I was engaged in a recent chat about this subject when I met a colleague I’ve been working with as I stopped for a bite to eat in one of the canteens on the college campus here. We got talking about some excellent movies from the past; black and whites, such as first makes of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rebecca,’ and Agatha Christie’s ‘Witness for the Prosecution,’ and outstanding Ealing Comedies like ‘The Ladykillers.’ Sadly, however, they tend to be largely overlooked these days, and even forgotten.
What is common about these movie examples is that they all have unusual or unexpected endings which also might be called ‘carefully crafted,’ although it’s not the only attribute. The other quality or qualities which they possess are good acting, good drama and perhaps, arguably, the most important ingredient – an excellent script. Good dialogue, together with speaking talents, in my view, are the cornerstone of what holds a good movie together; successfully captivates both the listener as well as the viewer.
The above, by the whole, seems to be what is lacking in films made today. Beautiful drama or action gets mostly overtaken by hyperbole in explosions, a car chase or some gun shoot-out or other by some hero; a single location coupled with creative and innovative props gets swamped by some expensive hi-tech special effect that turns out to be anything but effective, but rather dull or bland. A good script gets overshadowed by idle talk and excessive bad language. A stirring musical score which helps to enhance a scene or a setting is virtually non-existent.
Having a particular interest in history and historical matters, I felt inclined to watch Martin Poll’s 1968 production of James Goldman’s play ‘The Lion In Winter.’ Based mostly on the tumultuous relationship between two old monarchical figures: King Henry II, played by Peter O’ Toole, and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, played by Katharine Hepburn.
The game, vis-à-vis the movie, also centres around the equally tumultuous relationship between their three surviving sons – a rivalry about who should succeed Henry, a dispute influenced by Queen Eleanor herself which is why Henry keeps her shut up in prison. Such plotting and intrigue make a good storyline as well as the medieval era in an age of chivalry, providing a colourful backdrop. There was a remake in 2003 starring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close. Nothing, however, could replace O’ Toole and Hepburn. Peter O’ Toole already had experience playing Henry, the Angevin King, in a 1964 film called ‘Becket’ alongside Richard Burton in the title role.
Towards the end of the movie, Eleanor stages another coup by attempting to incite the sons to rebel once again after they’ve become hostages once Henry impulsively decides to head to Rome to ask the Pope for an annulment of his marriage and orders his wife back to prison. While she’s packing, she hides three daggers inside her jewellery box, and with the assistance of her bodyguard, visits her sons held captive in the dungeons of Chinon Castle in France where she’s let out of jail to join the Royal Family and court for Christmas. She hands over the daggers inciting the sons to engage in a duel with Henry when he enters the dungeon. He defeats and apprehends John who Eleanor somewhat double-mindedly suggests ‘execute him,’ for his treasonous act, although he wasn’t her favourite to succeed Henry. Two of the sons, Richard and John, did succeed Henry, but they were no match for their father’s ability at astutness, how to keep an empire together. Richard squandered his kingship by fighting insatiable religious wars; John fell into being somewhat of a hostage by dissaffected barons.
The next morning Eleanor heads back to her prison in Salisbury Tower in the barge that brought her. It’s the first barge scene as she arrives that’s one of my favourites because it is enhanced by the clanging of bells from Chinon Castle and some of John Barry’s fitting and creative musical score to the film being medieval in style, having hints of Gregorian Chant. Little seems necessary except a grandiloquent wooden barge, several hooded rowers, two maids of honour and a queen sitting centrally and resting on a large wooden seat going smoothly down a river in glinting sunlight enhanced by an original and effective music. It seems to win hands down over the overblown hyperbole used in movies nowadays. Eleanor steps down from the barge after she sarcastically greets Henry with the words: ‘How dear of you to let me out jail.’ John Barry went on to compose other humdinger musical scores for films, such as another historical, ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ released in 1971, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson. Jackson, in my view, gave a much more outstanding and convincing performance as an actress than an MP.
On a final note, it’s a shame, if not a tragedy, (another of the lamentable ones going on nowadays) that those making movies seem incapable of embracing talented acting, creative musical soundtracks, good speaking with a message inside as they once did, not just entertainment overshadowed by filthy lucre for their own sakes.
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