The Tudor era (1485-1603) has proved an irresistible period for filmmakers, perhaps because of the presence of so many larger than life figures. There are few depictions of the mature Henry VII – the only ones of note are John Woodnutt in the BBC series The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Peter Benson in The Black Adder – although he does feature in adaptations of Shakespeare’s Richard III, played by actors such as Stanley Baker and Dominic West. Neither Edward VI nor Queen Mary have been much better served, although the latter is played by a memorably deranged Kathy Burke in Elizabeth (1998). But the story of Henry VIII and his wives has been replayed many times on film and TV with two series taking us through his reign – the largely historically accurate Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970) starring Keith Michell and the not remotely accurate The Tudors (2007-10) with Jonathan Rhys Meyers as a notably un-obese Henry. Elizabeth has also had her share of exposure, with a notable BBC series, Elizabeth R (1971), covering the whole reign.
The figures surrounding royalty have also received some attention, particularly in the book Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell’s relationship with Henry VIII, which received a TV adaptation in 2014 starring Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis. But the most significant work on the theme of courtier and monarch remains Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, first performed 1960 and filmed by Fred Zinnemann in 1966.
The film is the story of Thomas More’s battle with his staunchly Roman Catholic conscience during the period in which Henry sought a divorce from Anne Boleyn and subsequently made himself head of the Church of England. It began as a disagreement between him and the king and ended with a show-trial engineered by Thomas Cromwell which resulted in More’s execution. The role of More, a gift for a leading man, made a star of Paul Scofield, who had played the part on stage. His rational and gentle yet believably defiant performance is a fine example of a quiet actor holding the screen, even when matched with more extravagant playing from Robert Shaw as Henry and Orson Welles, hunched like a giant slug, as the dying Cardinal Wolsey. A long and wordy film, it remains riveting even if the central dilemma – the primacy of Papal authority over that of the king – is not entirely sympathetic to many modern viewers. Indeed, the less savoury and perhaps entertainingly sleazy aspects of More’s character are glossed over – his taste for expletives is sadly not in evidence. But it’s a lavish and gripping film, beautifully photographed, which demonstrates that a clash of ideas can be as exciting as a clash of swords.
Anna Boleyn (1920)
Director Ernst Lubitsch
This isn’t the first film to feature Henry VIII – the first, a British production from 1911 is lost – but it is the first to really set him in the imagination as a colourful figure. This is largely due to the performance of Emil Jannings, on his way to becoming a major star of German cinema, who imbues the monarch with a surfeit of dangerous charisma, prone to alternate fits of merriment and tyrannical aggression.
Made on a generous budget by UFA, the film is packed with spectacle and is somewhat atypical for Ernst Lubitsch, the master director of comedy, although it serves as a companion piece to his historical drama Madame DuBarry (1919). There isn’t a great deal of historical accuracy on display here, particularly in the sentimentally conceived character of Anna (sic) Boleyn, played with the distinct breath of amateur dramatics by Henny Porten. But Lubitsch’s direction rarely falters; it’s particularly inspired towards the end when the settings begin to close in as Anna meets her tragic fate.
The Private Life of Henry VIII. (1933)
Director Alexander Korda
Designed specifically as a vehicle for Charles Laughton and his wife Elsa Lanchester, Alexander Korda’s film builds on the Jannings template and once and for all establishes the image of Henry on screen as a roistering, capricious child suddenly finding himself the most powerful man in the world. Once again, as is the case with most films in this list, historical accuracy is very low on the agenda, but this handsomely mounted production does succeed in giving Henry a certain vulnerability, focusing on the marriages rather than the politics. It virtually ignores Catherine of Aragon, beginning instead with the execution of Anne Boleyn, and it’s Lanchester who gets the best of the female roles as Anne of Cleves.
As he had done in his previous film, Island of Lost Souls (1932), Laughton never fails to be at the centre of his scenes but he rarely goes over the top, kept in check by Korda’s firm direction and a flavoursome script from Lajos Biró and Arthur Wimperis. Significantly for Korda, and the national film industry too, it was one of the first British films to be a massive hit in the United States, and Laughton won an Oscar for his performance.
Mary of Scotland (1936)
Director John Ford
One of the most unlikely productions to have been undertaken by John Ford, Mary of Scotland is, according to his biographers, largely significant as evidence of his grand romantic passion for Katharine Hepburn. Certainly, the film is packed with Joseph August’s rapturous monochrome close-ups of Hepburn – who looks stunning but plays Mary Queen of Scots with an occasionally irksome kind of moping petulance – while showing considerably less interest in characters who should be important such as Bothwell, played as a rather damp romantic lead by Fredric March.
However, Ford was incapable of making a totally uninteresting film, and there are some powerful scenes, particularly those involving Elizabeth I (played by Florence Eldridge), a part which is much better written than Mary. Mary’s personal secretary David Rizzio is also played with interesting shading by John Carradine. The film tends to reduce the political intrigues to the level of a cheap romance but ends with a rousing trial sequence.
Fire over England (1937)
Director William K. Howard
If Charles Laughton set the standard for all future Henrys, then Flora Robson does the same for future Elizabeths in this wildly entertaining, very silly costume drama set in 1588 during the battle with the Spanish Armada. She is wonderfully imperious, slyly flirtatious and very funny as the Virgin Queen and tends to overshadow the romantic plot which involves Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, already lovers in real life and playing opposite each other for the first time on screen. Both look stunningly beautiful, which allows you to ignore the idiotic plot which requires Olivier’s callow hero, pirate’s son turned spy, to lead the fight against the Armada, while Leigh’s bright young thing sits at court and does a lot of pining.
