This post is part of the blogathon, ‘TILL DEATH US DO PART: To Love, Honor, and…Murder, hosted by Theresa Brown of CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. “I’m looking for a few…good…murders,” Theresa said when she announced the blogathon. “And I’m specifically looking at the bumpy road of MARRIAGE.” While the statistics regarding actual spouse-on-spouse crime are quite depressing, murderous domestic intrigue in the movies is a major plot point of some of my favorite classic films. But when I first thought of the concept of “till death us do part” in the movies, my mind went immediately to the story of one real-life couple who walked down the aisle a mere 484 years ago after altering the course of European history and religion in order to do so. It was billed as the love match of the 16th century. Who could have predicted it would all go so horribly wrong in such a short time?
Anne of a Thousand Days is a lavish 1969 costume drama, directed by Charles Jarrott, about the relationship between King Henry VIII of England and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. The film was based on Maxwell Anderson’s successful Broadway play of the same name that starred Rex Harrison (who won a Tony Award for his performance) as Henry and Joyce Redman as Anne. So why did it take more than 20 years to get to the screen? Because the themes of the play, including adultery, children born out of wedlock, and incest were major non-starters in the movies thanks to the Motion Picture Production Code. It was only when such restrictions became more relaxed during the cultural shifts of the 1960s that it seemed possible to deal with these topics in a film. Even then it was considered controversial — notice the large “Not Suitable for Children” notice on the movie poster.
Released by Universal on December 18, 1969, Anne of a Thousand Days was shot in England and used historic locations such as Penshurst Place and Hever Castle, the actual childhood home of Anne Boleyn. Originally, producer Hal Wallis wanted Peter O’Toole to star as Henry VIII but the part ultimately went to Richard Burton. I think he captured the spirit of the English monarch perfectly and was surprised to read that Burton never liked his performance, despite being nominated for an Oscar. To play Anne Boleyn, actresses such as Faye Dunaway, Olivia Hussey, Julie Christie, and Geraldine Chaplin were considered but the part ultimately went to 26-year-old French Canadian Genevieve Bujold.
Genevieve Bujold gives an extraordinary star-making performance in this film, finding just the right blend of defiance, aristocratic sophistication, and acceptance of her sorry lot. Anne Boleyn had already been portrayed on the screen several times by actresses including Doris Lloyd, Merle Oberon, and Vanessa Redgrave, but, based on my own obsession with Tudor history and the many books I’ve read about the doomed queen, Bujold rose above the pack by channeling the very qualities that so attracted Henry VIII in the first place but which ultimately turned him against her.
Not that Anne’s ultimate fate had that much to do with her personality — a demeanor that differed greatly from the wife that came before her, the pious Catherine of Aragon (Irene Papas), daughter of Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, or the one that came directly after, the mild-mannered Jane Seymour (Lesley Paterson). No, what happened to poor Anne Boleyn had everything to do with her bad luck at not being able to give the king what he wanted more than anything in the world: a male heir.
As we see in the film, Henry VIII was never one to shy away from a pretty face. His many affairs during his 20-year marriage to Queen Catherine were well known, including a dalliance with Anne’s older sister, Mary Boleyn. When the king notices 18-year-old Anne in the Boleyn household, newly returned from her schooling in France, he immediately takes an interest in the girl, enough to have his trusted Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey (Anthony Quayle), put the kibosh on her planned wedding to the handsome son of the Earl of Northumberland. But Anne, after witnessing the pros and cons of her sister’s involvement with the king, has no interest in becoming the latest royal plaything. Nope, if she was going in, she was going in for keeps.
Although Henry and Catherine’s early marriage had been a happy one, producing Princess Mary (Nicola Pagett of Upstairs, Downstairs), poor Catherine’s five other pregnancies did not have a happy result, all ending in miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant death, including the loss of several much-wanted sons. By the time Henry noticed Anne Boleyn, Queen Catherine could no longer have children and Henry saw in Anne the possibility of finally getting the male heir that he so desperately wanted. Of course, Henry’s idea of divorcing Catherine was seen as preposterous by everyone at Court, including Anne. But the king would not be deterred, and when the Pope refused to consider the possibility of annulling the marriage, Henry took matters into his own hands, especially after Anne became pregnant, and broke away from Rome, declaring himself the head of the Church of England. Catherine was exiled and Anne got a big coronation, even though people in the street openly jeered her as “The Great Whore.”
