Category Archives: Period Piece

Caravan (1946)

You’ll oblige me by keeping her ladyship out of that dirty mind of yours.”

Based on a novel by Eleanor Smith, Caravan, a costume drama from Gainsborough Pictures is set in the 19th century and features versatile Stewart Granger at his swashbuckling best. Granger plays Richard Darrell, a penniless author who hopes to make his fortune in order to marry his childhood sweetheart, Oriana Camperdene (Anne Crawford). Darrell, the son of an English country doctor and a Spanish mother has no fortune of his own, but he’s not without talent. His childhood was spent brawling with the gypsies, poaching on the land of the wealthy,  and picking up various survival skills. One of Darrell’s significant childhood relationships is with Oriana, but he has competition in the form of wealthy Francis Castleton. Francis is a sneaky underhand boy who grows up to be a cruel womanizer who will stop at nothing to possess Oriana. Flashback scenes from Darrell’s childhood establish his early rivalry with Francis over Oriana’s affections.

When the film begins, Darrell, eyeing a window full of succulent food, contemplates using his last coin to buy supper, but fate intervenes when Darrell comes to the aid of wealthy Spaniard, Don Carlos (Gerard Heinz) who is robbed. Darrell not only fights the two men who are attempting to rob Don Carlos, but he also returns him, wounded, to his home. Don Carlos, a dealer in precious jewels, is grateful to Darrell, and arranges to get his book A Way Through the Woods published. Then he employs Darrell to deliver a priceless necklace which once belonged to Queen Isabella back to Spain. Darrell takes the mission because it will help fund his writing career and enable his marriage to Oriana, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to leave her.

While Oriana and Darrell see their separation as the necessary precursor to their marriage, Francis (a dastardly Dennis Price), sees Darrell’s trip to Spain as an opportunity to rid himself of his rival. Darrell’s departure leaves Oriana unprotected as her father has recently died, and since he gambled away most of the estate, she is left with a 100 pounds a year on which she must live. Francis sees Oriana’s penury and isolation as the perfect setting to manipulate her into marriage, and with Darrell off to Spain, Francis plots the destruction of his rival using his evil sidekick, Wycroft (Robert Helpmann),  and he also leads Oriana into believing she is in his debt.

If this all sounds like great melodramatic romance and exotic adventure, well it is. We have the star-crossed lovers, Oriana and Darrell who become separated by circumstance–some planned and some caused by fate. The exotic sets are mostly just that–studio sets, so don’t expect much authenticity here. In fact, the film’s glaring weaknesses are apparent in the opening credits when we see the back of man with  a guitar who is supposedly serenading a woman up in a balcony. Apart from the fact that if he is singing, the song goes on for far too long, he never moves, so the opening creates a wooden artificiality while the opening was supposed to set the scene for romance. With Caravan, you have to accept the fake stuff to enjoy the fun of the story which is over-the-top at times. Caravan is basically a 1940s version of a bodice ripper, and there are plenty of allusions to what goes on behind bedroom doors including a libidinous husband who promises not to demand his rights and then immediately reneges on the deal. The marvellous Jean Kent plays Rosal, a hot-blooded gypsy girl who makes her living as a dancer, and this involves banging a huge tambourine and stamping the floor from time-to-time. The passionate, wild,  and jealous Rosal is in complete contrast to the very correct British Oriana. Both women love Darrell of course, and here he’s cast as an Errol Flynn type character with all of his physical abilities on bold display: boxing, horse riding and even whipping. The film’s best scenes include Francis and Oriana–although there’s another marvellous scene involving  a group of London prostitutes who meet Oriana.

Dennis Price is deliciously evil as the dastardly Sir Francis, and he has the best role and the most memorable lines in the film–some of which refer to Ariane’s sexual incompetence, suggesting at some points that she could learn a few things from prostitutes and that she needs to start delivering the goods. Due to its sometimes over-the-top moments, Caravan does have its camp factors, so just sit back and enjoy the show. The story is great fun–believable or not.

“You see my dear, I suffer from an exaggerated sense of property and having gone to the trouble of getting something, even though it may be rubbish, I have the awkward habit of hanging onto it.”

Directed by Arthur Crabtree

Leave a comment

Filed under British, Period Piece

Under Capricorn (1949)

“You took part in an unsavoury debauch.”

Whenever I watch a film that deals with the old convict days of Australia, I wonder how modern-day Australians feel about this part of their history, so that thought cropped up as I watched the lesser-known Hitchcock film, Under Capricorn. Based on the novel by Helen Simpson, this should be a torrid tale of passion–the classic love triangle–or quadrangle– that takes place in the heat of 1831 Australia amidst the snobbery and hypocrisy of British rule. The film isn’t entirely successful as it never seems to go quite far enough into the dark corners of human nature, but it’s still well-worth catching.

Appropriately the film begins with the arrival of the new governor played with a perfect touch by Cecil Parker– a man who’s quietly appalled by the conditions he’d rather not see. The Governor has a poor relation in tow, second cousin Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), and there’s the unspoken idea that while the penniless Adare is supposed to somehow or another make his fortune in Australia, he’s also been sent there as some sort of last-ditch effort in recuperation. Adare, who’s Irish, is very open to the notion of making new acquaintances, and his merry countenance indicates an openness that’s lacking in the prim-and-proper Governor and his staff.

