Sunday, 25 August 2013

Tower of London (1939)

Tower of London is near-contemporaneous with the setting subject of my last post here, Edward & Mrs Simpson, but is set at over four hundred years' distance rather than forty. Nevertheless, the scroll which opens the narrative would have left filmgoers in little doubt that they were watching a film with contemporary relevance. There were many ruthless men determined to leave dark stains upon the pages of history in 1939, and the failure of the Munich agreement showed that tomorrow's enemies were already here. Like the film's Henry Tudor from France, many residents of the United States watched from over the sea as their ancestral homelands fell subject to what many would explain as self-interested misgovernment.

Director Rowland V. Lee seems to have used as many British actors as possible, at least where the male characters are concerned. Miles Mander, younger brother of a British Liberal anti-appeasement MP, Geoffrey Mander, plays Henry VI as a confused old man overtaken by events; with his white hair, moustache and beard, Mander's Henry looks more like a ragged version of his brother's target Neville Chamberlain than the pious clean-shaven Henry of the portraits. His enemy Edward IV is embodied in jovial brutality by Ian Hunter, a less powerful but comparable grandperformance to Keith Michell's Henry VIII in BBC Television's The Six Wives of Henry VIII thirty years later. The working classes are represented by a self-promoting and exploitative but ultimately dependable chimney-sweep, Tom Clink, played by Ernest Cossart, younger brother of Gustav Holst.

John Sutton, playing the film's ostensible romantic hero John Wyatt, was from British India and his character is a cut-price version of the kind of role played by his fellow member of the imperial diaspora, Errol Flynn, in whose support he had been previously cast in The Dawn Patrol and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. He carries some physical action but is mainly a symbol of hope, of marriage (and 'normal life') deferred for the people of England as embodied in the virtuous but passionate and plucky Lady Anne Barton (played by Texan actress Nan Grey). Both Wyatt and his lady are fictitious but at least one detail of Wyatt's storyline, his imprisonment in the Tower, seems to be derived from the legends which accrued around Henry Wyatt, father of the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt.

The stars, though, are unquestionably Basil Rathbone as Richard of Gloucester, and Boris Karloff as his enforcer Mord. There's a cold charm to Rathbone's Richard which is so precise as to be disarming. Indeed, his private miniature tableau of naively-crafted figurines, whittled down to one over years as Richard disposes of successive family members, is endearing in its simplicity. We can believe that his nephew Richard of York would include "I like Uncle Richard" in his last prayer. Richard is playful and death is his game. Indeed, he does away with his elder brother the duke of Clarence (Vincent Price, visibly much younger than Basil Rathbone despite the best efforts of Rathbone's make-up) by tempting him with the entire Warwick inheritance if he wins a drinking contest, leaving him drunk enough to meet his vinicultured fate. The reason the film shows very little of Richard as king is that there is no-one important enough for him left to murder before Henry Tudor arrives to slay him at Bosworth, both in terms of the film's plot and for Richard as a character.

Mord is the film's invention, a club-footed, bald grotesque whose ears adhere more closely than is usual to his skull. He's a physically deformed and embittered lower-orders counterpart to Richard. He's another opportunity for Universal to present Karloff beneath 'monster' make-up, but also exhibit his talent for physical performance. There's something of the class warrior about Mord, taking revenge on the nobility through beheadings, stabbings and (last but definitely not least) drowning in Malmsey wine, on behalf of the masses. Yet a more urgent compulsion for Mord is the need to be recognised as human, as a man, as a warrior. He begs that Richard let him come to fight at Tewkesbury, but Richard refuses, preferring that Mord plot on his behalf from the shadows rather than take up arms for the wider Yorkist cause. The depiction of Mord's dejection as Karloff takes him back through a Tower gateway, dragging his foot behind him, framed in silhouette, is skilfully done. Mord's devotion to his fellow-sufferer, the crookbacked Richard, is encouraged and exploited by Richard, but nowhere does it appear that Richard's infirmity holds him back. Mord lacks self-belief, but he does believe in Richard. At the end, he fights bravely and well until he sees his master killed; any sympathy the audience might feel for him is challenged when he attempts to fly the field. He is eventually defeated in single combat, but it takes a nobleman to do it.

The opening roller referred to the pages of History, as if it were a foreign land. Though the architecture of the real Tower of London is closely honoured in the long (model? or photographic?) shots, the general shape of the sets owes much to Universal's Mitteleuropa of its earlier horror cycle, though augmented with the appropriate English royal arms for the period. However, the mingling of British and various American accents (including a very southern accent for the five-year-old Richard, duke of York, in his wedding scene) suggests that this is a film made for a United States which very much still saw English history as the main root of its traditions. Richard III might pose as a man of the people, but appeals to the mob (it's tempting to see parallels with Hitler's use of the plebiscite) are no substitute for the rule of law and respect for the wishes of the individual. It's only the advent of Henry VII which allows John and Anne to marry.

Tower of London presents an abbreviated storybook history which concentrates on the villainy of one prince and his henchman. Character suffers: Anne Neville is introduced as the loving wife of Edward, prince of Wales (G.P. Huntley, cast only as sword fodder) but disappears once she is married. The mature leading female role is Queen Elyzabeth (the only name to suffer a cod medievalisation) who suffers from a vocal delivery, gestures and facial expression which suggests Barbara O'Neil was playing to the back of the stalls. Unlike a more recent treatment of this historical period - the BBC adaptation of Philippa Gregory's The White Queen and its sequels - the emphasis is on the fate of a people rather than on the careers of individuals, magic is absent, God is taken for granted (and mocked by Richard as Mord does away with Henry VI) and while liberties are taken with chronology, no-one lives who shouldn't (though some, such as Hastings, just disappear). However, Tower of London works well as a catalogue of grand villainy and the degradation of a people, with the promise of redemption through the intervention of an overseas ally. Physical horror happens mostly just off screen, aside from the bloodied heads in the battle scenes, too real to be made sardonic joke of like stabbings and drunken drownings. Richard survives for so long because Edward IV keeps postponing the cause of right for the benefit of exigencies; his sons (dressed straight out of Millais) pay the price, much as populations were being sacrificed to the rule of Hitler as a result of appeasement. Neither Richard nor Mord is a Hitler, for they are drawn too broadly and their villainies are too specific, but the appeal to the American audience to look at events across the Atlantic is clear.

Poster image courtesy of