The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965) ***

The Husband-Hunting Adventures of Moll Flanders” might have been a more accurate title and if you were seeking a template for a multi-character eighteenth-century Olde English picturing majoring on sexual shenanigans here would be a very good place to start, rather than the shambolic recently-reviewed Lock Up Your Daughters (1969). Of course, Tom Jones (1963) was the precursor but told the story from the male perspective and here it is from the more vulnerable female point-of-view. Despite the hilarity and the sexual proclivities on show, it remains abundantly clear that marriage remains a refuge, where the un-titled can gain either security or status, but also a contract, a means of further enrichment for the already wealthy.

So orphan housemaid Moll Flanders (Kim Novak) has a difficult time of persuading the elder brother (Daniel Massey) of her wealthy employer to marry her. Instead, he takes her as his mistress, leaving her no option but to marry the drunken fool of a younger brother (Derren Nesbitt) and instantly regret her decision. When he drowns, you would have thought that would solve her problems. But this was the eighteenth century and a widow with no fortune (and therefore power) of her own can easily be tossed out penniless.

A widowed banker (George Sanders) might be a prospect especially as she has the wits to prevent him being entirely robbed by highwayman Jemmy (Richard Johnson). Plans to marry him thwarted, she takes a job for food and lodgings with Lady Blystone (Angela Lansbury) and her husband, an impoverished Count (Vittorio De Sica), who are constantly pursued by debt collectors. Meanwhile Jemmy has taken the decision to marry a rich woman and become a kept man.

But this set of characters becomes enmeshed, rather than going off in sundry directions as with Lock Up Your Daughters, so the tale unfolds in classic fashion. Assuming Moll to be moneyed, Jemmy masquerades as the owner of three ships. Nothing, of course, works out for anybody, certainly not those pretending to be something they are not while aspiring to wealth beyond their reach, but it all concludes in propitious fashion as the actions of the various principals become embroiled.

While certainly having an inclination towards the amorous, Moll wishes for that within the context of true love, rather than selling her physical wares to the highest bidder. So for a picture sold on immorality – the “rollicking ribaldry” of the poster – there is an unsung moral standpoint. Finding safe passage into affluence proves very tricky indeed. And what appears at first glance to be merely a picaresque episodic tale turns out to be very well structured indeed. And those looking for cleavage will find it here in abundance, as if some kind of rationing had been imposed on clothing, or that it was matters of economy that dictated that the area around the bosom be left unclothed. Being the lusted-after heroine it falls to Moll Flanders to shed even more of her attire from time to time.

You are more likely to laugh out loud at the moments of offbeat humour – a flotilla of ducks heading in Moll’s direction when she cries for help in a lake, the Count while acting as a butler demanding a tip – but it is more of a gentle satire. There is some of the expected bedroom farce but, mercifully, no recourse to a food fight. It is handsomely-mounted and meets the highest expectations of the costume drama.

Kim Novak (Of Human Bondage, 1964) easily passed the English-accent-test and carries the picture with ease. Richard Johnson (Deadlier than the Male, 1967) reveals a rakish side so far hidden in his more dramatic works to date. And there is a fine supporting cast including George Sanders (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966), Angela Lansbury (Harlow, 1965), Vittorio De Sica (The Shoes of the Fisherman, 1968), Lili Palmer (The Counterfeit Traitor, 1962) as Jemmy’s mistress, Leo McKern (Assignment K, 1968) as Jemmy’s sidekick going by the name of Squint, Daniel Massey (Star!, 1968) and Derren Nesbitt (Nobody Runs Forever/The High Commissioner, 1968). In bit parts looks out for Cecil Parker (Guns at Batasi, 1964), Dandy Nichols later of Till Death Us Do Part television fame and Carry On regular Peter Butterworth.

All directed with some style by Terence Young (Mayerling, 1968) and adapted from the lengthy Daniel Defoe novel by Denis Cannan (A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965) and Roland Kibbee (Valdez Is Coming, 1971).

An old-fashioned romp with, if you can bothered to look, a moral center. You catch this on Amazon Prime. I’m not sure why they have chosen a black-and-white illustration since the film is shot in glorious color.

Lock Up Your Daughters (1969) **

Worth seeing for all the wrong reasons prime example being Christopher Plummer with a false nose and almost unrecognisable as an eighteenth century periwigged English dandy in a pure squalor of a coastal town. The best reason is the very realistic background, all mud, missing teeth, drunkenness, cockfighting, poverty, debtors strung up in baskets – not the usual bucolic image of Olde England. But everything gets bogged down in an indecipherable plot. Robert Altman mastered the multi-character narrative in such gems as Nashville (1975) but here debut director Peter Coe most demonstrably did not.

This started life as a modestly successful London West End stage musical and probably for budgetary reasons the songs were discarded. All that’s left is plot. And plot and plot. All to do with sex as it happens. Husbands exist only to be cuckolded. Cleavage is obligatory for women. Young women lusting after sex have been brought up in contradictory fashion to view it as dirty. And no eighteenth century tale is complete without a regimen of long-lost daughters and sons.

Guess who?