Adare almost immediately strikes up an acquaintance with Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten)–a so-called “emancipationist” which is a delicate term for ex-convict. Although Flusky has served his 5-year sentence for murder and is now a wealthy landowner, he’s ostracised from the upper echelons of Australian society. Flusky invites Adare to his home for dinner, and the Governor warns Adare that under no circumstances must he ever dine at the home of an ’emancipationist.‘ This is a country in which newcomers are advised not to talk about the past, and while that may indicate that the past is supposedly forgiven and forgotten, that’s not true. An intense snobbery reigns about origins–it’s just not discussed. This lack of discussion is mirrored throughout life in 1830s Australian society, and consequently we see no small amount of neurotic and sadistic behavior that takes place behind closed doors. Flusky chafes at the fact he’s not good enough for the ball at the Governor’s Mansion, and yet he treats his convict servants like a pack of wild animals. Several times throughout the film, he threatens his staff with their “pink slips.”

Adare, intrigued by Flusky, and in direct defiance of his cousin, arrives at the Flusky estate at dusk. The coachman who delivers Adare to the gates, refuses to go inside the mansion “Minyago Yugilla” which is translated to mean: “why weepest thou.” The coachman’s reluctance to enter the estate seems to be a wise move, for Adare, unable to gain entry to the mansion peers through to the kitchen where he spies one servant being held down while she’s whipped by another.

Things inside the Flusky household don’t get any better. The dinner party turns out to be a bizarre event, and while various local men of substance attend, all of their wives beg off with various excuses of ill health. It’s an “epidemic” Adare notes as he grasps the social consequences.  Even Flusky’s wife Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman)  is absent–ill supposedly–until she makes a dramatic appearance barefoot and drunk.

As fate would have it, Adare remembers Henrietta as a glamorous figure from his youth, but the Lady Henrietta he once knew no longer exists–Henrietta Flusky is now an alcoholic who hoards bottles of booze in her bedroom, and while she’s largely confined to her room, the treacherous viper of a housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton) rules the roost with delectable sadism and religious hypocrisy. It’s obvious that there’s an unhealthy undercurrent to the Flusky household , but what went wrong? A young vibrant and defiant Henrietta eloped with Flusky who was her family’s groom, and while this may explain the giant chip on his shoulder, there’s obviously something unhealthy simmering beneath the surface.

Under Capricorn has gothic elements which are never fully realized–there’s the build-up around Adare’s arrival, for example, the business with the shrunken heads, and then there’s Henrietta’s madness… she’s unhinged at the beginning of the film but then seems to undergo repair under Adare’s encouragement. The plot also hints at some darker elements which are never explored. At one point, for example, Adare asks Henrietta how she survived financially in Australia during the 5 years she waited for Flusky. This question seems to cause some mental anguish, so we are left to guess the answer to that one.

Hitchcock first became interested in Under Capricorn when he was sent a copy of the novel. He claimed that he made the film for Ingrid Bergman, yet ironically the filming placed some strain on the relationship between Hitchcock and his leading lady. Before shooting finished, scandal swamped Ingrid Bergman due to her much publicised affair with Italian director Robert Rossellini. Bergman and Rossellini subsequently left their spouses in order to live together–a relationship that led to Bergman’s ostracism from Hollywood for several years, and the bad publicity at the time did little to help Under Capricorn at the box office.

Leave a comment

Filed under Hitchcock, Period Piece

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

It’s been years since I first saw the 1952 film, My Cousin Rachel, and a rereading on the book written by Daphne du Maurier sent me on a hunt for a copy. Du Maurier is probably best remembered for Rebecca, and while I think the film adaptation of du Maurier’s novel Rebecca is excellent and much glossier, it seems strange that the film should hold such a premier position in film history (there’s even a Criterion version) while its poor relation My Cousin Rachel– has almost disappeared from view. Rebecca starred Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and George Sanders and was directed by Hitchcock. The film won Best Picture and Best Cinematography at the 1941 Academy awards. My Cousin Rachel, directed by Henry Koster, racked up a number of Academy Award nominations in 1953 but no wins. One of the Oscar nominations went to Richard Burton for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, but he lost to Anthony Quinn for his role in Viva Zapata (Burton won a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year). My Cousin Rachel was Richard Burton’s first American film, and the film’s salacious trailer calls him a “newcomer.” Burton is young here and doesn’t yet have the screen presence to dominate–but then again perhaps it’s because the character he plays, Philip Ashley, is a very confused young man whose judgement is clouded by sexual desire.

My Cousin Rachel is set on Daphne du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall coast, and most of the action takes place there with just a short sidetrip to Florence. The story opens (as does the book) with Ambrose Ashley (John Sutton) taking his small orphaned cousin and ward, Philip to see the corpse of a hanged man swinging in the wind. Ambrose admonishes Philip that the dead man’s fate is the result of out-of-control passion–a dire and prophetic warning as it turns out.

