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The Six Lives of Henry VIII: Hollywood’s Love Affair with Hank

Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief


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It’s Hollywood’s Number One Leading Man

I have fond memories of learning about the Tudor Dynasty in school.  Of particular interest to me was the story of Henry the VIII, his six wives and his mad quest to have a son.  The most striking chapter of this tale is that of King Henry and Anne Boleyn; how Anne’s family used her to climb the social ladder, even allowing their daughter to be beheaded once the King had tired of her.

Now, the above paragraph might seem out of place on a pop culture website, where we are more apt to discuss Suri Cruise's tutor than the royal house of Tudor.  Well, it seems that Hollywood would disagree, and this story has suddenly become a very hot commodity. 

Putting British Royalty on the big screen is not a new phenomenon, and Henry has always held quite a fascination for us stateside. Henry and Anne's story has been documented in countless movies and miniseries, dating all the way back to 1920. When the Henry craze died down a bit in the 1970s, filmmakers turned to his daughter Elizabeth for inspiration. However, in 2007, with the recent premiere of Showtime's The Tudors and the upcoming film The Other Boleyn Girl, it looks as though the Tudor Dynasy is poised to make its mark on a whole new generation.

(Now, while I love the story personally, I confess that I have only seen a few of the films and shows described in this article.  When I can I will be implementing my own thoughts and opinions but for some of these I will be basing my comments on research.)

The first major motion picture that tackled the Tudor story was 1933's The Private Life of Henry the VIII (The aforementioned 1920 Anne Boleyn was a German film about which little to nothing can be found.)  This London production had some big name stars for the day.  Legendary actor Charles Laughton portrayed the great King, even scoring an Oscar for his portrayal, a first for a non-US picture.  The movie also starred screen legend Robert Donat and the Bride of Frankenstein herself Elsa Lanchester.  This movie did manage to show four of Henry’s six marriages, although according to various internet sites, a majority of the film is highly inaccurate. 

Once sound came out the next major depiction of the monarch's life came in 1969 with the sweeping Anne of the Thousand Days.  This is where my classroom memories come into play. My teacher showed us this film one day to illustrate the time period, and it absolutely blew my mind.  It mostly shows Henry’s relationships with his first and second wives — Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn respectively — and briefly touches on his third marriage to Jane Seymour.  The movie was a huge spectacle for its time, starring Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold.  The chemistry that these two performers give off is nothing short of electrifying, and I base a lot of the newer interpretations on how they hold up against this film.  With four Academy Award wins against 16 nominations, it’s really bizarre that this film has never been released on DVD.

After that it was the 1970 English miniseries The Six Wives of Henry the VIII.  Starring Australian actor Keith Michell, this is the only film so far to show every marriage that Henry had.  (It also detailed the since-renounced legend that Anne Boleyn had a deformed sixth finger; just thought you'd like to know.) After garnering an Emmy and various other television awards, many consider it the definitive film to watch.  It was remade in 2001 in a 2-part television film starring Ray Winstone, Helena Bonham Carter and Sean Bean. 

After that Hollywood moved away from the dreary story of the mad King and moved to other characters in the Tudor lineage.  There was the 1971 film, Mary Queen of Scots, a loose sequel to Anne of the Thousand Days.  (Mary is also being remade in 2008 with actress Scarlett Johansson.)  Henry’s daughter, the original Queen Elizabeth was also fodder for various films after that.  The two strongest representations were Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett, which won her an Academy Award and Elizabeth the I, an HBO miniseries that awarded Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons with Emmys.

With 2007 well upon us it seems its Henry’s time again.  The Tudors is the first representation of the “new” version of Henry, a sleeker, thinner and sexier version.  Starring Irish up-and-comer Jonathan Rhys Meyers, this sexy depiction of the Tudor dynasty recently aired on Showtime.  With other movies coming out now, it seems dreary old England will be blessed with hotter portrayals of the English aristocracy. 

It should be noted that a lot of the reinterest in Henry the VIII can also be attributed to actress Phillipa Gregory.  She has written novels about the various wives of Henry the VIII such as The Boleyn Inheritance and The Constant Princess.  Her books have also sparked the latest big-screen adaptation The Other Boleyn Girl.

The Other Boleyn Girl focuses on Henry’s love affair with Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary.  While the novel does portray an accurate depiction of events, the movie (based on having read the script for the film starring Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Eric Bana) does give me some reservations, and seems to take some large liberties with the source material.  Look for this holiday film to get grief from history buffs and fans of earlier films. 

Henry the VIII has gone through a massive revamp through the years.  Starting out as the rotund womanizer, he has evolved into a hot, virile young man in the newer adaptations.  While it seems the classics are remembered for being “accurate,” look for the more “fun” versions to take precedence with audiences.

So if you have an itch for dramatic history, seek out one of these films that hold such fascination for me. Maybe, like me, you'll fall in love. If not, then just like Henry, you can always just find yourself another one.

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Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief

Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.

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