It starts promisingly enough in early morning with a town crier (Arthur Mullard) filling us in on the predilections and problems of various prominent citizens, most notably Lord Foppington (Christopher Plummer), the foppest of the fops, gearing up for an arranged marriage to Hoyden (Vanessa Howard). As a virgin not wanting to come to his wedding night bereft of the necessary skills, he employs strumpet Nell (Georgia Brown) to bring him up to speed.

Meanwhile, it’s “lock up your daughters” time as a ship’s crew, at sea for ten months, given two days leave, start charging through the town, fondling and kissing any woman of any age who happens to stand still for a moment. Among this randy bunch are Ramble (Ian Bannen), Shaftoe (Tom Bell) and Lusty (Jim Dale). Ramble is given the eye by married Lady Eager (Fenella Fielding), Shaftoe takes a fancy to Hilaret (Susannah York) while old flame Nell is targeted by Lusty (Jim Dale). Mrs Squeezum (Glynis Johns) seeks sex anywhere and there’s maid Cloris (Elaine Taylor) also seeking physical fulfilment.

Of course, the whole purpose of the narrative is to thwart true and illicit love, husbands and fathers returning at inconvenient times. And had the storyline stuck to the tried-and-tested formula devised very successfully for Tom Jones (1963) and The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965) it might well have worked. But the instinct to make meaningful comment by way of satire takes the story in very unlikely directions, an extended court scene with a barmy judge the worst of such excesses, though a food fight comes close.

It’s meant to play as a farce, the men climbing (literally) in and out of bedrooms, the town’s apparently only ladder put to continuous use. But what would work on stage sadly falls down here, and not just because the occasional song might have come as light relief. There is an element of the female confusion over sex, natural instinct going against education, and so ill-informed that at the slightest chaste kiss they are likely to cry rape, but that’s as close as the movie gets to anything that makes sense.  A movie that needed a sense of pace just becomes one scene tumbling into another.

Christopher Plummer (Nobody Runs Forever/The High Commissioner, 1968) makes by far his worst screen choice. He’s so concealed in his clothing that movement is inhibited and most of his acting relies on overworked eyeballs. Susannah York (Sands of the Kalahari, 1965) is pretty much lost in the shuffle. Ian Bannen (Penelope, 1966) is the pick, largely because he is required not to play villain, grump or idiot, and his Scottish charm and confidence works very well. Tom Bell (The Long Day’s Dying, 1967) is not cut out for comedy whereas Jim Dale (Carry On Doctor, 1967) who very much is does not get enough.  

The movie wastes the talents of a terrific supporting cast headed by former British box office queen Glynis Johns (The Chapman Report, 1962) plus Roy Dotrice (A Twist of Sand, 1968), Vanessa Howard (Some Girls Do, 1969), Elaine Taylor (Casino Royale, 1967), Roy Kinnear (The Three Musketeers, 1973), Kathleen Harrison (Operation Snafu, 1961), Fenella Fielding (Arrivedeci, Baby, 1966) and singer Georgia Brown (A Study in Terror, 1965).

Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall (Billy Liar, 1963) wrote the screenplay based on, as well as the original musical, a number of sources drawn from the works of Henry Fielding (author of Tom Jones) and John Vanbrugh. Peter Coe never directed another movie.

Hard to find so Ebay will be the best bet.

A Tale of Two Duds – The Northman (2022) ** / Fantastic Beasts: The Secret of Dumbledore (2022) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Hamlet goes Viking is basically as much of a story as “visionary director” Robert Eggers (The Witch, 2015) can be bothered with. Yes, there some Viking lore and for all I know this has been exceptionally well-researched but what it amounts to is the same kind of gobbledy-gook that makes no more sense than your average horror picture, with a ton of underdeveloped occult elements. Once our hero is freed from being hung from the rafters by crows beckoned, I presume, by some unexplained mystical power, pecking at the rope – and with a sword handily discarded in the vicinity – I was even more convinced this was a load of old cobblers.

So, basically a revenge saga. Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) – pronounced Amlet for punters too stupid to get it – manages to escape when his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) murders his brother King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). Vowing revenge, he is next seen “years later” as part of a raiding party slaughtering a village. He discovers that his uncle has been dethroned by a bigger king and sent into exile in Iceland. So he hauls himself off there, pretending to be part of a chain gang. He has every opportunity in the world to kill his uncle – and save his mother (Nicole Kidman) who has been carried off – but there is always a really dumb reason why he can’t.

Revenge delay seems a pretty odd way of stringing out a movie. Of course, when he gets round to saving his mother it turns out she doesn’t want to be saved and – a la Hamlet – was in on the plan to kill her husband. He falls in love with fellow prisoner Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who spouts a lot of witch-type stuff that is no less convincing than any of the other spiritual malarkey.

There’s a lot of bloody violence, but the sexual violence is kept to a minimum on screen though Olga has clearly been abused by Fjolnir. And there’s a game that seems close to the Irish game of hurling and whole bunch of oddities thrown in there wholesale as if such a joblot will add depth to the movie. A misconceived art picture that looks more like a top-of-the-range direct-to-DVD movie that might have cost around $40 million rather than the $90 million quoted.  