Fast forward to Ambrose now a middle-aged man and Philip (Richard Burton) in his twenties. Ambrose’s health necessitates a winter abroad, and the two men part–somewhat reluctantly. Ambrose’s winter abroad extends into the spring and the summer along with the news that he’s made the acquaintance of a distant cousin–a widow named Rachel Sangalleti. This is shortly followed by the astonishing news that Ashley, a confirmed bachelor, has married the widow. Some months later, Philip begins to receive strange incoherent letters from his cousin which indicate not only that he is seriously ill but also that he suspects Rachel of poisoning him. 

Alarmed, Philip rushes off to Florence, but he’s too late. Ambrose is dead, and with a new will unsigned, all of Ambrose’s property falls to Philip….

Then some time later, Rachel arrives in Cornwall at Philip’s estate ostensibly for a short visit. When she first arrives, Philip is primed to accuse her of murder, but he’s immediately stunned by her sweet pliant nature and he’s soon won over by Rachel’s persistent, gentle charm.

The premise of both the film and the book is whether or not Rachel killed Ambrose. There are certainly clues that argue both points–although I think that ultimately the book was far more ambiguous. This is due, no doubt, to du Maurier’s skill as a writer, but perhaps the visual aspects of the film and some of the facial expressions caught by the camera add a dimension that is, of course, absent from the book. Gothic film frequently explores the vulnerability of women and the predatory nature of men, and this film cleverly plays with that idea, so as the drama unfolds, we see both Rachel and Philip as predator and victim depending on our view of the events.  Olivia de Havilland is perfect as Rachel–at times she appears youthful and innocent, but at other times a flicker of an expression passes across her features, and we wonder–as Philip does–just what she is capable of. Meanwhile neighbour and now guardian Nicholas Kendall (Ronald Squire ) and his daughter Louise (Audrey Dalton) are reluctant onlookers and have no doubt that Rachel’s conduct is questionable at best.

There’s no small amount of sexual manipulation afoot, but all those involved have some degree of self-interest, so when Kendall tries to warn Philip about Rachel, is he perhaps unhappy to see his daughter, Louise (Audrey Dalton) cast aside for Rachel? 

Camera shots make great use of shadow to enhance the drama and unexpressed fear of the characters, and some of the action set against the back drop of the wild Cornish coast emphasizes the depths of hidden, explosive and destructive passion. One of ideas implicit in the film is that Rachel’s somewhat unconventional behaviour (she continually invites Philip into her boudoir) is due to her ‘Italian ways,’ and indeed her open and easy affectionate manner with Philip sets his head spinning. Underneath this sexual tension, however, is the idea that Philip’s repression, once unleashed, will lead to destruction. Anyway, I know where I stand on the subject of Rachel’s innocence or guilt, and for those interested in the book or Gothic drama, the film really is a marvellous little gem and well-worth catching.


Filed under Drama, Period Piece

The Man in Grey (1943)

“Has anyone ever told you what a slut you are?”

I read somewhere that the 1943 film, The Man in Grey is a bodice ripper. This unfortunate description does not accurately describe this excellent period piece film set in Regency England. The Man in Grey isn’t pure breast-heaving romance–although it does contain elements of romance. It’s also a tale of innocence and skullduggery that explores the treacherous relationship between two very different women. The film is based on one of the novels written by Eleanor Smith (also known as Lady Eleanor Smith).  Eleanor Smith is now almost completely faded into the shadows, and that’s a shame as she was a great storyteller. Think along the lines of Jamaica Inn and that’s the sort of high drama/romance/adventure that you typically find in the novels of Eleanor Smith. She also had a great passion for gypsy lore, so it should come as no surprise that a gypsy appears in a signficant role twice in this film. A number of films were made from her novels: Caravan (1946), The Man in Grey (1943), The Men in Her Life (1941), Gypsy (1937), and Red Wagon (1933).

The film is a frame story, beginning and ending in WWII Britain with an auction at the Grosvenor’s Square home of the Marquis of Rohan. The last marquis in the line has been killed in action at Dunkirk, and so the contents of the house (and possibly the house itself) are up for sale. A brash pilot, (Stewart Granger) introduces himself to a young woman in uniform (Phyllis Calvert). He tells her that he’s connected with the Rohan family in a vague way, and as it turns out she’s Clarissa Rohan, the last of the Rohans. The pilot is at the auction to bid on an item, and the first few moments focus on a Regency era portrait of Lady Rohan (also played by Phyllis Calvert) and the contents of her trinket box.

Then the film segues to Regency times–specifically to Miss Patchett’s School in Bath. The pupils are young ladies from the higher echelons of society who are expected to marry well, but there’s a new arrival Hesther (Margaret Lockwood). Hesther is well-aware of the humiliations of being the object of charity, and when the kindest pupil, Clarissa tries to befriend her, Hesther initially rebuffs her attempts. Eventually the girls part ways and Clarissa is introduced to the Marquis of Rohan (James Mason). Rohan, a notorious rake and duellist is required to produce an heir, but as one of his acquaintances notes: “I wouldn’t give him a dog I cared for.” This doesn’t bode well for Clarissa, but she agrees to marry him to please her guardian. Rohan doesn’t love his wife, but since he has to produce an heir, he does so with as little fuss, and affection, as possible.

