Not long ago I watched Alexander Korda’s classic 1933 film The Private Life of Henry VIII, which starred Charles Laughton (in an Oscar-winning role) as the corpulent English king with six wives, and it occurred to me how reliable and enduring Henry has proven to be as a character in modern cinema. From Laughton in 1933 to Robert Shaw in 1966 (A Man For All Seasons), Richard Burton in 1969 (Anne of the Thousand Days) and Eric Bana in 2008 (The Other Boleyn Girl), Henry VIII has a pedigree in British cinema second perhaps only to James Bond. And it’s not just Henry, either. There’s a whole genre of costume drama films, usually made in Britain, centering around that magic period of history that one might call, with a little fudging, the “English Renaissance”: Henry VIII, his daughter Elizabeth I, associated figures like Mary Queen of Scots, Lady Jane Grey and Sir Thomas More–essentially the 16th and early 17th centuries when England caught the Reformation and ultimately emerged as a world power. These films have a set of conventions all their own which have remained remarkably stable from the 1930s to the present day; even now the latest such film, Elizabeth: The Dark Age is in production. I thought it would be an interesting article to explore some of these conventions which tell us as much, and probably more, about cinema as they do about British history.
Trope #1: A Big Personality (In History and on the Screen).
The first and most important ingredient to a successful English Renaissance movie is to pick a larger-than-life personality from the pages of history, preferably one that can be portrayed by an A-list actor or actress. Henry VIII is a obvious choice, as is Queen Elizabeth I, who’s especially interesting because cinematic dramas can be spun around virtually any part of her life. But you’ve got to have a great performer animating the subject. In addition to the Henry VIII performances I mentioned above, Elizabeth has been played by Cate Blanchett twice, in Elizabeth (1998) as a young woman and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) as middle-aged; presumably she’ll finish off the character in Elizabeth: The Dark Age. The Virgin Queen has also been played by Glenda Jackson in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) and in an Oscar-winning turn by Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love (1998). Even beyond these two there are great figure-actor pairings possible, such as Sir Thomas More (Paul Schofield), Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles), Oliver Cromwell (Richard Harris), Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester), or Mary, Queen of Scots (Vanessa Redgrave, Samantha Morton). An English Renaissance film that involves one or more of the Redgraves, either of the Fiennes brothers or Timothy Dalton is especially well-esteemed.
A Man For All Seasons, which won numerous Oscars in 1966 including Best Picture, is one of the exemplars of the English Renaissance genre in cinema. It hits all the tropes listed in this article.
Trope #2: Sex, Intrigue, or Preferably Both!
The way these English Renaissance movies are made, you can almost hear the cigar-chomping studio executive at the pitch meeting. “Well, if we’re going to have kings and queens and men running around in velvet tights, we need some sex in this movie, right?” These pictures are custom-made for steamy intrigue, but most resist the impulse to become “bodice-rippers.” Although Genevieve Bujold in 1969’s Anne of a Thousand Days is definitely ravishing, do we really want to see Richard Burton as Henry in bed? Elizabeth pairs the future Queen with Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes), an actor who did double duty that year romancing Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love. Much forgotten in this genre is Lady Jane (1986), where a young and beautiful Helena Bonham Carter as Jane Grey catches the interest of Guilford Dudley (Cary Elwes). Even the English Renaissance films that aren’t sexy, like A Man For All Seasons, make up for the lack of steam with a lot of behind-the-scenes court intrigue. Preferably you need both, but in a pinch one will do.
Trope #3: Gargoyles, Fanfares and Velvet Costumes.
The look and feel of these English Renaissance movies, especially those made in the 1960s and 70s, follows a pretty rigid formula. Most of these films begin either with shots of the pastoral fields of England at dawn or dusk, or else close-ups of medieval and Tudor-era architectural features, particularly gargoyles. A Man For All Seasons begins with gargoyles, as does Cromwell, which is about the English Civil War but close enough to still be considered an English Renaissance film; it follows most of the other conventions. The first music on the soundtrack should preferably be a fanfare played with brassy trumpets. Of course, costume designers grow giddy at the thought of these kinds of movies. Tudor and Elizabethan-era clothing are a delight for modern costumers: prepare for a lot of brocaded fabric, colorful hats, dangly earrings (even on men; Colin Firth wears one in Shakespeare in Love), giant billowing skirts, and velvet tights for men. It’s rare for a high-budget English Renaissance film not to get at least an Academy Award nomination for Best Costumes.
An overlooked entry in this genre is Lady Jane from 1986. In this trailer you’ll notice several tropes, including fanfares, velvet costumes, banquet scenes, etc. Extra bonus: a pre-Star Trek Patrick Stewart!
Trope #4: Banquet Scenes.
Chances are good that an English Renaissance movie will contain a scene taking place at a lavish court banquet, with long tables of goblets and food like roast chickens, huge loaves of bread and plates of fruit displayed. If Henry VIII is a character in the film, he’ll probably be shown eating like a wolf and throwing bones over his shoulder. A proper banquet scene must have entertainers, or at least a dance. The music should consist of a small band where someone is playing a recorder and someone else has a mandolin. In fact, this convention appears so often in these films that I imagine unemployed British musicians hastening to form recorder-and-mandolin duos to improve their job prospects. Naturally something dramatic must happen at the banquet scene: someone falls in love, an adulterous affair is exposed, or someone makes a political enemy. The words “sire” and “your grace” will be repeated a lot in these scenes.
Trope #5: The Tasteful Execution.
Because so many of these films involve historical characters who were executed in real life–Thomas More, Mary Stuart, Anne Boleyn, etc.–an execution scene, either as the finale or at least somewhere near the end, is virtually a must. Naturally the execution itself is far too bloody to be shown on-screen in these mostly tasteful movies, so a cinematic convention has sprung up around them: usually the executed character will say something pithy to the hooded axeman, kneel down on the chopping block, and then there’s a quick flash of the axe, a CHOP! noise on the soundtrack and then silence (or fade to black). In more recent films the camera will zoom in on the frozen face of the victim–tastefully, of course–a technique borrowed from Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. But someone always dies in these films, usually by a king or queen’s orders.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age, made in 2007 and the sequel to 1998’s Elizabeth, is one of the more recent English Renaissance films. Reportedly a third film in the series is in the works.
I don’t think the film industry, whether in Hollywood or in Britain, will ever tire of the English Renaissance. Something about the clothes, the power, the majesty, the sex and the political intrigue of the 16th and 17th centuries captivates the imagination of the English-speaking world. Enough of these films have been made now over the last 80+ years that they’ve developed a language and a style all their own. In an era where few people know that much about history that’s substantive, films such as these are becoming a primary means for people to explore at least the basic contours of the common histories of American and English societies. Although their historical accuracy is often wanting, even for a historian these films are a guilty pleasure. And some of those costumes really are stunning.