I’m an American, and though my education included a fair amount of European history, I have to admit I know little of the lives of the European royals. What I studied mostly covered those that were important in some grander scope: Richard and his Crusades, John and the Magna Carta, and of course George III and the American Revolution, just to focus on the English. The personal lives of royalty both past and present comprise little more than trivia to me. That said, I had certainly heard of Henry VIII and his succession of wives, though I knew little of the details beyond that Anne Boleyn and one other were beheaded. But cinema certainly seems to love the story, and has revisited it a number of times.
That was pretty much all I knew when I settled down to watch Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII. I had little idea of what to expect, beyond that it would be a period piece. I didn’t expect it to be presented as such a simple and human thing. I certainly didn’t expect it to be funny.
A few decades later and a Herman’s Hermits song over the end credits wouldn’t seem out of place.
Henry is played by Charles Laughton, and while I cannot vouch for what the real Henry was like, here he is portrayed as boisterous, loud and loving of life. But not so much of his current wife. The film skips over Catherine of Aragon — declaring her story of “no particular interest” as she was “a respectable woman” — and instead begins on the eve of Anne Boleyn’s execution for alleged adultery. Gossip among the maids indicates they all believe the charges are trumped up, and that the womanizing Henry has simply tired of her. His new bride-to-be, Jane Seymour, is already waiting in the wings, with Henry ready to marry her the moment he learns the execution has been carried out.
It’s a grim subject to start out with, and though the film acknowledges the solemnity of it when Merle Oberon is onscreen portraying Boleyn, it also approaches it with some levity. Peasants at the execution crack wise, and Henry boasts to his aide about how this time he’s married correctly, as Jane is “stupid” instead of “ambitious”. Of course, as she’s only wife #3 of 6, the narrative continues on past her as well. The fourth and fifth wives get the bulk of the screen time — with fifth wife Katherine Howard appearing before the fourth in fact. Played by Binnie Barnes, she’s very ambitious, the type of woman who wants to be queen more than she wants to be married to Henry. She and Henry become lovers before he marries his fourth wife, but by the end of her own marriage, things sour and her execution for adultery doesn’t require the use of the word “alleged”.
When the picture is about a king who had two of his wives beheaded, it would be easy to portray him as a monster, but Alexander Korda does not take this route. I have no idea how favorably history or the people of England look upon Henry VIII, but here he is depicted mostly sympathetically. He’s careless with his affections, and not the most considerate person around, but is not portrayed as cruel. And other than the execution of Anne Boleyn, which makes up only the first few minutes of the film and thus establishes little of his character, he isn’t portrayed as callous either. We see him mourn Jane Seymour’s death by childbirth even as he exults in the birth of his son, and we see him mourn Katherine Howard despite ordering her execution.
There also isn’t much of the political side portrayed; as the title says, this is about his private life. It becomes then a story not so much about a king, but about a man who happens to be king. This is helped by the film’s sense of humor. Henry is sometimes clumsy and often fails to think things through and the people around him tend to have sharp wits. There’s some circumstantial humor and some clever dialogue throughout. Most of it’s good for a light chuckle, but there are two sequences that really succeed at generating laughs. One is when Henry is trying to sneak around his castle for a tryst only for his guards to shout his presence every step of the way, and another is when Elsa Lanchester makes her appearance as Anne of Cleves, the fourth wife. She has no desire to be wed to Henry, and their wedding night turns out to be rather different than anybody could expect.
All too often, period films like to portray their subjects as being grander than ordinary humans, especially if that subject is royalty. The Private Life of Henry VIII instead shows its subject as a simple person, showing his emotions and his foibles, and poking some fun at him along the way.