Years pass with the Rohans leading separate lives in their Grosvenor Square home. Clarissa doesn’t love her husband, and she has no illusions that he loves her. But at the same time, she seems to be aware that her life is empty. She’s never experienced love or romance and that lack, of course, makes her vulnerable. Fate brings Hesther back into Clarissa’s life once more. At this point, Hesther is scraping a living as an actress with a troupe of traveling actors. She claims to be a widow, and Clarissa, struck with pity and terribly lonely, urges Hesther to return with her to London.

To quote the Marquis de Sade: No good deed goes unpunished.

The Man in Grey is full of marvellous performances from its stellar cast. Character and fate play substantial parts in the story that develops, and we see that human nature is immutable; the good characters cast into lives where they brush up against wickedness do not change due to the experience, and neither do the wicked improve from their proximity to decency. Included in the cast is Stewart Granger as the dashing actor Peter Rokeby and Nora Swinburne in a small role as the Prince Regent’s mistress, Mrs. Fitzherbert.

The film doesn’t overdo it with its portrayal of the wicked Marquis of Rohan. We know he’s a cad due to a scene that takes place between the Marquis and his mother, and we see glimpses of cruelty when he arranges a dog fight. Clarissa doesn’t see this side of her husband, and for a great part of her life, her innocence serves as a protection. The Marquis is attracted to Clarissa’s friend, Hesther, and under other circumstances, they’d be made for one another and would very likely bring each other only misery. When the Marquis tells Hesther, “I could cherish a wicked woman,” she takes that comment entirely too seriously.

The costumes and the settings are marvellous, and it’s intriguing to see Clarissa and Hesther together. Clarissa looks innocent, kind and good, and Hesther manages to look like a Regency tramp. There are some great scenes from Lockwood as she flips into her personas of the caring, supportive friend and the slutty mistress. In one great scene, Hesther says she “doesn’t like sugary things,” and that comment, of course, is directed towards sweet Clarissa. The film’s best scene, however, takes place when Hesther visibly wrestles with her conscience.

On the down side, the film includes a white child actor (who plays Clarissa’s page) blackened with make-up so that he appears to be black. It’s appalling, and no less so as one of the scenes depicts Othello with Rokeby in the lead role. There are also a few references to Rokeby’s “lost” estate in Jamaica, taken by “half-crazed savages.”

The Man in Grey is considered the first of Gainsborough Studios costume melodramas release, and if you enjoy it, then I recommend a companion film The Wicked Lady with the same stars (Lockwood and Mason), and the same director, Leslie Arliss.


Filed under British, Period Piece

Tsar (2009)

“I return good for good and evil for evil.”

If you want to understand why Ivan the Terrible earned his name, then seek out a copy of Tsar from director Pavel Lungin. Tsar is every bit as atmospheric as director Lungin’s The Island (Ostrov) and as entertaining as Tycoon (Oligarkh). As with other Russian historical films, the viewer should come to the film with a little back ground information–otherwise the film’s beginning sequences will seem confusing.

It’s 16th century Russia, 1565 to be precise and this is a pivotal time in Ivan’s reign. In a nutshell, this is the point when Ivan the Terrible goes completely bonkers. He’s convinced that the last days are nigh, and politically he faces many enemies at home and abroad. Tsar is essentially a distillation of a fairly brief portion of Ivan’s bloody reign which focuses on the relationship between Ivan (Pyotr Mamonov) and his childhood friend Philip (Oleg Yankovskiy), a Russian orthodox monk. Philip is living in the Solovetsky Monastery when he’s asked by Ivan to become the Metropolitan (Metropolitan Bishop). Philip agrees on the condition that Ivan abolish the  Oprichnina and its enforcers, the Oprichniks–a band of political police who wear black cowls and who ride with wolves heads on their saddles. These Oprichniks are on the loose in the film, running amok, organizing repressions, mass murders and torture of anyone who falls into their sphere–it doesn’t seem to matter if the victims are guilty or not of crimes against Ivan.

Anyway, this is the background for the film; Ivan agrees to disband the Oprichnina; Philip agrees to become Metropolitan and then Ivan breaks the agreement. The men find themselves on opposite sides of the monarch-god divide with Ivan busy punishing everyone he can get his hands on and Philip pleading for mercy. It’s not a rare thing for a ruler to challenge the power of the church, or for the church to question the absolutism of the monarchy; there have been other examples which ended in death: Henry II and Thomas a Becket, Thomas More and Henry VIII, but perhaps the clash between Metropolitan Philip and Ivan is more spectacularly bloody. Most of the story follows their tumultuous relationship–with Ivan demanding and Philip eventually refusing to grant forgiveness for Ivan’s crimes.

The film doesn’t have the greatest subtitles, and so a certain amount of tolerance is required from the viewer, but apart from that this is a spectacular film, a marvelous recreation of the excesses, insanity and utter cruelty of this barbaric age. As expected, there are some scenes of torture, and in one rather gruesome scene, a bear, set loose in an arena, eats the intestines of a man while Ivan and the court look on this ‘entertaining’ scene. Ivan watches with a little girl sitting on his lap. The child, a daughter of one on Ivan’s now dead enemies, asks Ivan in hushed tones if ‘it hurts,’ and Ivan joyfully replies, “of course,” stressing the idea that the pain is the entire point.