There’s a smorgasbord of dodgy accents and everybody speaks in stilted English, not far short of the “thee” and “thou” dialogue that critics used to make fun of. Alexander Skarsgard (Godzilla vs Kong, 2021) and Claes Bang (Locked Down, 2021) look rugged enough but neither has the screen presence of Schwarzenegger or even Stallone and it ends up Conan-lite. Anya Taylor-Joy (Last Night in Soho, 2021) looks as if she wondered how she managed to get talked into this. Nicole Kidman (Being the Ricardos, 2021) who has a plum scene towards the end offers the only acting of any distinction.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secret of Dumbledore

I kid you not, this is about an election. Yep, someone’s greenlit a $200 million fantasy picture about an election. Whatever delightful element the original entry to this series possessed has been destroyed not just by a preposterous storyline – this is for kids, remember – but a very somber tone. Everyone talks in a low voice, it is very darkly lit and there are those awful meaningful pauses.

The story they pretend is about to occur never happens. Something about “counter-sight” if I got that bit correct and how our heroes had to act together to “confuse” the bad guy because he could see into the future. There’s never any sign of him seeing in the future and most of the confusion arises because there are just way many characters.  With a piece of Hollywood wizardry Grindelwald has completely changed his appearance, no longer Johnny Depp but Mads Mikkelson. You will be aware of the reason for this but Mads has taken on an impossible task. There already was an over-large contingent of players – Newt Scamanger (Eddie Redmayne) and his brother Theseus (Callum Turner), Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) and his brother Abeforth (Richard Coyle), Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), Jacob (Dan Fogler) and assorted characters who have a romantic interest in the principals.

But basically – hold your breath – Grindelwald is trying to crash an election party. Two candidates are already in contention to be, I presume, Chief Wizard. He kidnaps something that might be called a “chillin” – a mythical creature that looks like a gryphon – which like the wands in Harry Potter has a way of choosing the best person for the job. There’s very little CGI for a fantasy picture. One monster, a bunch of dancing lobsters (maybe scorpions, I couldn’t work it out) and the usual contents of Newt’s suitcase is just about it. The wands are now used more like light sabers or pistols. You won’t be surprised to learn there’s not much in the secrets department either.

There’s not enough Newt and he’s not as delightful as he once was and there’s far too much of boring electioneering, huge crowds gathered for rallies in favor of their candidates. This one cost $200 million and I have no idea what that was spent on. Certainly not the script. A franchise-killer if ever I saw one.

RRR (2022) ***** – Seen at the Cinema

Easily the most extraordinary epic I have seen in a long time. Hitting every action beat imaginable, a stunning tour de force that ranks alongside the best Michael Bay or Steven Spielberg can offer. As if Rambo or John Wick had turned up a century ago. If films could go from 0 to 100 in ten seconds, this would be the prime contender. Astonishing sequences include a cop taking on a mob single-handed with only a stick for a weapon, a villager acting as bait for a tiger, wild animals leading an attack on a fort, a savage beating with a nail-studded whip, and the unforgettable image of one man mounted on another spraying bullets with two rifles.  

Following the virtual abduction of a native girl Milla, two friends are on a collision course in the oppressive British regime in India in 1920. Technically, it doesn’t count as a kidnapping because the British Governor Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson) committed the crime, taking the child as a gift for his wife (Alison Doody). Villager Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao Jr.) is tasked with bringing the girl back, ambitious undercover cop Raju (Ram Charam) with stopping him. The two men, befriending each other in Delhi, are unaware of the other’s plan. That both are immensely likeable, if quite opposite, characters, creates terrific charisma, and their bromance is entirely believable.

Bheema has to connect both ends of the rope in order to keep a tiger trapped.

Everything in this picture is big and bold except when it is intimate and small. There is a beautifully-observed romance between Bheema and a kind British woman Jenny (Olivia Morris), the development of which, faced with the obstacle of neither understanding the other’s language, with Raju acting as matchmaker, could have been a film on its own. There are two brilliant pieces of screenwriting, phrases repeated throughout that acquire deeper meaning as the story unfolds. The British continually kill by brutal means rather than waste an expensive bullet; “Load. Aim. Shoot,” is a mantra taught the young Raju by his revolutionary father; both come into play at the climax.

The British are horrific. The Bheema-Jenny meet-cute occurs when the native is beaten for inadvertently embarrassing a British soldier. Lady Buxton is a sadist, determined to see a man whipped till he bleeds to death. By contrast, the two heroes are often far from heroic, Bheema unable to find the girl, Raju forced into terrible violence as a consequence of ambition. And in the midst of all this ramped-up violence perhaps the best scene of all, albeit one of conflict, is an energetic dance-off between the two men and the scions of the British upper class, the fantastic “Naatu Naatu” sequence, that demonstrates the superior stamina of the natives.

Director S.S. Rajamouli (Baahubali: The Beginning, 2015) makes as bold a use of narrative structure as Tarantino in Pulp Fiction, withholding until the last third of the movie a flashback which tilts the story in a completely different direction. But there is nothing lumbering about this epic, it has an incredible drive, an energy to set your head spinning. Even so, Rajamouli utilises a classic three-part structure and the three-hour-plus running time is anything but sprawling. In among a host of character-driven scenes he knows how to build a sequence, as the heroes successively triumph and fail with every passing minute, and among the introductory sequences for both main characters are some inspired images. Cleverly seeding the story creates a variety of twists, turns and reversals.

