Sunday, April 13, 2014

Film Review: "The Sword and the Rose"

The third of Walt Disney's British live action pictures, The Sword and the Rose, released in 1953, is a lavish and surprisingly sophisticated if not terribly substantial costume drama. The plot concerns Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, and her saucy reluctance to fall in with her brother's plans for her matrimonial future. History, however, is largely set aside, a decision that assists an already unwieldy plot, heavy with action but lacking emotional weight. In the film, Mary Tudor has the impudence to defy her royal brother and the wit to keep her head on her shoulders, but she comes very close to the edge of his patience when she refuses to marry the elderly King of France, which would thereby seal a peace treaty between the two monarchs. Mary wishes to marry commoner Charles Brandon, an adventurous hero who, excelling at fighting, fencing, and hunting, has already won the fickle respect of the king. Meanwhile the Duke of Buckingham, as slithery as an eel, desires to marry Mary, and driven by jealousy, complicates an already torturous path towards either true love or tragedy.

Mary Tudor is played by the lovely Glynis Johns, who would go on to play Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins for Walt Disney and the leading lady in The Court Jester opposite Danny Kaye. Her exceptional performance holds together a plot that is full to bursting. Her lover Charles Brandon is played by Richard Todd, in a graceful and courtly performance that might have been improved with a less romantic sensibility, while Michael Gough plays the Duke of Buckingham with a delightfully malevolent charm. The male standout of the cast is undoubtedly James Robertson Justice, who plays Henry VIII with vigor and a half-sinister, half sensuous gleam in his eye. Justice's performance is dwarfed only by Charles Laughton's immortal portrayal of the much-married monarch in The Private Life of Henry VIII.

The fast pace and frothy cleverness of the spare dialogue, particularly as proclaimed by James Robertson Justice, keep the film from tedium or silliness. Overall, The Sword and the Rose is a surprisingly adult film, its dialogue demanding a fairly sophisticated awareness of gender and class politics, and it has aged quite well, particularly given how very dated similar films seem today. One thinks of Knights of the Round Table, which stars Robert Taylor, normally so good, but quite ridiculous with a startling American drawl in a suit of clanky armor, and Ava Gardner, bursting from a variety of sumptuous bodices and spouting flowery language with astonishingly little emotion. The Sword and the Rose has the full benefit of a strong English and French cast and a rather more fluid, economical screenplay (credited to Lawrence Edward Watkin, but with much input from director Ken Annakin and Walt Disney himself).

The direction by Ken Annakin (who would go on to direct Swiss Family Robinson) is solid and the art direction by Carmen Dillon is luxurious and really quite lovely; the men's costumes in particular are pleasingly balanced between historical accuracy and twentieth century ideas of masculinity.The editing by Gerald Thomas is capable and the score by Clifton Parker, though not terribly original or exciting, nevertheless effectively carries the film forward. Special mention should be made of Peter Ellenshaw's spectacular visual effects. Ellenshaw, who after this film signed a lifetime contract with Disney, was a magician, whose extraordinary matte paintings elevated many films into fabulous spectacles, including this one. Though this film certainly does not belong in the echelons of great Disney live action films like Pollyanna, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Treasure Island, it is a creditable and highly entertaining swashbuckling costume drama, one whose pleasures have not faded even in the seventy years since its release.

The Sword and the Rose can be rented or bought through Disney's VOD channel on youtube.

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