An article in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper said that Wolf Hall shows how “every generation gets the Henry VIII they deserve.” Meaning that what’s interesting about these Henry VIII movies and TV stories isn’t historical authenticity, it’s what the dramas are trying to say about their times. Sometimes it’s a sexed-up bodice-ripper like The Tudors (that audiences apparently needed at the end of the ‘aughts). In 2015, we get a chilling tale of political power (that, I guess, reflects the mid-decade’s obsession with privacy and government control a la Wikileaks and Edward Snowden). Maybe this fits, or maybe it’s simply filmmakers grabbing at new ways to tell the same old story of a despotic king who married and killed wives with abandon, even breaking with the Catholic Church in a power-mad quest to extend his personal dynasty.
However, Henry VIII of England was complicated enough that each filmed portrayal could make a different explanation that has as much to do with new scholarship as it does with contemporary obsessions. I find it odd that few, if any, filmmakers have gone into depth about Henry VIII’s capricious taste for murder. Why did he continue to kill those who were once his closest most trusted advisers and also the women he was besotted with? Look at Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, and Thomas Cromwell. They each helped architect significant parts of Henry’s early reign. They each shared in and built Henry’s vision of England and the county’s governance. Yet, despite trying their hardest to further the king’s aims, each man died essentially at the king’s command. Henry VIII rolled through his supposed friends and beloved wives like a knife though hot butter. Documentaries have looked into this (like David Starkey’s Henry VIII: The Mind of a Tyrant, 2009), but not historical fiction on screen.
A psychological portrait of this king could make for a fascinating movie or TV project. But what we’ve seen is Henry as a buffoon, Henry as a thoughtless bully, Henry as passionate yet flighty lover, Henry as a Machiavellian politician, Henry as an obsessive dynasty-maker, Henry as a narcissistic rockstar. Does any of those portrayals explain his motivations? Maybe a little, but not fully. Perhaps that’s why this part of history keeps coming up on film and TV — one commenter on Twitter said “Do we really need another telling of this story?” Apparently, yes, we do. We don’t understand what happened, we don’t get Henry and why he did what he did. His actions were bizarre and dramatic and changed the course of history.
Since we can’t get inside his head, storytellers will continue to postulate what the hell was going on in Tudor times, as they did in these versions of Henry VIII in movies and TV. Below are some of the major interpretations of the Tudor king on screen — compare and see how you think they either reflect the time period the film/TV series was made or simply tell part of the director’s story.
Charles Laughton in
The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)
and Young Bess (1953)
Laughton won the Best Actor Oscar for his seminal portrayal of Henry Tudor in Private Life, and he reprised the part 20 years later with a cameo in Young Bess. This is probably the most influential pop-culture picture of Henry VIII in America: he’s big, guffawing, pawing at women, chomping a turkey leg. It’s Henry’s final Hans Holbein portrait made into a cartoon. Was this goofy historical story an attempt at Depression-era escapism, similar to the screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s (where poking fun of the upper classes was part of the joke)? Who knows. Laughton gets points for basically looking the part.
James Robertson Justice in
The Sword and the Rose (1953)
This was a Disney family adventure flick with a wildly historically inaccurate story, and I’m only including it because I have a vague memory of seeing it (later, on TV) as a kid. Didn’t have as much impact on me as Elizabeth R and The Six Wives of Henry VIII, so no damage done.
Robert Shaw in A Man for All Seasons (1966)
This might be the first nuanced Henry VIII on film. Shaw is a supporting character, since this movie is about Thomas More, but the interplay between Henry and More is critical to understanding the plot of A Man for All Seasons. This Henry is the classic capricious bully, but that builds upon a clear friendship between these two men. It’s complicated. More’s defense of his principles has a strong anti-authoritarian theme, which definitely fits with the mid- to late 1960s political mood, and that tends to set up Henry as the establishment (practically embodied in his giant, wide-shouldered costumes). Speaking of the costumes, yeah, the king is wearing a lot of gold lamé and things are a bit theatrical, but it’s not too bad for the times.
Richard Burton in Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)
He’s a lover, not a fighter! OK, maybe a little bit of a fighter. Richard Burton is one sexy Henry VIII in this movie, and he better be when he’s got Genevieve Bujold as his Anne Boleyn. No, he’s not a redhead, but I’d want him in my bed. Rrow. This is during Burton’s first marriage to Elizabeth Taylor (added fire, maybe?), and Thousand Days ended a run of his most successful films including the historical costume movies Becket (1964), Hamlet (1964), and The Taming of the Shrew (1967). Here, Burton shows that Henry VIII’s passions get the better of him and turn sour. This is probably the first major production to tell Anne’s story, and thus, fitting with the times it was made, it’s the first feminist Anne Boleyn. Henry is more or less seen from her point of view, and we see his best and his worst, yet with love.
