Was Henry VIII a good-natured buffoon or an egotistical tyrant? Your answer is likely to depend on which cinematic portrayal you have seen most recently, argues Suzannah Lipscomb in her March 2016 column for History Today.
Gore Vidal suggested that books have had their day: that we should ‘concede the inevitable, scrap the existing educational system, and introduce the young to the past through film’.
This is going too far, but it is true that films are the main source of historical knowledge for the majority of people. Film is a powerful medium which brings historical subjects to a vast audience. It carries the tantalising possibility of making us eyewitnesses to history, the lens of the camera our window onto past events. Film flattens out the strangeness of the past, reanimates a lost world and makes us care about the fates of the long dead. Before our eyes, the past seems to come back to life.
Film’s eyewitness dimension is the medium’s great strength and, simultaneously, its great weakness. An eyewitness can only see one side of external events. Films tend to follow, therefore, a single linear narrative, locking history into a series of filmic conventions with no space for ambiguity or multiple viewpoints. In addition, the field of vision must be filled, which may depend on a series of best guesses about the appearance of the past. Historical interpretation lies not only in the narrative and character depiction, but in every frame: the visual language of the film carries its own meaning. In short, as films cannot carry a critical apparatus, they create illusions about the past that are not easily criticised or refuted.
They also invite the audience to assume that the way people in the past approached life was just as we do. As a result, our perspective on the characters is dominated by the preoccupations of our age and, in a beautifully pernicious twist, the depiction of those characters then dictates our view of the past.
Henry VIII is a case in point. Before Jonathan Rhys Meyers or Damian Lewis, several filmic portrayals forged the notion of him held in the collective historical consciousness.
Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) was the first English language film about the king, for which the actor in the title role, Charles Laughton, received an Oscar. In this comedic film, full of coy innuendo, the focus is not on the religious and political changes of his reign, but on his marital relations. Henry is the victim of manipulative women, a sympathetic and wronged man, who just wants to be loved and happy like anyone else. He turns to food in his loneliness, devouring and flinging a chicken leg over his shoulder. The audience is encouraged by vicarious identification into considering kingship to be an unenviable burden.
A generation later, Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) starred Richard Burton as Henry. In this melodrama, Henry is suave, good-looking and ultra-masculine. One reviewer at the time wrote: ‘Henry VIII was certainly the most vile of all English monarchs, and Richard Burton unashamedly plays Henry as the vain, gluttonous rake that he was.’ Or as the reviewer thought he was. But this Henry, though arrogant and capricious (‘when I pray, God answers’, he says in one line), is not wholly unsympathetic: this is a Henry for the Bond era, anti-feminist but charismatic.
For a truly unsympathetic depiction, we must look to Ray Winstone playing the monarch as a ‘gangster- king’ in the 2003 Henry VIII. The critic Mark Lawson claimed that it reflects modern sexual politics in being soft on the wives and hard on Henry, who is both easily led and aggressive, prone to tantrums, delighting in death and raping Anne Boleyn in an entirely fictitious scene. As director Pete Travis saw it: ‘This is The Godfather in tights. In Ray, we have a man who has a wonderful animal power, very like that which Henry would have had. It’s violent and sexy and that is what the world was like then’. Or as Travis imagined it was: a depiction influenced more by The Sopranos or Raging Bull than history.
Our idea of Henry VIII has been formed, in large part, by these filmic depictions. Henry is, on the one hand, a good-natured, gluttonous buffoon; yet he is also a misogynistic, egotistical predator and a tormented tyrant.
Like it or not, the young are often introduced to the past through film and this cinematic version of the past shapes the collective imagination. Perhaps the most powerful place for a historian to be is Hollywood.