In another sequence, Ivan and his equally nasty Tsarina (he burned through eight wives by the way) Maria (Ramilya Iskander) are escorted in sleighs through the snow to see what at first seems like some sort of amusement park, but the amusement park doubles as a torture centre. Ivan is delighted and can’t wait to try it out. Ivan vacillates between acts of tremendous cruelty and periods of self-imposed isolation and prayer, and actor Pyotr Mamonov brilliantly captures the dangerous moods–sliding from craftiness to paranoia seamlessly. As Ivan sinks deeper into sadistic madness, Philip gains a calm acceptance which Ivan challenges and attempts to overturn. Ivan finally uses Philip’s nephew in a cruel attempt to smash Philip’s equanimity. The question becomes at what point should a voice of rationality and sanity divorce itself from the excesses of an insane monarch and refuse to cooperate with the madness.

This is a beautifully made film with incredible touches at just the right moment. Divided into four segments, the film charts Ivan’s actions as he’s plagued with military losses and paranoia over possible (and well-deserved) betrayal. With omens of the last days, the Poles beating his armies, and with the virgin daughters of the Boyars enslaved to prepare Ivan’s new church, the film reflects and thus propagates Ivan’s infectious Armageddon mentality. In one of the most delicately handled scenes that could so easily have folded to excess, monks are burnt alive and we see them kneeling and singing but their voices are silent as the smoke swirls and the flames lap the building. For a visual spectacle, Tsar is marvellous as it recreates some of the more infamous moments including the massacre of Novgorod. In the film’s unsettling final scene, it remains unclear whether a ghostly wind carries faint cries or if it simply echoes through the deserted dwellings of Novgorod.


Filed under Period Piece, Russian

The Queen of Spades (1982)

“I am not in a position to sacrifice the necessary in the hope of gaining the superfluous.”

queen of spadesThe Queen of Spades (Pikovaya Dama) directed by Igor Maslennikov is an exquisite Soviet made-for-television film amazingly faithful to the Pushkin short story, and for those of us who love Russian or Soviet period pieces, it’s a joy to watch.

The film begins with a present day narrator, an elegant woman, the great actress Alla Demidova, who’s walking in the streets of St Petersburg as she tells the long-ago story of gamblers who play cards late at night. The narrator opens the door to a room in which the 19th century characters are assembled playing cards, and this is the seamless transition to the Pushkin story. One of the men, a German, a young engineer named Hermann (Viktor Proskurin) is not a gambler, but nonetheless rather strangely, he chooses the company of gamblers, and is intent on their game and their talk.

As the night wears on, and the officers sprawl around the card table, one of the officers, Count Tomsky (Vitaly Solomin) tells the story of his grandmother, who in her youth lost heavily at cards and wheedled the secret of a particularly winning combination of cards from Count Saint-Germain. Tomsky admits his frustration that his grandmother, now a frail, elderly woman on the brink of death, refuses to pass on the secret in spite of the fact that her sons have begged her to do so numerous times. Hermann listens closely to the tale–but not so closely that he picks up on its more fantastical aspects. For example Tomsky brags that Richelieu was  in love with his grandmother, yet Richelieu was a 17th century figure who died in 1642. And again, the officer mentions Saint Germain a character whose murky origins are tied to the occult, and who pops up periodically in the midst of fantastic tales. His part in the tale should ring alarm bells for Hermann. But Hermann, so obsessed with the notion that this old lady may hold the key to a fortune, hears what he wants to hear and begins to plan….

In the home of the old lady is a young, impoverished relative named Lizaveta Ivanovna (Irina Dymchenko) and Hermann begins to woo her in order to gain access to the house and to the elderly wilful and cantankerous old grandmother (Elena Gogoleva)….

This version of The Queen of Spades, the classic tale of obsession, is incredibly faithful to the Pushkin story and watching it creates an almost uncanny feeling that someone is reading the book while the scenes play out before our eyes. There are scenes with the narrator that segue into the past, and there are other points at which both the 19th and 20th century share the stage. This merging of past and present creates a sense of delicate timelessness.  The film Russian Ark used a similar method of merging past and present, but whereas in the Russian Ark this dream-like technique serves to underscore the notion of the proximity and influence of past events, in The Queen of Spades, the physical addition of the narrator into the 19th century scenes reinforces the storytelling element. And at the same time this deliberate merging of storytelling with the visual elements of film creates a perfect version of this Pushkin story that seems to unfold from our own imaginations.

Leave a comment

Filed under Period Piece, Soviet

Los Borgia (2006)

“All who come near me have a bleak fate.”

los borgiaThe DVD cover of Director Antonio Hernandez’s lavish production, Los Borgia (The Borgia) promises a lot of blood, but instead this surprisingly good and engrossing film takes a long hard look at the ambitious Borgia clan through the lives of its greatest, most infamous characters: patriach Rodrigo Borgia (Lluis Homar), Cesar Borgia (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) and Lucrecia Borgia (Maria Valverde). I am using the spelling of the names as used in the film, by the way. The sets are magnificent and the costumes are sumptuous. If you enjoy historical films or are at all curious about The Borgia, then seek out a copy of this colourful film.