I was expecting not to like the traditional dancing sequences, which you would thought ill-fitting in a picture of this scope, but the “Naatu Naatu” sequence is treated as virtually a rebellion with tremendous dramatic impact. Although the two leads are muscular in Schwarzenegger/Stallone mold it does not prevent them channelling their inner Gene Kelly.

Except that it is set a century ago, this has all the bravura hallmarks of MCU, an exceptional adventure told at top speed that does not put a foot wrong.  N.T. Rama Rao Jr  (Janatha Garage, 2016) has the more difficult role, in that he switches from full-on action hero to romantic klutz. But the intensity of Ram Charam (Vinaya Vidheya Rama, 2019) should have Hollywood calling. The characters played by Ray Stevenson (Accident Man, 2018) and Alison Doody (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989) are more one-dimensional but no less terrifying for that. In her movie debut, Olivia Morris is quietly effective.

On energy and cinematic imagination alone, this would more than pass muster but S.S. Rajamouli has also created a brilliant piece of entertainment with greater depths than you might imagine. There’s no other word for it: this is a knock-out.

Alfred the Great (1969) ****

The Prince Who Wanted To Be A Priest. The King Who Didn’t Want To Fight. The Husband Who Raped His Wife.

Not exactly taglines in the grand tradition of Gladiator (1999), but a succinct analysis of a Film That Wanted To Be A Roadshow. This is almost an anti-epic, a down-n-dirty historical movie far removed from El Cid (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). And one element that has to be taken into consideration when making a historical picture set in Britain in AD 871, if you are aiming for realism, is the rain. The battles in the three movies mentioned, as with virtually every historical movie of the decade, took place in bright sunshine on hard ground, not in the rain on mud-soaked fields. Director Clive Donner lacks the genius of an Akira Kurosawa who turned rain into a glorious image in Seven Samurai (1954) or even Ridley Scott whose first battle in Gladiator took place in a snowstorm. But he does make a battleground reflect the grim reality.

Alfred (David Hemmings) was fifth in line to the throne – and just to a small region of England called Wessex – and as was common practice all set, quite happily, for a career in the priesthood. So it was not surprising, envisioning religion as a mark of civilization, and the priesthood guaranteeing an education, that he was loathe to become a warrior just because his brother King Ethelred (Alan Dobie) was a useless leader. The price of taking on the warrior’s mantle and, after his brother’s death, of ascending to the throne is that Alfred must not only cast away his priestly ambition but his chastity in order to get married to unify rival kingdoms and produce an heir. So there’s a good deal of the religious quandary of El Cid and the sexual ambivalence of Lawrence of Arabia.

So repelled by what he is forced to do, that on his wedding night Alfred rapes new wife Aelhswith (Prunella Ransome) and when the marauding Vikings win a decisive battle and the price of peace is the wife taken in hostage Alfred offers no great protestation. So Alfred is hardly an appealing character. His wife hates him so much that she conceals her pregnancy from him. If you were an Englishman you might well prefer the straightforward lustful Viking leader Guthrun (Michael York) whose men are not restrained by Christianity – “it’s a strange religion,” he mulls, “ that wars with everything your flesh and your blood cries out for” – who makes a better fist of wooing Aelswith, whom he could as easily rape, than Alfred.  

Eventually, of course, Alfred gets it together, rallies a bunch of outlaws and steals back wife and son (now four years old). However, there is no romantic reunion. Instead, he plans to imprison her for life, “the whore shall rot in silence.” Nonetheless, Alfred has acquired some tactical skills, adopting the old Roman infantry tactic of forming his troops up in a phalanx behind a wall of shields. His battlefield address is to promise ordinary people a set of laws that will give them equality with the wealthy and powerful.

Given there are no castles and this is indeed the Dark Ages as far as costume and interior design is concerned and that therefore the camera cannot, for respite, be turned onto some glorious image, Clive Donner (Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, 1968) concentrates on character rather than scenery. There are a couple of inspired touches. For a start, in permitting various characters to offer prayers to God, he introduces a number of soliloquies which take us to the heart of troubled souls, and then he does a clever split-screen number to effect a transition. You can’t blame him for British weather and the battles are well-staged. He does show the courage of his convictions in making the film concentrate on conflicted character rather than going along the easier heroic route of underdog rallying people to a cause.

David Hemmings (Blow-Up, 1966) is both the film’s strength and weakness. He is excellent at capturing the torment, the soul divided, and the inherent arrogance as well as the preference for peace instead of war. But in terms of his leadership skills he is on a par with Orlando Bloom in Kingdom of Heaven (2005). That part was originally intended for Russell Crowe and Peter O’Toole was first choice for Alfred and you can’t help thinking both would have been a substantial improvement. On the other hand, Alfred was just 22 when he became king and for someone intent on the priesthood there would be no need for him to develop his physique or political skills. So this is a far cry from your typical Hollywood hero and in that regard the casting makes perfect sense and Hemmings a bold actor to take on such an unlikeable character.

Prunella Ransome (Man in the Wilderness, 1971) does well in her first leading role, suggesting both vulnerability and independence and while virtually imprisoned by both Alfred and Guthrun remaining principled. Michael York (Justine, 1969) was a definite rising star at this point and plays the Viking with considerably more gusto than his tendency towards passive characters would suggest.  

