Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"My blood will have been well spent." A Look at Anne of the Thousand Days

"Commend me to his Majesty, and tell him that he has ever been constant in his career of advancing me. From a private gentlewoman he made me a marchioness, from a marchioness a Queen; and now that he has no higher degree of honour left, he gives my innocence the crown of martyrdom as a saint in heaven." --Anne Boleyn, 19 May 1536

Oh, Henry VIII. You sick son of a bazooka. There are few monarchs as fascinating (in a train wreck sort of way) as that English cousin of Bluebeard, Hal Tudor the Eighth. And of course, his six wives: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard, and Catherine Parr. Or as they're more commonly known in some circles: Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived--a rhyme that comes in handy during a Pub Quiz Night after you've had a few too many trysts with the demon liquor to keep all the Catherines and Annes straight. The history of Henry VIII and his wives is as riveting and scandalous as any paperback romance--with the added bonus that it's true. One night when I was eleven years old, I stayed up way past my bedtime to watch Anne of the Thousand Days, an underrated gem from 1968 about the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife and the first to die by execution (her cousin, Katherine Howard, number five, would suffer the same fate) whose reign lasted roughly 1,000 days. It went on to be one of my favorite movies and kindled my love of Tudor history.

Despairing over his first wife, Catherine of Aragon and her "failure" to produce a son (their daughter, Mary--Bloody Mary, that is--would briefly reign), Henry divorced her and married Anne Boleyn in 1533. To do so, he broke with the Catholic Church--which would not grant him the divorce--securing his new wife and years of religious turmoil for his people. However, after becoming queen, Anne's "success" (or lack thereof) bearing children eerily mirrored Catherine's. She produced one daughter, Elizabeth but all her later pregnancies over the course of the three year marriage, ended in stillbirths and miscarriages. In a fury, Henry determined to get rid of Anne and had her arrested on fabricated charges of adultery. Her supposed lovers included several prominent noblemen, a court musician, and even her brother, George. To the surprise of no one, she was found guilty and beheaded on May 19th, 1536. Today! So naturally, what better use for this electronic soundboard than to commemorate executions and the movies they inspire?

Based on the play by Maxwell Anderson and directed by Charles Jarrott, Anne of the Thousand Days is not the best movie to watch if you want the truth and nothing but the truth. It took its fair share of liberties including its portrayal of Anne herself. Anne is definitely the good guy here--albeit a flawed one--while in real life, she could be cruel and even ruthless. Here those elements are mostly pushed aside. But the history is still there (besides anything's better than The Other Boleyn Girl). Here Anne comes alive as a passionate, willful woman ahead of her time who sacrifices her life for her daughter's honor and birthright. All of which has basis in fact. Richard Burton makes a great Henry and I'll always have a special place in my heart for him in the role but Genevieve Bujold owns the movie as Anne. It would not be half as awesome without her. She's intelligent, fiery, wry, and constantly in control of herself even as the events around her spiral out of control. Her slight French accent even works to the movie's advantage. The real Anne Boleyn spent much of her life in France, learning courtly ways among members of French noblity. When she returned, it was said she seemed more French than English. Bujold is brilliant all around. I can't call it an unsung performance (she got an Oscar nomination for it) but it's definitely underrated. And it deserves to be appreciated.

Below is one of the best scenes of the movie. A confrontation between Henry and Anne just before her death in which Anne basically predicts the future. Did this happen in real life? Probably not. But it does drive home how incredible the future Elizabeth I's reign really was. Knowing that she managed to become one of England's greatest monarchs in spite of the tremendous odds against her makes the movie, and particularly this scene, powerfully moving and ultimately triumphant.


  1. Erin:

    I had the same experience with this movie. I saw it in my early teens and have loved Tudor history (and historical fiction) ever since.

    Have you read Wolf Hall? It tells the story of the early part of this period from Thos. Cromwell's perspective. It is very well done.


  2. I have not read Wolf Hall. Not yet, that is. It's on my very long To-Read list; it sparked my interest as soon as I heard the premise. I've always found Thomas Cromwell darkly fascinating. I'm sure a well-written novel in his voice would be great.

    Thanks for reading. I knew I couldn't be the only one who loves this movie.