The whole production is dressed to kill and allows for choice titbits from a strong cast, which includes a very young James Mason, Robert Newton and a devilishly nasty Raymond Massey as Philip II of Spain.
The Sea Hawk (1940)
Director Michael Curtiz
Flora Robson repeats her Elizabeth in this Hollywood blockbuster. This one also deals with the period around 1588 but does so as a vehicle for a team reunited from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938): director Michael Curtiz, composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold and stars Errol Flynn, Alan Hale and Claude Rains. Flynn’s character Geoffrey Thorpe is loosely based on Francis Drake (with a lot of additional acrobatic swashbuckling), while Rains plays Don Alvarez, a Spanish rogue with perfect English diction who gets to be half of a villainous double act with treacherous nobleman Henry Daniell. Elizabeth and Thorpe do a lot of flirting with each other but he ends up with a Spanish beauty called Dona Maria.
It’s clear, however, that Elizabeth’s real love affair is with her country, as the film culminates in a patriotic speech about liberty against tyranny that was clearly meant to refer as much to Britain in 1940 as the country during the Tudor period. Generally considered one of Errol Flynn’s best films, it’s particularly memorable for Korngold’s musical score – a major influence on next-generation film composers such as Elmer Bernstein and John Williams.
Mary Queen of Scots (1971)
Director Charles Jarrott
Although its merits as a film may be open to debate, Mary Queen of Scots seems to be a beloved film for many people, not least for the casting of Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth, hot from her TV success in the role in Elizabeth R. As in John Ford’s Mary of Scotland, the basic historical error is front and centre – in real life, Mary and Elizabeth never met whereas here they meet twice – but it does allow Jackson to lock frocks with Vanessa Redgrave, in fine form as Mary. Meanwhile, there’s all manner of not-entirely-accurate hijinks going on involving conspiracies, spies, and bisexuality, all decked out with luscious costumes and scenery.
As well as the two leading ladies, we have Ian Holm discreetly getting it on with Timothy Dalton, Patrick McGoohan scheming his head off as James Stuart, Trevor Howard sagely advising, and the ever-reliable Nigel Davenport stealing scenes playing Bothwell as the perfect macho romantic hero.
Carry On Henry (1971)
Director Gerald Thomas
It says a lot for the public perception of Henry VIII in 1972 that a lot of critics commented that Sid James was perfect casting for the role. Certainly, he seems to be having a whale of a time, bolstered not only by a welter of old jokes from Talbot Rothwell but also Barbara Windsor and Joan as two extra wives invented for the occasion. This might bring the historical veracity of the film into question – a suspicion bolstered by an appearance from Guy Fawkes who wasn’t born until 23 years after Henry’s death.
It looks rather more lavish than the other series entries from the period, largely due to the use of costumes from Anne of the Thousand Days which was filmed in the UK in 1969. Otherwise it’s business as usual with entertaining contributions from the regulars – and surely even the most po-faced detractors must surely raise a smile at the casting of Charles Hawtrey as a highly-sexed character called Sir Roger De Lodgerley.
Director Sally Potter
Sally Potter’s ambitious, riotously successful adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s satirical 1928 novel is only partially set during the Tudor era. But this is where the most significant event occurs, as the young male (albeit androgynous) courtier Orlando – stunning played by Tilda Swinton – is summoned to the side of the dying Queen Elizabeth and promised land and a fortune if one condition is met: “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.”
Unable to meet the requirements of masculinity in the 17th century, Orlando becomes a woman and is embroiled in a court case that seeks to prove that she was a woman all along and thus not entitled to the land bestowed upon her. This is accompanied by a variety of witty encounters with a bitchy critic of poetry, various historical figures and a romantic hero straight out of a novel. Needless to say, Potter’s film is like nothing else ever made and the Tudor scenes are especially special, not least for the rather touching (and not remotely camp) casting of Quentin Crisp as Elizabeth.
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Director John Madden
By far the biggest commercial success of any film on this list, Shakespeare in Love is perhaps weighed down by its award-winning reputation and deserves to be reconsidered as a witty light romantic comedy with sharp dialogue and amusing performances. In dealing with Shakespeare’s problems while writing Romeo and Juliet, it suggests that he found inspiration in a love affair with an actress named Viola whom he first meets while she is dressed as a man.
The film is packed with references both subtle (The Merchant of Venice) and obvious (Twelfth Night) to Shakespeare’s other plays, as well as with figures from contemporary history including the Earl of Wessex and Edmund Tilney (portrayed as one-note villains), the actors Richard Burbage and Ned Alleyn, and fellow writers Christopher Marlowe and John Webster. Its tone of romantic longing and lusty comedy hit the spot with the late-1990s audience, as did Judi Dench’s Oscar-winning performance as Elizabeth I. Appearing for only eight minutes, she just about walks away with the whole film.
Director Shekhar Kapur
Historical accuracy is again in short supply in Shekhar Kapur’s political thriller, based on events around Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, but it doesn’t really matter because it’s done with such immense vitality and suspense that you don’t get chance to think until it’s over. Contentious matters include the attempt to make the Virgin Queen less so, the depiction of the Duke of Anjou as a voracious homosexual, and the portrayal of Robert Dudley as not only the Queen’s lover but also a conspirator against her.
Indeed, many of the historical characters who appear are either composites or depicted inaccurately or both. Yet such is the excitement and atmosphere generated by Kapur that we really feel we are in the middle of a genuinely dangerous time when a thing such as a choice of one or other Christian religion meant the difference between life and death. Cate Blanchett’s astounding performance as Elizabeth looks and feels right, and there’s a particularly convincing turn from Geoffrey Rush as Elizabeth’s spy-master and ‘fixer’ Francis Walsingham.