The season three finale of The Tudors aired last Sunday. Frankly, it left me a little disappointed. Not because of the historical inaccuracies, mind you. In fact, I fully respect the creators’ decisions are made mostly for the sake of entertainment and not to inform or teach. That is why I have tuned in for the past three seasons. Overall, the season felt like a holding pattern for the telling of the closing chapters of Henry VIII’s life.
As I reflected on the show over the past week, my thoughts diverged and expanded to the treatment all aspects of the Tudor dynasty have received on film.
My first recollection of watching a film about the Tudors was when I was in high school. Our European History teacher thought it was a good idea to integrate films with our history lessons. As a result, I saw Anne of a Thousand Days (1969).
Beyond that, I created a mini Tudor filmography of films that standout for me. This list is definitely not inclusive; I am just featuring those films that resonated with me in capturing the spirit and intrigue of the Tudor dynasty.
Lady Jane (1986): a very good solid dramatic piece that showed nothing was sacred in Tudor England., not even the life of minors. An interesting bit of trivia: Helena Bonham Carter, the lead of this film would 17 years later portray one of Henry’s wives, the infamous Anne Boleyn in a 2003 television adaption (starring Ray Winstone as Henry).
The Private Life of Henry VIII (1932): a bit stagey but Charles Laughton is worth watching.
Elizabeth (1997): Richly produced gave a wonderful glimpse into the life of a youthful, vibrant Queen Elizabeth I, a sound departure from the prevalent and popular portrayal of the “Virgin Queen.”
Young Bess (1953): Another film that looks at the early life of Elizabeth I, as portrayed by Jean Simmons. Not much is said about this film. Nevertheless, I like it if for nothing more than the central performers, Ms. Simmons and Deborah Kerr’s turn as Catherine Parr, Henry’s sixth wife.
Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939): An entry from Hollywood’s Golden Year of 1939.
One recommendation of a film I did not see in full: A Man for All Seasons (1966). I fascinated by the idea of martyrdom, especially in this case since More and Henry so admired one another.
The above listed movies are good in their own right; however, my favorite Tudor adaptation is the television miniseries of Elizabeth I (2005) which aired on HBO. I feel that the story of the Tudors is much better told in a serialized format (mini-series, television series or documentary). One possible reason is that the historical record of the drama and intrigue in the Tudor court is so rich. As a result, in a feature length film, a lot of information is either glossed over or simply omitted due to the compression of time required of movies. In serialized formats, there is enough time to cover the details in a manner satisfying to the viewing public.
One benefit of watching all of these shows/movies is that I started investigating the real history of what happened from 1485-1603. In fact, a simple Google search yields many websites that have looked at the history of the Tudors in cinema and television. One article of note is provided courtesy of The American Historical Society. I recommend that you look at this. In addition, Tudors and Stuarts on Film: Historical Perspectives is a collection of essays edited by Susan Doran and Thomas S. Freeman, and is currently available in hardcover.