I’m back! After a hiatus of a couple of months (a lot going on), I’m here again to rip apart some of the best (and worst) ‘historical films’ of all time. Most of which I have a tragic love-hate relationship with. On one hand…they are historical. On the other hand…they are sometimes crap.
Today is a little-known and even-less-frequently-cited period drama from 1969, Anne of the Thousand Days.
Though Richard Burton is known for playing Thomas Becket, Mark Anthony, and Elizabeth Taylor’s husband/jewel provider, he also played Henry VIII, and a lot of people don’t remember it. Probably because he’s a pretty ineffectual Henry. Anne Boleyn is played by beautiful Canadian actress Genevieve Bujold, and Irene Papas plays an extremely stereotypically Spanish Katherine of Aragon. The film begins with the courtship of Henry and Anne and concludes with — what else? — an execution scene (wouldn’t be a real Anne Boleyn film without it — take notes, Sophia Coppola!).
Most of the film is done in flashback-mode. The film begins with Henry, writing out the execution orders for the myriad accused lovers of Queen Anne Boleyn, his second wife. He pauses when he gets to her execution order, and wistfully cries “Nan!” (There is no basis in fact that Henry ever referred to Anne Boleyn as “Nan” — this is fabrication by the screenwriter.)
Cue flashback: Henry is disappointed that Katherine has been unable to provide him with a male heir, and he publicly chides her for this as they are sitting, watching a lively group of dancers, one of which is, of course, Anne Boleyn. Katherine, mortally offended and hurt, stalks from the room, leaving Henry to dance with Anne. Irene Papas, while a good actress, looks nothing like the real Katherine, being slender, with olive skin, dark eyes and hair. Katherine of Aragon, though slender at the time of her marriage, had grown plump by the time Henry’s affair with Anne commenced. She also had pale skin, red hair, and blue eyes.
Anne is in love with Henry Percy (the guy that The Tudors totally eliminated), and they are on the brink of announcing their engagement, when Henry orders Cardinal Wolsey to break the engagement so he can have Anne for himself. In reality, the engagement was never something that was going to happen; Percy was already (unhappily) betrothed and, as Wolsey’s protege, would never have been allowed to marry Anne Boleyn. Anne is enraged to discover that her love affair with Percy has been brought to an end, not just by Wolsey, but by King Henry, who wants her for his mistress.
Before her confrontation with the king, she speaks with her sister, Mary Boleyn, Henry’s mistress, who has just found she has been cast aside in favor of her pretty little sister. Mary, pregnant with the king’s son, warns Anne not to be heedless as she was; once the King has had her, he will throw her away. Anne never knew that Henry VIII was behind Wolsey’s breaking of her relationship with Percy. Had she known, it is unlikely that she would have laid the blame squarely on Wolsey’s shoulders, nor would she have been so eager to cast him down from favor. Furthermore, no matter what Philippa Gregory would lead you to believe, there is no contemporary evidence that links any of Mary Boleyn’s children to Henry VIII. Henry is known to have sired one bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, and he was pleased enough to acknowledge him — something he never did with any of Mary Boleyn’s children.
Between Henry’s spoiling of her love affair with Henry Percy, and her sister’s admonition, Anne has absolutely no intention of allowing herself to be seduced by Henry, which she makes perfectly clear by rebuffing his advances, and even worse, insulting him to his face. This has the unfortunate effect of only inflaming Henry’s desire, and he warns Anne that he’ll never let her marry another man until he has her. There is no record of Henry boldly professing such shamelessly manipulative behavior during his courtship with Anne. When Anne sees the futility of her situation, she makes up her mind to strike the ultimate deal with Henry: she’ll surrender to him, but only as his wife and Queen of England, not as his mistress. She will provide him with a son and heir…as long as no one can ever call him bastard.
Thus begins seven long years of torment, in which Henry appeals to Rome for an annulment, is denied, and holds a court in England to try his case, which is also denied. When the final judgement is found for Katherine, Anne is shown listening outside the doors, sobbing. It is difficult to tell whether she is doing so out of joy or frustration, which I thought was an interesting ambiguity worthy of a Gold Star. Henry confronts Anne afterwards and tells her that he will never rest until he has his annulment and hears her say she loves him. Anne denies loving him still, and Henry goes to storm away. In that moment, Anne rushes to him and falls into his arms, declaring that she does, indeed, love him. They consummate their relationship that evening.