Would world history have changed dramatically if Anne had given birth to a healthy boy on September 7, 1533, instead of a cherubic red-haired girl she named Elizabeth? Yes, without question — on several fronts. Henry’s disappointment at the birth of his second daughter, after everything he had done to secure a male heir, was enormous, but things could have still turned around for the new queen if only her next child had been a boy. Indeed, she eventually got pregnant again and had great hopes for getting back in her husband’s good graces, despite his new interest in one of her Ladies-in-Waiting, the meek daughter of Sir John Seymour. But alas, on January 29, 1536, on the very day of the funeral of the former queen and Anne’s former rival, Catherine of Aragon, poor Anne miscarried. This time it was a boy. That sealed her fate.
In Anne of a Thousand Days, we see Henry explode in a rage of hysteria at his cursed marriage and subsequently order Thomas Cromwell (John Colicos) to find a way to get rid of his albatross of a wife. It wouldn’t be easy. Another divorce was out of the question, so a more severe method would have to be found. Cromwell then proceeds to torture one of Anne’s servants, a musician named Mark Smeaton, into falsely admitting that he had committed adultery with the queen, a treasonous offense with a penalty of death. But one lover wasn’t enough. Cromwell accused several men at court with similar crimes, even Anne’s own loving brother, George Boleyn, to add the stink of incest to the queen’s growing charges. At first Anne had a hard time believing her husband was behind such absurd accusations, but she soon felt the bitter sting of karma as she realized that Henry would stop at nothing in his quest for a healthy son.
In a riveting scene towards the end of the film that historians are sure never took place in real life, Henry visits Anne in her Tower of London cell on the night before her execution to say that he will exile her in peace with their daughter as long as she agrees to their marriage being annulled and Elizabeth being declared a bastard. Anne refuses to consider this, choosing her daughter’s future over her own life, and spews an Oscar-worthy speech to her husband and king that their daughter will one day rule the land with authority and respect. “Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours,” Bujold shouts with regal magnificence. “She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built. My Elizabeth shall be queen, and my blood will have been well spent.” At that, a furious Henry storms out to search for the refreshingly meek Jane Seymour, and Anne’s head meets the blade of the master French swordsman.
Young Genevieve Bujold received an Oscar nomination for her spectacular performance in this film, as did Richard Burton, Anthony Quayle, the three screenwriters, Hal B. Wallis, and several other behind-the-scenes craftspeople. The only person to win an Academy Award for the film, however, was costume designer Margaret Furse. Bujold did win a Golden Globe that year for Best Actress in a Drama. As for fiery real-life marriages, Richard Burton’s wife, Elizabeth Taylor, had badly wanted to appear opposite her husband in this film, but, at 37, was considered too old to convincingly play young Anne Boleyn. Worried about a possible dalliance between Burton and the pretty young actress playing his queen, Taylor showed up on set anyway, and for a fee of $46, appeared in a few scenes as an uncredited extra!
While historians take issue with the way some of the facts were presented in this film, it remains a brilliant, riveting look at an important chapter of the Tudor period. Of course, Jane Seymour did manage to give the king a male heir before dying herself 10 days later — the sickly Prince Edward. He then married three more times, including Wife #5, Catherine Howard, a young cousin of Anne Boleyn’s, who also ended up with her head on the block because of adultery (this time the charges may have had some basis in fact). When Henry VIII died in 1547, his son Edward did reign briefly, followed by the short reign of his older sister Mary, Henry’s daughter with Catherine of Aragon. But, as we all know, Anne Boleyn had the last laugh when her 25-year-old daughter Elizabeth took the throne in 1558 and enjoyed a spectacular reign that lasted until her death in 1603. The beloved queen never married…hmm, can you think of any reasons why? A few years after the release of this film, the BBC came out with a magnificent six-part series called The Six Wives of Henry VIII that remains my favorite depiction of this period. Actress Dorothy Tutin was so brilliant as Anne Boleyn that even though I was just a kid, I wrote her a fan letter which she answered. I was beyond thrilled — at the time I truly felt like I was getting a letter from royalty!
But Genevieve Bujold will always have a special place in my heart…and I’m not the only one. When Princess Diana was asked in an interview what her favorite movie was, her answer would send historians and conspiracy theorists into a frenzy for decades to come: Diana’s favorite movie was Anne of a Thousand Days.