There’s virtually a legion of excellent supporting players in Colin Blakely (The Vengeance of She, 1968), Alan Dobie (The Comedy Man, 1964), Ian McKellen (Lords of the Rings and X-Men), Peter Vaughan (A Twist of Sand, 1968), Vivien Merchant (Accident, 1967),  Barry Evans (Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, 1968), Sinead Cusack (Hoffman, 1970), Christopher Timothy (All Creatures Great and Small, 1978-1990) and Robin Askwith (Confessions of a Window Cleaner, 1974).

Oscar-winner James R. Webb (How the West Was Won, 1963) was an improbable name to be attached to a British screenplay. But this was a pet project he had been trying to get made since 1964. Ken Taylor (Web of Evidence, 1959) was brought in to lend a hand.

Not being a student of English history but familiar with the ways of the movie business, I am sure the picture has many historical inaccuracies, but it does present one of the most complex individuals ever to feature in a historical film of the period, when audiences preferred their heroes more black-and-white. So it is a significant achievement in the canon.

Beau Geste (1966) ***

Two brothers battle inhospitable terrain, warring tribes and a sadistic sergeant major in a  remake of the classic tale. The title translates as “noble and generous gesture” and is a pun on the name of hero Michael Geste (Guy Stockwell), an American hiding out in the French Foreign Legion in shame for being involved, innocently as it happens, in embezzlement. His attitude is markedly different to the “scum of the earth” who make up the battalion and his quick wit and refusal to kowtow make him a target for Sgt Major Dagineau (Telly Savalas), a former officer busted to the ranks.

Dagineau delights in imposing hardship and devising mental torture, making some recruits including Geste walk around blindfold at the top of a cliff. Geste’s resistance to his superior is almost suicidal and he even volunteers to take a whipping on behalf of his comrades. “It’s me he wants,” says Geste, “if not now the next time.” At another point he is buried up to his neck in the blazing sun.

Joined by his brother John (Doug McClure), the battalion sets out as a relief force for a remote fort but when commanding officer Lt De Ruse (Leslie Nielsen) is seriously wounded, the sergeant-major takes charge. Under siege from the Tuareg tribe, honor, treachery, mutiny, fighting skills and courage all come into play in a final section.

The action and the various episodes and confrontations are strong enough and Geste has a good line in witty retort, but blame the casting for the fact that it turns into Saturday afternoon matinee material. It was always going to be a stretch to match Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Susan Hayward from the 1939 hit version.

Stagecoach, remade the same year, was able to rustle up a bona fide box office star in Ann-Margret (Viva Las Vegas, 1964) and a host of supporting players with considerable marquee appeal including Bing Crosby (Robin and the 7 Hoods, 1964), Robert Cummings (Promise Her Anything, 1965) and Van Heflin (Cry of Battle, 1963). Nobody in the cast of Beau Geste could compare. Apart from the Spanish-made Sword of Zorro (1963), Guy Stockwell usually came second or third in the credits, as did Doug McClure (Shenandoah, 1965) while Telly Savalas, despite or because of an Oscar nomination for The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), was viewed as a character actor.

But that was the point. Universal gambled on turning the latest graduates from its talent school into major box office commodities. The set pieces and the action are well handled and while there are excellent lines especially in the verbal duels between hero and villain, it’s not helped by the most interesting character being Dagineau, who, despite his failings, accepted his fall from grace, worked his way back up the career ladder, believing brutality the only way to control the soldiers, and in the end out of the two is the one who has the greater sense of honor, refusing to allow a lie to befoul the truth, rejecting the notion of when the legend becomes fact print the legend, And it’s a shame that the movie has to present his character in more black-and-white terms rather than invest more time in his background or accept his version of reality.   

Telly Savalas (The Scalphunters, 1968) steals the show with a performance of considerable subtlety. Guy Stockwell (Tobruk, 1967) is little more than a stalwart, the heroic hero, with little sense of the irony of his situation. Doug McClure (The King’s Pirate, 1967) presents as straighforward a matinee idol. If you only know Leslie Neilsen from his later spoof comedies like Airplane! (1980) you will be surprised to see him deliver a dramatic performance as the drunken commander who still insists, in an echo of El Cid, in rising from his sick bed to lead his troops. Normally this kind of macho movie – The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Dirty Dozen (1967) prime examples – throws up burgeoning talent who go on to make it big. It’s one of the disappointments here that this does not occur.

This was the second and final movie of Douglas Heyes (Kitten with a Whip, 1964).  

The Lion in Winter (1968) ****

Template for The Godfather (1972) and the current Succession. King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) has to choose an heir from Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle) and John (Nigel Terry). Helping set the Machiavellian tone are Henry’s wife Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn), his mistress Alais (Jane Merrow) and French King Philip II (Timothy Dalton). Cue  plotting, confrontation, double-crossing, rage and lust.

Some other complications: the queen is actually a prisoner, the result of organising a failed coup against her husband, the sons participating in this attempt to overthrow their father, and with Henry willing to sacrifice his mistress in order to achieve an alliance with Philip, relations are less than cordial all round. Eldest son Richard, strong and aggressive, would be the obvious choice, and should be the only choice I would guess by law, but Henry prefers the youngest son John, who is weak, while the middle son Geoffrey is the most savvy (see if you can guess how easily these characters fit The Godfather scenario, or Succession for that matter). Geoffrey reckons that even if passed over for the top job, he will rule from behind the scenes as John’s chancellor.