When the film begins, the power of the Borgias is waning, and then the scene segues into the past–twelve years before–with the election of Cardinal Borgia to the highly coveted, powerful and lucrative position of Pope. As Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo rules from the vatican, slotting his bastard children into power spots. While Juan (Sergio Muniz) becomes the Duke of Gandia, Cesar becomes a most unsuitable cardinal. And Cesar seethes with jealousy as his brothers marry and go off to battle while he stays in Rome wearing the scarlet robes of a cardinal.

The film charts the Borgias’ phenomenal rise to power through land grab, murder and marriage. Most of the carnage takes place off screen in this character-driven film. Wise choice given with the subject matter. It helps to keep the characters straight by brushing up a little on your Borgia history before starting the film. Characters include Sancha of Aragorn (Linda Batista), Burkard (Roberto Alvarez), Cardinal Della Rovere (Eusebio Poncela), Perotto (Diego Martin) and Caterina Sforza (Paz Vega). As with most historical films based on fact, the plot plays with some elements and condenses others.

History hasn’t been kind to the Borgias, and the film makes this point through its portrayal of Lucrecia. Lucrecia was married off three times–all political matches–and when politics changed, well Lucrecia’s spouses had to go too. Some tales colour Lucrecia as a ruthless woman who was as murderous as her brother and father, but this film portrays Lucrecia sympathetically as “currency” used by her family to further their political ambitions. The historical allegations of incest lodged against Lucrecia are addressed by incidents depicted in the film, and scenes portray Cesar and Lucrecia’s deep love and loyalty to one another. But again history hasn’t been kind to Lucrecia–according to some tales, she bore a bastard child when locked up in a convent, and this perpetuated the incest rumours. And while it was all part of the Borgia plan to continually marry Lucrecia off as un-soiled goods, it didn’t help that both her father and her brother claimed the child as their own (by another mother, of course).

The film makes it clear that Rodrigo operates with a vast ambitious plan to rule Italy in mind. All the Borgias realize that they are a part of history, referring to the family as an organic force rather than as individual members. And, of course, as pope, Rodrigo makes sure that “god’s will” conveniently coincides with his own ambitious plans. There’s one scene that takes place within the vatican. It’s an orgy of sorts, and naked girls frolic and dance with Lucrecia. Rodrigo has a great line about beauty being one of God’s greatest gifts. Everything: murder, power grabs, rape, orgies–well it all fits right along with god’s plans for The Borgia.

While Machiavelli admired Cesar Borgia’s skills as a tactician and wrote his book The Prince with Cesar as its model, here Cesar is portrayed as a psycho. The act of stabbing people in the back through the heart, in other men would be seen as murderous or cowardly, but Cesar, as son of the pope, gets immediate absolution no matter the crime. Cesar’s knee-jerk reaction to insults hint at mental imbalance (and his case of Syphilis is mentioned). Several scenes show Cesar pushing his father’s ambition along into new brutal solutions. There’s little here to hint at any traits that inspired Machiavelli’s admiration for Cesar’s intelligence and wiliness. Instead the film takes the approach that Cesar is unleashed to commit state crimes using his father’s power. And that he has a glorious time doing it while others wait to seize power back from The Borgia.

1 Comment

Filed under Period Piece

The Taming of The Shrew (1967)

“Why, there’s a wench. Come on and kiss me, Kate.”

We were having a chat here the other day about Shakespeare, and as usual it ended with me arguing for the comedies over the tragedies. One thing led to another, and I pulled out my copy of The Taming of the Shrew. It had been years since I last watched it, and I wondered if it was as good as I remembered.

It was…

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt of their day–the celebrity couple who intrigued audiences everywhere. That said, Taylor and Burton flaunt their considerable talents in this colourful Zeffirelli production, and flexing those often-atrophied acting muscles, they show audiences just how capable and talented they were. The Taming of the Shrew showcases both Taylor and Burton at the peak of their talents, and it’s a film that allows both of these seasoned performers some of the best roles ever. If you have any doubt that either Taylor or Burton couldn’t hack Shakespeare, well just get your hands on this DVD and watch.

And while you are at it, think of Jolie and Pitt in Shakespeare….The image doesn’t work for me. More evidence that Hollywood is firmly in the toilet these days. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy Jolie and Pitt–I do. I’m still chuckling over Pitt’s role in Burn Before Reading, but something tells me this pair couldn’t stretch to Shakespeare.

Taylor and Burton were married at the time The Taming of The Shrew was made, and somehow the two of them do seem comfortable on the stage with each other. It’s even amusing to see them fighting and watch the sparks fly as Petruchio (Burton) courts the firebrand Katerina (Taylor). I think most people should know what the story is about, but just in case:

A wealthy merchant has two daughters, Katerina, the elder, and Bianca, the younger (Natasha Pyne). While Bianca has several suitors, Katerina’s fearsome reputation (well-earned) has frightened all the men away. Since the father will not marry off Bianca before her elder sister, the suitors concoct a plan in which they persuade Petruchio to woo the wilful heiress. The rowdy courtship sequences between Burton and Taylor have to be the high point of the film.

taming of the shrewThe Taming of the Shrew is one of Taylor’s best roles–although it’s hard to beat Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? (Burton and Taylor) or Butterfield 8 (Taylor and Laurence Harvey).  Taylor looks gorgeous here and the sumptuous costumes accentuate her dark beauty. The supporting cast is impressive and includes Michael York, Alfred Lynch, and Cyril Cusack.