Anne meets Henry Percy in the gardens outside the palace shortly afterward. Percy is angry at his unfortunate marriage and disgusted with Anne, not only for forsaking him, but for yielding to the King. Anne tells Percy that she love the power her new position as Henry’s lover has given her. There is no proof that Anne did not feel this way, but it would have been very unwise for her to so publicly reveal her sentiments when Henry was convinced that she loved him for himself, not for the position she would marry into. When Henry appears, she leaves Henry Percy and tell her royal lover that she is pregnant with his child. With this truth in evidence, Henry quickly has his marriage declared null and void by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, and marries Anne.
After the wedding, all seems a paradise for Anne and Henry, until the baby is born — a girl, Princess Elizabeth. Anne is immediately hysterical at the thought of her failure, but is cheered by her father’s insistence that there will be “a boy next time.” Henry is not told by his ministers of this unfortunate trick of birth (what minister in his right mind would not have told him?) and he appears in Anne’s chamber ready to greet his long-awaited son and heir. Richard’s acting in this scene is magnificent — you can see the exact moment when Henry realizes that he has moved heaven and earth to marry Anne, only to discover that she has failed to live up to her end of the bargain.
Years go by, and we see another court dance, as Henry’s eye wanders over the dancers. This time, it is Jane Seymour who catches the king’s eye, and Queen Anne, chided for her failure to produce an heir, who stalks from the room in silence.
Frightened as she realizes the tenacity of her position, Anne begins striking out blindly at her perceived enemies — Queen Katherine of Aragon, who is dying, and Sir Thomas More, the King’s longtime friend and tutor. Katherine of Aragon dies after a long wasting disease that is believed to be cancer, with her daughter, Princess Mary, vowing to avenge her mother’s death. Mary and Katherine were separated when Katherine was banished from court just before the King’s marriage to Anne; they would never meet again, and Mary was certainly not at Katherine’s deathbed. Anne succeeds in convincing Henry to execute Sir Thomas More, but immediately after his death, she miscarries a child — a boy.
Henry is now determined to get rid of Anne, so that he may make a third marriage, to the Lady Jane Seymour. Cromwell invents a story — that Anne has been committing adultery with members of the court, including her musician, Mark Smeaton, and her own brother, George Boleyn. In order to (literally) squeeze a confession from Smeaton, Cromwell orders him tortured with a knotted cord around his eyes. This story is taken from a contemporary witness known to be maliciously-intended to show how corrupt Henry’s court was; it has been all but proved false by historians. Anne and her accused “lovers” are arrested and tried at Westminster Hall.
Henry, who up until now has made great show of believing Anne’s guilt, arrives in court to witness the proceedings, which did not happen in real life; Henry stayed studiously away from the court that decided his wife’s fate. Upon hearing what he knows to be a lie from Smeaton, about days and times that he confessed to sleeping with Anne, Henry immediately proclaims him a liar. Just as Anne thinks he is going to declare her innocent, Henry seems to realize what he is doing, and changes his mind.
What follows is one of the best scenes in historical film, and sadly, all of it is inaccurate. Anne is seen in her chamber, waiting for her execution, when Henry visits her, both to ask if she’ll agree to annulling her marriage in order to save her life, and to ask if she did commit adultery. Anne denies that she was unfaithful, but refuses to grant him the annulment, for such an action would bastardize Elizabeth. Henry goes to leave, and Anne stops him, telling him that she lied and that she was unfaithful with many, but that Elizabeth was hers, and that she’ll be a greater queen than any son Henry could produce. Henry slams the door shut, and Anne dissolves into tears once she is alone again. Henry never came to see Anne again after her arrest. Anne was given the opportunity to declare her marriage null and void in the interest in saving her life, and she did so, even knowing that Elizabeth would be bastardized. It sucks that such an amazing scene is fake, but there you go. Anne is executed in a scene that, for the most part, is relatively accurate (her execution speech is omitted), and the final scene shows Henry joyfully riding off “To Mistress Seymour’s!” as he hears the cannons fire, and little Elizabeth practicing walking in a train, while Anne’s words of admonition to Henry repeat.
My Opinion: The film is rife with historical inaccuracy, that can’t be denied, and Burton plays a merely passable Henry VIII. But the real star is Genevieve Bujold. She plays Anne with the perfect amount of innocence and cunning. This is really one of the only adaptations of the life of Anne Boleyn that paints her in a favorable light.
It’s a decent, if somewhat long, film, and I would recommend it to the casual historical film fan, if only for Bujold’s interpretation of Anne.
Rating: *** (of 5 stars)