This is not your normal historical picture with battles, romance and, let’s be honest, costumes, taking central stage. And there’s little in the way of rousing speeches. Virtually all the dialogue is plotting. And, like Succession, there are elements of vitriol and pure comedy. In five crisp opening scenes we know everything we need to know. The King brings his family together for Xmas, the Queen freed for the occasion, to decide the succession. Richard is shown in hand-to-hand combat, the wily John leading a cavalry attack, the whiny John pouting and complaining, Alais realizing just how much a pawn she is in the game as Henry explains she is to be married off to Richard.

And if you are not the chosen one, your only chance of gaining the throne is by the back door, by having a powerful ally in your pocket, one whose armies would threaten the King,  which is where Philip comes into the equation as potential kingmaker. Let the intrigue begin, especially as those who ought to be little more than bystanders – the women – have ideas of their own. “I’m the only pawn,” says Alais, “that makes me dangerous.” Despite her current status, Eleanor still owns the French province of Aquitaine and taunts her husband by revealing that she slept with his father.

The plot twists and turns as new alliances are formed between the conspiring individuals. The overbearing Henry will certainly remind you of Logan Roy, “When I bellow, bellow back.” And there is a Hitchcockian element in that we, the audience, know far more than the participants and wait for them to fall into traps. Richard is revealed as homosexual, having had an affair with Philip.

The dialogue is superb, brittle, witty, and it could have been all bombast and rage except that emotion carries the day. Henry clearly could not have wished for a better Queen than Eleanor, more than capable of standing up to him, more capable than any of his sons, and he probably wishes she was by his side rather than confined, as by law, to prison. Eleanor still retains romantic notions towards him, even as she forces him to kiss his mistress in front of her – only the audience sees the truth revealed in her eyes, not Henry who is too busy kissing. The uber-male Richard complains to Philip that he never told him he loved him.

Maternal and paternal bonds ebb and flow and throughout it all is the dereliction caused by power. A father will lose the love of the children he rejects. Or, realizing they are more powerful together than as individuals, they could turn against him. The mother faces the same fate – she risks losing the love of the ones she does not back.

Unlike Alfred the Great, the monarchs have stately castles, so the backdrops are more commanding, but once an early battle is out of the way, it is down to the nitty-gritty of plot and counter-plot. A truly satisfying intelligent historical drama.

Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia, 1962) had played Henry II before in Becket (1964) and is in terrific form. Katharine Hepburn (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, 1967) won her second successive Oscar – and her third overall – in a tremendous performance that revealed the inner troubles of a powerful woman, Anthony Hopkins (When Eight Bells Toll, 1971) gave an insight into his talent with his first major role.

John Castle (Blow Up, 1966), Nigel Terry (Excalibur, 1981), Jane Merrow (Assignment K, 1968) and future James Bond Timothy Dalton, in his movie debut, provide sterling support, Dalton and Castle especially good as a sneaky, conniving pair.

This was an odd choice for a roadshow – at just over two hours considerably
shorter than most of the genre. But the 600-seat Odeon Haymarket in London’s West End
was an ideal venue for building word-of-mouth and it ran for over a year.

Modern audiences might bristle at the idea of woman as commodity, but women in those days were the makeweights in alliances of powerful men, though the fact that they bristle at the notion as well evens up proceedings, Eleanor in particular happy to jeopardize Henry’s ambitions in favour of her own, Alais warning Henry to beware of the woman scorned.

Director Anthony Harvey (Dutchman, 1966 ) was deservedly Oscar-nominated. James Goldman (Robin and Marian, 1976) won the Oscar for his screenplay based on his Broadway play which had not been in fact a runaway Broadway hit, only lasting 92 performances, less than three months. John Barry (Zulu, 1963) was the other Oscar-winner for his superb score.  

Mayerling (1968) ****

Sumptuous historical romantic drama set in a fading European empire awash with political intrigue and incipient revolution. Archduke Rudolf (Omar Sharif), married heir to the throne and constantly at odds with rigid father Emperor Franz-Josef (James Mason), sympathizes so strongly with Hungarian dissidents that he threatens to tear apart the Austro-Hungarian Empire. However, when he falls in love with Maria (Catherine Deneuve) and wants to marry her instead that, too, threatens to throw the empire into disarray.

Although dissolute, a mistress (or two) on the side, and addicted to morphine, that is not the way Rudolf is introduced to the audience. Instead, he is one of a string of bloodied men arrested after a demonstration giving his name to an officer in a police station who, once he is recognized, orders all other prisoners be released. He is the poster boy for good royalty. The Hungarians, agitating for independence, want him to become their king.

Beautifully mounted with lavish sets and enough in the way of balls, ballet, processions,  horse riding and sleighs to keep up a steady parade of visually interesting distractions, the films steadily builds up an undercurrent of tension, both between father and son and between rebels and ruler. The emperor is a political genius, not just spying on his son, but full of devious devices to hold together whatever threatens to break up the empire.