The film’s tagline is: “A romantic film amorously devoted to every man who ever gave the back of his hand to his beloved…and to every woman who deserved it.” That sort of statement strikes a nerve these days and the film’s message probably went over well in Shakespeare’s time–after all Queen Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII dispensed with wives as easily as tossing aside a pair of underwear. The film’s underlying message: obedience to one’s husband no matter what (even if he’s insane, for example) is a bit nauseating and certainly hasn’t stood the test of time. But that aside, if you want to get a ‘feel’ for the play, then don’t read it (Shakespeare is meant to be performed). The Taming of the Shrew is a glorious, lively, amusing homage to Shakespeare, and if you haven’t seen it because you think it might be cheesy, then cast your doubts aside and grab the DVD.

Leave a comment

Filed under Period Piece

Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955)

“I’ve seen more tears run down the pretty faces than the plain ones.”

Many years ago I saw the film The Red Velvet Swing–a story of the explosive love triangle between prominent New York architect, Stanford White,  Philadelphia millionaire Harry K. Thaw and showgirl, Evelyn Nesbit stayed with me. The three formed one of those poisonous cocktails of a relationship, and it all ended badly with one of the most infamous murder trials of the 20th century.  The film is based on this true story, and the names of the major players haven’t been changed. Note I didn’t say the guilty or the innocent here, but more of that later. I’ve thought of the film–and its characters–quite a bit over the years, and when I saw a copy recently, I decided it was time to revisit the film.

red velvetSet in The Gilded Age, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing is an explosion of colour and rich sets, but in spite of all its gorgeous trimmings, the story falls down by a superficial, uninteresting and whitewashed version of the character of Evelyn Nesbit. She was the only one of the three main characters alive when the film was made. All three of the main characters are whitewashed, by the way, but the script at least created well-formed characters in White and Thaw.

The film’s strength is to be found in its portrayal of White (Ray Milland) and Thaw (Farley Granger). The plot indicates that this pair were feuding (Thaw had been barred from White’s gentleman’s club and Thaw thought White was responsible for this) long before Evelyn Nesbit (Joan Collins) arrives on the scene. The plot implies that some of this was envy. White is an elegant gentleman and considered New York’s first citizen. Thaw is rich, but from Philadelphia, and for all of his throwing his money around, he still can’t seem to get the respect that White commands with his elegant grace.

White is introduced to Evelyn by another chorus girl, and the two women are then invited to lunch at one of White’s secret hideaways. This particular hideaway is behind a shop, and the film captures Evelyn’s naivete and wonder as she steps inside and views an exotic apartment designed by White. A brief affair ensues with Thaw’s anger growing as he realizes that White got to the girl he liked first. The plot plays with the idea that Thaw’s main interest in Evelyn comes from the fact that she is White’s, and over the course of several scenes, White and Thaw are like two dogs with a bone–the bone being Evelyn, of course.

While White and Thaw are strongly-drawn characters (White as elegant gentleman and Thaw as a loony with two handlers in tow), Evelyn’s character is problematic. Naive to the point of perpetual victimhood, she’s a bit of a ninny. The plot gives us hints that both White and Thaw are ‘deeper’ than shown here–White for example has the debris from a party strewn over his love nest, and what about the business with the pie? In the same vein, Thaw’s unhealthy relationship with his mother indicates where some of the problems spring from. But that leaves us with Evelyn. Here she’s a gorgeous face (and vain about it), yes, but empty as a drained coke bottle. It’s hard to imagine anyone being driven to insanity or murder by this woman. She’s too docile.

The film is directed by Richard Fleischer who directed a number of noir titles including Narrow Margin and Follow Me Quietly. Marilyn Monroe was originally slated for the role of Evelyn but was replaced by Collins. The dialogue isn’t great, but there are a couple of allusions to the sex sneaked in behind all the heavily whitewashed drama. In one of the film’s most visually stunning scenes, White pushes Evelyn higher and higher in a swing he has set up in his little love nest, and the empty swing indicates…well watch it and see. In another scene, Evelyn proudly lights White’s cigar and gushingly confesses that she used to light her father’s cigar and never “choked once.” Perhaps I have a dirty mind, but I wondered about that line.

The film’s determination to avoid the more salacious details and create the innocent and the guilty spoilt the true real-life tale. The plot sets White and Evelyn’s mother as the moral centres of the film with both characters vainly trying to ‘save’ Evelyn from debauchery. It’s impossible to miss White’s hypocrisy though. It’s fine if he debauches Evelyn–just as long as no one else does. The plot sweeps away this awkwardness by depicting White as so in love with Evelyn that the poor bastard couldn’t help himself. So he has to ship her off to a boarding school in order to keep his hands off her. The truth of the matter, which seems to matter little to the film’s plot, was far from that depicted here. In reality, there were no innocents–just shades of guilt. Back to that poisonous cocktail again, and back to the idea that should a film based on real-events make more of an effort to show what really happened?

