Being a history nut as well as a film person, I try to fill in the many gaps in my film experience with classic or semi-classic historical films. I recently had the opportunity to see 1969’s Anne of the Thousand Days (about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn) and 1956’s Anastasia (about the possible survivor of the massacre of Russia’s royal family in 1918). Both were big, colorful, dramas that were certainly of their time.
Anne of the Thousand Days features Richard Burton as Henry and the then-new surprise of French Canadian actress Geneviève Bujold. The film is a typically ‘60’s epic that was nominated for 10 Oscars and only won for Best Costume. You may know the type—lush, lovely, and with a background of grand orchestral medieval music. Based on a 1940’s play that took a couple of decades to make into a film because of its subjects of adultery, incest, etc., the film feels “literate” from the word go, but does manage to cover a great deal of history, politics and human interaction in its 2+ hours.
The great Burton isn’t quite big enough, physically or in terms of power, to be Henry, though he rages with great effect at times. It’s a slight misfit of actor to character, but hardly noticeable. What is the most enjoyable aspect of the film is Bujold, who has erased every other Anne Boleyn I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen many). She is young, feisty, stubborn, conniving and almost completely believable. The script forces a change of heart on her at one point that even her talents can’t quite help us to go along with. But other than that, this is the Anne for the ages. The legendary Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey) won Best Actress that year for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, while the Golden Globe Award went to Bujold. For once, the Golden Globes may have gotten it right.
For those comfortable with an extremely literate, big, colorful, thumping medieval story taken from a play, this is for you. The story is still intriguing (in both senses of the word), the acting is strong and the look is sumptuous.
Anastasia is probably best remembered as Ingrid Bergman’s Hollywood comeback after her scandalous years with Roberto Rossellini. Apparently a few years and one strong Oscar-winning performance (her second, after Gaslight) were enough to allow her to retake her place as a Hollywood star. Though clearly several years too old to play a twenty-something, Bergman is excellent as the is-she-or-is-she-not survivor of the royal family’s massacre. She has the marvelous acting opportunity to play a confused street person in rags who gets the Pygmalion treatment and ends up looking comfortable in the finest attire, carrying herself as the princess she might be. One strength of her performance is that she never quite seems sure at times if she is or isn’t the princess. This adds layers to the film that its rather straightforward plotline doesn’t provide.
The surprise of the film, though, is her co-star, Yul Brynner. Oscar students will remember that the year of Anastasia—1956—was the year of Brynner’s Oscar-winning performance in The King and I. And while that performance is a worthy winner, perhaps the better perspective is provided by the National Board of Review’s award to him for Best Actor for The King and I, The Ten Commandments, and yes, Anastasia. His performance in Anastasia is every bit as good as Bergman’s, and it’s a pleasure to see him outside of either Siam or the American West. It’s a good fit for him as a person as well, as he was born Yuliy Borisovich Briner in Vladavostok, Russia.
Adding to the acting level is Helen Hayes, who plays the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, and whose performance was so strong in a smaller part that she was nominated in the Best Actress category in that year’s Golden Globes along with Bergman (who won). Apparently, the film’s producer wanted the talented British actress Helen Haye, who likely would have been excellent, and looked the part. But the casting director assumed that the request was a typo and contacted the American acting legend instead.
Unfortunately, there is a great deal of fancy as well as history in the film, and it’s not a source of learning accurately about the Romanovs or even the main character Anna, who existed in real life, but didn’t experience much of what the film suggested. The film is in CinemaScope, and provides a great example of the beauty and the restrictions that format can provide. But, like Anne of the Thousand Days, it’s an enjoyable visit to the past—England, Russia, and middle-century British and American film.