The romance develops slowly and with true historical perspective, the first kiss they share is not on the lips, Rudolf kisses both her cheeks, she kisses his palm. Yet, there is a real sense that, no matter his power, they can still both be trapped in roles they despise, separated at the whim of parents. Rudolf, as he understands true love for the first time, finds the self-belief to challenge political certainties.

The regal aspects are well done, arguments about the rule of monarchy come over as heated conversation rather than boring debate, the political realities unavoidable. Rudolf, desperate to avoid a future where someone has to die before he has a reason to live. Escape is not an option.

There is a wonderful bitchy atmosphere in the court, where ladies-in-waiting disparage each other behind their backs, one dress described as “wallpaper,” and are forever seeking advancement. Countess Larish (Genevieve Page) is a self-appointed procurer-in-chief for Rudolf, not caring what chaos she causes.

I should add, if you are as ignorant of your European history as myself, that Mayerling is a place not a person. I tell you this so that you don’t make my mistake of waiting for a Mayerling character to appear. The film pointedly avoids a history lesson but it could have spared a minute to explain that the events depicted take place just 20 years after the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the second largest land-mass in Europe, and among the top two or three nations. That would have helped clarify why Franz-Josef was in such a constant state,  worried about forces that could break up the empire, and as concerned that his son, living such a debauched life, lacked the personal skills to hold it together after his father’s death.

It is ironic that Rudolf does prove his worth as a result of being briefly separated from Maria, taking the army to task for its incompetent officers and poor maintenance of everything from weaponry to horses.

To his credit director Terence Young (Dr No, 1962) does not rely on Omar Sharif’s soulful brown eyes and instead allows action to convey character and looks and touch the meaning of his love. This is probably Omar Sharif’s best role, one where he clearly made all the acting decisions rather than being over-directed by David Lean as in Doctor Zhivago (1965). Catherine Deneuve is equally impressive as a far-from-docile innocent, especially given the wide range of more sexually aware characters she has created for Repulsion (1965) and Belle de Jour (1967).

James Mason (Age of Consent, 1969) is superb as the conniving emperor, so rigid he will not approve a change of buttons for the army, so cunning that an apparent rapprochement with his son has unseen strings attached. Ava Gardner (55 Days at Peking, 1963) sweeps in briefly as an empress protective of her son and making the best of life in a gilded cage. Also impressive are Genevieve Page (Grand Prix, 1966) and James Robertson Justice (Doctor in Distress, 1963) as the high-living British heir nonetheless under the thumb of his mother Queen Victoria.

Terence Young also wrote the literate, often amusing script, although Denis Cannan (A High Wind in Jamaica, 1965) and Joseph Kessel (Night of the Generals, 1967) are credited with additional dialogue. While Francis Lai (The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl, 1968) wrote the score he relies heavily on classical music from Aram Khachaturian’s Spartacus.

If you come at this not expecting a David Lean style affair full of striking compositions, but an old-fashioned drama advancing at leisurely pace, you will not be disappointed.

The Last Duel (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

A surprisingly contemporary core, bolstered by a quartet of excellent performances, drives Ridley Scott’s bold Rashomon-style historical tale. Despite its length it’s less of a historical epic in the style of Gladiator (1999) and more of an intimate and intricate exploration of power – and its lack. Each of the main characters, including and especially the women, while exerting some kind of power nonetheless are in thrall to a superior being whose word is absolute law. Challenging that authority could result in instant death. It’s a slow-burn for sure but exerts a tenacious grip as the story unfolds from three points-of-view to a double climax, both riveting for different reasons.   

And it’s far from typical Ridley Scott except in attention to historical detail. The battle scenes are almost perfunctory – in fact few end in victory – and except to demonstrate bravery do not follow the usual heroic template. There’s none of the trademark Scott cinematic sweep although the duel itself is exceptional.

Scarred to the point of facial disfigurement Damon has never played a character like this before.

In 14th century France Marguerite (Jodie Comer), wife of Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), accuses Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) of rape, the accusation finally settled by duel to the death. All three characters are given the chance to give their version of the story and this is where it becomes fascinating as shades of personality are filled in.

At the outset Jean comes across as brave, impulsive, marrying Marguerite to save her honour (her father is a traitor), and when wronged willing to challenge authority. But as other perspectives unfold he is revealed as blustering, ambitious, more interested in his wife’s sizeable dowry than her honour, over-proud, and a poor manager of his estate. While brave, educated and charming Le Gris turns out to be a greedy, conniving bed-hopper. Initially presented as a grateful wife and little more than an adornment Marguerite is revealed as the most courageous of all, an able estate manager, challenging the King, accepting the prospect of death rather than, as was apparently the custom of the times, allowing the rape to go unremarked.

Comer is a revelation and you could argue she steals the picture from her more experienced colleagues. There is an astonishing scene where she realises that, her husband’s bravery notwithstanding, he has condemned her to a terrible death should he lose the duel.

The sexual mores of the era are examined in depth, the worst examples of male prerogative sometimes just touched upon in passing, for example, since a wife is her husband’s property, in law he is the one besmirched not her. In taking sexual power as his central theme rather than the triumphs and woes of the men, Scott takes a huge risk in alienating a following expecting more action and cinematic bravura, but the bold story-telling pays off and although starting with Alien (1979) the director has a record of strong female characters this has more in common with Thelma and Louise (1991) where wronged women are backed up into a cul de sac.

