Monday, December 29, 2014

Fire Over England (1937)

Director: William K. Howard                               Writer: Clemence Dane & Sergei Nolbandov
Film Score: Richard Addinsell                            Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Flora Robson and Raymond Massey

This British film was released in the United States as a thinly veiled propaganda film aimed at garnering support for England in America at a time when Hitler was consolidating his power in Europe. Even the title, Fire Over England, seems to presage the eventual Battle of Britain that would come against the Nazi attempt to invade the British Isles just a few years later. In this historical drama it is King Philip of Spain who is threatening to invade with his armada, the same conflict that appears in a U.S. film that came out during the war, The Sea Hawk. And in both films Flora Robson plays Queen Elizabeth I. The film was produced by Alexander Korda and Erich Pommer and was based on a popular novel from the year before by A.E.W. Mason, best known for his novel The Four Feathers, which underwent numerous film adaptations. The title has a number of symbolic references including the literal ending of the piece, the burning of victims in the Inquisition, and the love between Elizabeth and Robert Dudley as well as the literal affair between Leigh and Olivier, and the abdication of Edward VIII to marry Wallis Simpson.

The film begins with Leslie Banks desperate to get through to the queen, Flora Robson, to warn her of Spain’s evil designs of world conquest and that there are enemies in her court. At the same time Vivien Leigh is running around the castle trying to find a lost pearl from the Queen’s dress, and her grandfather the Queen’s treasurer, Morton Selten, must build the finances of the country for more ships so that all will not be lost to Spain. The ambassador from Spain, Henry Oscar, complains that English ships under the control of Sir Francis Drake are behaving like pirates, and threatens that war will ensue if she doesn’t stop them. Laurence Olivier is one of those pirates, risking his life at the hands of Spanish Inquisitors to defend England, but is captured in one of the battles. His father, also onboard, knows the Spanish captain, however, and he allows Olivier to escape. Back in England, Banks urges striking Spain before they can complete their armada and Selten urges prudence and peace while building ships. Yet while Olivier has lost his father to execution the only thought in his mind seems to be making love to Leigh. James Mason wants to go back to Spain and report what has been going on in the court, but Banks knows he is a spy and denies the request. When he is killed trying to escape, Robson then asks Olivier to take his place and act as spy in Philip’s court.

Once there, however, he finds himself in the care of his host, Robert Newton and his wife, Tamara Desni. The only problem is that Desni and her father actually helped Olivier after he escaped Spanish capture and now she is torn between her love for him and her duty to Spain. It’s an odd film, partly because of the artificiality of the British set design, but mostly because the acting seems artificial too. The actors are very wooden and deliberate, except for Olivier who minces around the set, but they all spout simplistic dialogue. And the transparency of the propagandistic message doesn’t help either. Nor does the modern audience’s knowledge of the far superior and infinitely more entertaining The Sea Hawk from four years later. Even so, it’s not necessarily a bad film. Some of the exterior sets are pretty good, and the cinematography by the great James Wong Howe is pretty terrific. There is some nice use of shadow and camera movement that adds a lot to what is otherwise a very stilted film. Olivier has none of the dashing presence of Flynn and is probably the weakest part of the film. Leigh is constricted by a weak role as something of a ditz, but has some good moments in the second half. The film is also notable for an early appearance by scream queen Evelyn Ankers in a bit part as one of the queen's ladies in waiting. Fire Over England has some moments, and they can be fun, but it is pretty disappointing overall.

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