I find it hard to credit. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had been staged in 1962, with the film version coming out in 1966. True, that film had been a scandal, but still it was a lot wilder than this when it comes to discussions of adultery and illegitimacy.
*. And yet Anne of the Thousand Days does still work, up to a point. After chuckling through that opening scene I entered into the spirit of the thing. Heaven knows I’m familiar enough with the story and they make it more than easy enough to follow here. The thing is, the Tudors really were one of history’s great real-life soap operas and they never go out of style.
*. Directed by Charles Jarrott, who would follow it up with Mary Queen of Scots right away. Pauline Kael judged he had no sense of style and that he was only “a traffic manager.” I don’t think that’s unfair. He would go on to do the musical Lost Horizon (1973) and, I was surprised to discover, 1981’s Condorman. How bizarre.
*. Burton, as I’ve said, just cruises in full Burton mode here, which is fun for being so awful. Bujold is actually very good in a ridiculous part. Penelope Huston thought Anthony Quale looked “like a querulous crayfish” which is witty and apt. John Colicos plays the scheming Cromwell very nicely, more oily and less sympathetic than the Mantel version. Irene Papas has a memorable turn as Katherine. Apparently Elizabeth Taylor, married to Burton at the time, wanted to play Anne and was concerned Dick might have been fooling around on set. She was too old (remember Virginia Woolf had been a few years previous to this), but I think she might have been fun as Katherine. Why not? With material this trashy, just go for it.
*. Is this a great movie? No. I don’t even think it’s a great Tudor vehicle. But then I can’t watch any of these movies without thinking of SCTV’s “The Man Who Would Be King of the Popes.” A great parody, but from a distance of fifty years we can get nearly the same number of laughs out of the original. As history this paints with a pretty broad brush that misses a lot, but as entertainment it’s fun and doesn’t feel too bulky even at two-and-a-half hours. I can understand if it’s not your thing, but I felt my time if not my blood was well spent.