According to author Michael MacDonald Mooney’s book, Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White, Love and Death in the Gilded Age (which I read after watching the film), the relationship between Thaw, White and Nesbit was much more complex and corrupted than shown. In sparing our sensibilities, and pleasing the censors, truth is the victim here.

1 Comment

Filed under Period Piece

By the Sword Divided (1983-1985)

”So be it. We must act out our parts. But let us do it with honor and without any personal sense of animosity.”

If there is such a thing as a miniseries, then I’d argue that there is such a thing as a maxiseries, and this term is perhaps the much better way to describe By Sword Divided. With 20 episodes at 50 minutes each, it’s a commitment to begin and finish this series. It’s available as an entire boxed region 2 collection.

The story revolves around the Lacey family. They live in Arnescote Castle (Rockingham Castle)  and the family patriarch is widower Sir Martin Lacey (Julian Glover). When the story begins, Lacey is arranging a marriage–a love match–for his eldest daughter, Anne (Sharon Maughan) to John Fletcher (Rob Edwards) son of wealthy merchant Austin Fletcher (Bert Parnaby). There’s the implication that this match is a bit of step down for the Laceys, and Austin Fletcher, a man who knows the power of money, drives a hard bargain when it comes to the dowry. Meanwhile, Anne’s younger sister, Lucinda (Lucy Aston) is betrothed to Sir Edward Ferrar, and Anne’s twin, Tom (Tim Bentinck) is off fighting on the continent. This first episode hooked me into the story as it sets the stage for the various divisions that take place.

by the sword

As the rumblings of civil war begin, it’s clear where the divisions will be. Anne Fletcher’s loyalties, for example, will be tested between her husband and his parliamentary leanings, and her Royalist family. The civil war effectively divides the family, but it’s not that simple–there are complex cross loyalties that occur, and it’s these that make the series so interesting. For example, Lucinda–a very single minded passionate woman, throws herself into the Royalist cause so deeply that she refuses to speak to her sister Anne, yet as events unfold, her brother rescues both Anne and Lucinda at different points in the story from boisterous cavaliers. The series shows how complicated the situation was–it’s not just the roundheads vs the cavaliers. Both Lacey and Austin Fletcher, for example, disapprove of King Charles I’s attitude towards parliament and his staunch belief in the Divine Right of Kings, but what they do about it, and where the lines are drawn is the stuff of this meaty maxiseries.

While the series goes to great pains to create grey areas in which conflicting loyalties wrestle endlessly, there are a few purely bad characters–villains we loathe whose fortunes wax and wane as the series continues. But what’s so particularly good is the depiction of the servants too. Working classes are all too often ignored as they are not seen as the ‘movers and shakers’ of events. But in By the Sword Divided, it’s clear that the servants are also victims of the civil war. Should they remain loyal to their ‘masters’ the Laceys or–as one person states–do their loyalties belong to those who feed and shelter them? Relationships between the servants become strained and old friendships are forgotten as the country plunges into war. The wily Austin Fletcher is, to me, one of the interesting characters. While he possesses unflinching opinions, he also intends to ride out the storm, and just how he manages this makes for some riveting twists and turns of the plot.

Adultery, murder and treachery abound as the conflict deepens, and some of the characters develop or devolve in rather unexpected ways. John Fletcher begins the series as an idealistic young lawyer and then his morality is gradually eroded by ambition until he approves of religious fanaticism at its extremes and even endorses Cromwell (Peter Jeffrey) as the next king.

Now since ‘history is written by the winners’, the series certainly comes down on the side of the Royalists. Well they were a much more glamorous bunch–no argument there. But the roundheads are generally as seen as a surly, murderous horde, and if the series can be faulted it should be faulted on those points. The role of Charles I is played with grace and dignity while Cromwell is seen as rather a lout, pimply and unpleasant. Some additional information about the Parliament vs. Charles and his notion of the so-called Divine Right of kings could have been expanded, but our sympathies are supposed to be with the Laceys through their turmoils. One episode contained an aside about the Levellers–those who thought that the exchange of power that had taken place should have given them “natural rights” and equality. They found out the hard way that an exchange of power is not the same as a social revolution

The second series is weaker than the first and a couple of episodes were just silly. The episode involving Hugh bordered on soap territory and the episode with Cromwell at dinner at  Arnescote was ludicrous. But that said, overall, By The Sword Divided was well worth viewing, and by the time it concludes we see how war has divided everyone, and how everyone has been altered and diminished by their experiences as they are set morally adrift by the conflict. The quote at the top of the page is spoken at the very beginning of the divisions within the country, and you can reflect upon the naivete of the statement at the conclusion of the series:

”So be it. We must act out our parts. But let us do it with honor and without any personal sense of animosity”


If you like period pieces, then By The Sword Divided is well worth catching. The sets and the costumes are sumptuous, and the acting stellar. The episodes touch on the major battles and events in the entire Civil War (the First Civil War 1642-1646, the Second Civil War, 1648-1649 and the Third Civil War 1649-1651)  and there are brief appearances of Prince Rupert (Christopher Baines) and Charles II (Simon Treves).


Filed under British television, Period Piece