The year 2011 has proven itself to be a royal affair so far with the Best Picture Oscar going to The King’s Speech and with the upcoming royal wedding on April 29th. Saturating attention on the news every morning, noon, and evening, the royal wedding led me to think about how the British monarchy is captured countless times in classic films and beyond.
The earliest English royal family I can think of being portrayed on film is that of King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and his wife Queen Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn) in The Lion in Winter (1968), set in 1183. Although the events are fictional, the characters and their outcomes are historically correct. The dramatic events of the plot lead up to the reign of King Richard I (1189-1199) and his brother King John (1199-1216). It is a well-made film with excellent performances given by O’Toole, Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, and Timothy Dalton. Hepburn’s role as Eleanor of Aquitaine won her an Oscar for Best Actress (tied with Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl) and a BAFTA.
Perhaps the most portrayed queen on film in any era of Hollywood is Queen Elizabeth I who reigned from 1558-1603. Fire Over England (1937) deals with the shaky relations between Spain and England in 1588. Flora Robson amusingly portrays the virgin queen while England was under fire from the Spanish Armada. This film contributed to Hollywood history as well by being the first film collaboration between British acting royals Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. The two had met before, but it was not long after cameras started rolling that their scandalous affair had begun which resulted in an exchange of vows in 1940 and a twenty year marriage to follow. Their steaming passion can be seen between them both while they share scenes together.
Queen Elizabeth I is also seen a major production starring the incredible Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth (1998).
Hollywood unsurprisingly mixes fact and fiction in The Mudlark (1950), an account of Queen Victoria overcoming the grief of losing her husband. Another example of Hollywood taking history to the chopping block is the 1936 Katharine Hepburn film, Mary of Scotland. The Scarlett Olive loves Katharine Hepburn, and it’s best that we leave this film alone to gather dust on the shelves.
Countless other British royals are forever captured on the silver screen and beyond. Richard Burton takes on Henry VII in Anne of the Thousand Suns (1969) with Genevieve Bujold playing the part of Anne Boleyn. Peter O’Toole is King Henry II again in the 1969 film, Becket. Queen Victoria is brought back to the limelight of the screen in 1997 by Dame Judi Dench in Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown.
We can’t forget our own Queen Elizabeth II who has been on the throne since 1952. She also created a buzz in Hollywood by inspiring a musical to be made around the event of her own wedding. The film is Royal Wedding and it was released one year before the coronation of the then Princess Elizabeth.
Although married in 1947 to Prince Phillip, the plot of the musical starring Fred Astaire and Jane Powell revolves around the matrimonial ceremony. The film was re-titledWedding Bells in England as to not appear to be a documentary on Her Majesty’s wedding.
Helen Mirren won an Oscar for her performance of our Queen in The Queen in 2006. The film deals with the tumultuous events after Princess Diana’s tragic death and how it was handled differently.
Most recently, a very young Princess Elizabeth played by Freya Wilson was featured in the Award-winning The King’s Speech. The Queen received the film positively after not allowing the stage version to be produced for over twenty years. Now, is it just me, or does Freya Wilson strongly resemble a young Judy Garland?
In historical events from 1183 to 1997, the British monarch has been presented to the world accurately and inaccurately and received positively and negatively. No other monarchy has been documented as often or as detailed as the British. With the upcoming events involving the royal family, more movies will ultimately be inspired and produced, thus furthering the cultural fascination the cinematic world has for this monarchy and its long history.