Rejecting the heroism route allows Scott to present far more rounded characters. None of the four principals conforms to type. Damon is neither the common man nor the action hero, but a boor. Driver is neither charming seducer nor outright villain but somewhere in between, living on his wits. Comer cannot rely on female machismo or cleverness but must remain stout in the face of an onslaught of humiliation. And mention must be made of Ben Affleck as Pierre d’Alencon, employer of Le Gris and master of Carrouges, who is cocky, immoral, amoral, greedy, shifty and cunning. Other standout performances feature Alex Lawther (The Imitation Game, 2014) as a gleeful king and Harriet Walter (Atonement, 2007) as a loathsome and cruel mother-in-law. I just hope Oscar voters recognise at least some of these perfomances.

A blond and goateed Affleck as you have never seen him before, cockiness running riot, with a mean streak a mile wide, the epitome of Middle Ages entitlement.

It’s worth paying attention to the screenplay by Nicole Holofcener (Oscar-nominated for Can You Ever Forgive Me, 2018) and Damon and Affleck (their first joint effort since Good Will Hunting, 1997) and note how the language the characters employ changes according to the perspective. Words that we imagine in one section that appear to be spoken by one character in another section are delivered by someone else entirely.

I am a huge fan of Ridley Scott and while I came looking for adventure in the style of Gladiator (2000) or his other historical masterpiece Kingdom of Heaven (2005) I came away more than satisfied in the way he altered his style to suit the story almost in the same manner as he had done with American Gangster (2007), another picture about power.

You will probably be aware by now that this has been a colossal box office bomb and although the film has enormous merit you can see why audiences looked the other way. Oddly enough, I think it will acquire a bigger audience through small-screen streaming since it is really a drama.  I would still recommend catching it at the cinema but there’s fair chance it will not last for its full 45-day window.

I tend to judge directors not by critical acclaim but by a more rudimentary measure – how often I watch their pictures. I have seen Alien, Blade Runner (1982), Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster, the Martian (2015)  and even the flawed Prometheus (2012) and Black Hawk Down (2001) more than half a dozen times each – often three or four times at the cinema – and I have a notion that The Last Duel will comfortably fit into this elite.

Seven Seas to Calais (1962) ***

In between hi-hat Hollywood endeavors The Time Machine (1960) and The Birds (1963) Rod Taylor made a couple of pit stops in Italy. Here, he tries his hand at a swashbuckler and does a pretty good job of it, depicting famed English naval hero Sir Francis Drake, in a story that covers about a dozen years from him circumnavigating the globe to masterminding the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Not content with glorifying tales of his derring-do as he robs the Spanish of their gold, the producers also mine a rich seam of political intrigue as the Spanish King Philip II seeks to nullify the English threat first by a treaty and then by conspiracy before embarking on full-blown invasion. Queen Elizabeth (Irene Worth) proves a political maestro, telling the Spanish what they want to believe and condemning Drake’s activities in public while in fact privately financing his expedition and relying on his booty to fund her navy.  

After putting down a potential mutiny, most of Drake’s time is spent plundering Spanish galleons or gold mines. When not pillaging, Drake takes time out from his adventures to discover potato and tobacco and for a romantic dalliance with what appear to be Native Americans (judging from the feathers they wear) including a young woman called Potato (Rossella D’Aquino). It is left to his number two Malcolm Marsh (Keith Michell) to carry the main subplot which has French beauty Arabella (Edy Vessel) in his absence taking up with Babington (Terence Hill), a traitor with an eye to freeing the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots (Esmeralda Ruspoli).

There are more than enough swordfights for purists and Drake employs a certain amount of cunning and bravado in his various piratical enterprises. Clever filming makes the ships look realistic enough, though in long shot they do resemble toys. In making it look as though Drake has returned from his voyage in the nick of time to save Elizabeth from the Spanish aggressors, the producers neatly kaleidoscope the actual time frame. Elizabeth takes no prisoners and there are spicy exchanges between the queen and the pirate.

Rod Taylor presents a more muscular and athletic screen persona than in any of his previous pictures and his presence exudes authority but he also has that lightness of tone that would become a trademark. However, American stage actress Irene Worth just about plays him off the screen, her regal bearing hiding an agile mind.  Keith Michell (The Hellfire Club, 1961) makes a strong impression as does future spaghetti western star Terence Hill, (They Call Me Trinity, 1970) credited here as Mario Girotti. Edy Vessel (The Thief of Baghdad, 1961) only made two more films, although one was Fellini’s (1963). This was the second film outing after Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) for Esmeralda Ruspoli

Strangely enough, given the part Drake played in English history, he has been dealt a poor hand in the movies. A British television series Sir Francis Drake (1961-1962) starring Terence Morgan was unlikely to have instigated this picture so it is odd to rely on Italy for the only picture, regardless of its veracity.

In the portfolio of veteran director Rudolph Mate (When Worlds Collide, 1951), this immediately followed on from The 300 Spartans (1962) but lacks that film’s rigor and vigor. The script was dreamt up by Filippo Sanjust (also Morgan the Pirate).

CATCH-UP: Rod Taylor pictures reviewed in the Blog are The Liquidator (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), Hotel (1967) and Dark of the Sun (1968).

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