in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970),
Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972),
and The Prince and the Pauper (1996)
The 1970 BBC miniseries has my favorite Henry VIII. He’s subtle, he’s sly, he’s loud, he’s soft, he’s capricious but he’s thoughtful. He almost, but not quite, makes sense in how he treats each wife — perhaps because each one is given equal time, not enough time (just an hour), but it’s not the “Henry & Anne Boleyn Show” as tends to happen. The Australian Keith Michell shows how Henry ages and turns from a studly young buck, the ultimate Renaissance man, full of promise and aiming to rule a new golden era, but becomes a contradictory, selfish tyrant, fattened literally and figuratively with indulgences. Michell gives an amazing performance with a rich cast. I don’t know how this Henry VIII can be seen as ‘of its time,’ except in the nitpicking of the TV production quality. While the costumes are a little theatrical, the overall styles are accurate, and the only minor complaint is that the aging makeup Mitchell wears towards the end doesn’t meet modern standards. He has a cameo as Henry in the BBC’s ‘sequel’ Elizabeth R in 1971. The Six Wives TV miniseries was adapted into a theatrical movie two years later, with Mitchell as the king but with different actresses as his wives. The costuming is the same, but it’s on film instead of video so it just looks better, plus many scenes were filmed on location in historical buildings instead of the claustrophobic BBC studios. Michell played Henry again in the BBC’s beautiful production of The Prince and the Pauper almost 30 years later, and, well, he didn’t need the makeup then.
Sidney James in Carry on Henry (1971)
Part of the British “Carry On” series of comedic history-themed movies of the late ’60s / early ’70s, this tells a ridiculous story of a mysterious new wife of Henry VIII. It’s broad slapstick a la Mel Brooks and continues the Charles Laughton-style Henry into extreme caricature.
in Crossed Swords / The Prince and the Pauper (1977)
“See Oliver Reed cross his eyes! See Raquel Welch cross her legs! See Mark Lester cross his fingers! See Ernest Borgnine cross his heart! And see George C. Scott, Rex Harrison, David Hemmings, and Charlton Heston get double crossed! See the biggest cross up of them all … The Prince and the Pauper!” So goes the movie poster. Several sources say Mark Lester, who played Edward / Tom (the prince / pauper), gave up acting because this movie was universally panned. I didn’t see it and can’t find it anywhere these days, but I’m guessing that Charlton Heston was not a particularly brilliant Henry VIII. That said, the costuming and sets in the screencaps don’t look too bad for the ’70s; apparently it was just a terrible script.
Ray Winstone in Henry VIII (2003)
I kind of hate this Henry and his wives TV miniseries. It has pretty low production values and costuming, especially for now, and the whole thing feels like a misuse of some decent actors. Did Helena Bohman Carter have bills to pay or something? Because why did she bother taking the role of Anne Boleyn in this shlock? Ray Winstone has played a lot of gangsters and bad guys on film, and he’s kind of dialing in that vibe with Henry. Considering that the early part of the 21st century was to be chock full of Henry VIII in movies and TV, this one seems totally superfluous.
Jared Harris in The Other Boleyn Girl (2003)
This Henry starts right off being a letch. No prelude, no foreplay. Having read the book The Other Boleyn Girl, that surprised me (and also having watched the Hollywood 2008 production before this BBC miniseries). Harris’ king is rather arrogant and self-centered, so OK, that suits the character. This Henry doesn’t have much subtlety — sex and maybe power seem to be his main motivations. I’d say this was a precursor to The Tudors where it’s all about sex, except, here, the sex isn’t sexy, it’s awkward and weird. The costumes are pretty good, some minor quibbles but historically accurate overall (the same designer, Maggie Chappelhow, did this and 1996’s The Prince and the Pauper, which is well regarded for its period costumes).
Jonathan Rhys Meyers in The Tudors (2007-2010)
Do we have to? Seriously, all of us here at Frock Flicks have said plenty about Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII over the years — check our podcast and Snark Week for starters. He doesn’t look the part, to begin with. Yes, Showtime’s TV series wanted to show Henry and everyone at court as rockstars, the pampered elite of their day. Fine. Done. We’re not amused.
Eric Bana in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
On the other hand, Eric Bana is a Henry VIII we don’t mind so much. As noted in our podcast for this movie, Bana carries across the look and idea of the young, glorious Renaissance prince that Henry was in his prime. He’s not perfect (his body type is very typical ‘early 21st-century Hollywood hot guy,’ and he’s not red headed or fair), but he gets the job done admirably. He vacillates between tender lover and kind of an asshole, but you’re suckered in. I imagine that happened in the period too. This shows a more believable version of Henry-using-power-to-get-laid that wasn’t creepy as in the TV version of Other Boleyn Girl or cheeseball and MTV as in The Tudors. The men’s costuming is decent in this movie, a lot better than the women’s (oh Sandy Powell, you’re awesome, but we wonder what the director asked of you here).
Damian Lewis in Wolf Hall (2015)
This is Henry VIII as a political animal, but then this is the king as Thomas Cromwell sees him. The BBC series of Wolf Hall is told entirely from Cromwell’s point of view, and he works for Henry, furthering the king’s aims, while smoothing his own way in the world. Lewis is a little manic and a little scary at times — he’s the boss who forces you to walk around on eggshells. In fact, this Henry VIII is practically bipolar. One minute, he’s all “England is ours!” and hugging Cromwell when he thinks Anne Boleyn is pregnant with a boy, and the next minute, he’s chewing off Cromwell’s head. Even if you don’t know the history, this pattern doesn’t bode well. As we’ve said in our podcast, this production looks fantastic, very historically accurate in costume and setting, and Lewis is a good match for Henry VIII physically.
Who’s the best Henry VIII in movies and TV? Which is your favorite?