27 August 2012

Fire Over England

Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier in Fire Over England.

Fire Over England (1937), directed by William K. Howard, is the story of the Spanish Armada and its defeat by the English. Flora Robson, who plays Queen Elizabeth I, may have top billing but the film is best remembered for its two young stars—Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. 

It’s 1588 and tensions are running high between England and Spain when the Spanish seize an English ship. Sir Richard Ingolby is taken prisoner while his son Michael escapes with the help of family friend Don Miguel. Michael washes up on the shore of Don Miguel’s estate where he is taken in and nursed back to health by his smitten daughter Elena. Not immune to Elena's charms, Michael flirts with her while pining for his love back home, Cynthia, who is a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth I. When he learns that the Spanish have executed his father, Michael flees to England where he is reunited with Cynthia. The ageing Queen, jealous of Cynthia’s youth and beauty, is displeased with the young lovers but Michael's impassioned plea to destroy the Spanish has impressed her. She sends him back to Spain as a spy where he runs into Elena who is now married. She keeps his true identity a secret but King Philip II soon discovers his ruse. Michael returns to England in time to prepare for the advancing Armada. The Queen comes up with the idea of fighting the Spanish fleet with fire ("if you took not swords in your hands but torches"), and Michael carries out the dangerous plan. The Spanish are defeated and Britannia rules the waves.

The young lovers face the ire of their Queen.

Fire Over England is a decent historical action film with plenty of sword fights, escapes, and declarations of loyalty to Queen and country. The sets and costumes are lavish and the cinematography by the master James Wong Howe is excellent (in one scene you never see the men talking, only the reflection of their shadows on the wall). 

Flora Robson is great as Queen Elizabeth I, especially in the moments when she's not on show. In one scene she sits in her room with her wig removed and after examining herself in a mirror, tosses it aside saying "this mirror is old and blemished;" even a Queen cannot fight the passing of time. Raymond Massey is a menacing King Phillip II, Tamara Desni is a sympathetic Elena, and a young James Mason as a spy is all too briefly on screen. But everyone pales in comparison to Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. 

Olivier and Leigh are absolutely breathtaking. Young, ridiculously good looking, and with obvious chemistry between them, they are perfectly cast as lovers separated by war. 

Olivier's Michael is bold, impetuous, and full of energy. He's not perfect—his flirtation with Elena is proof of this—but then, which hero is? Olivier makes a pretty good swashbuckler, crossing swords with the Spanish and always looking dashing while doing so. His acting can be over-the-top at times as if he thinks he's on the stage but that can be overlooked because he is just so handsome (this may sound shallow but watch the film, and you'll see what I'm talking about).  

As for Leigh, her Cynthia is a bit of a ninny. When we first see her she’s scurrying about, looking for a missing pearl. She’s utterly devoted to Michael and gets herself in dangerous waters by speaking back to the Queen. Leigh's voice is a bit thin but that would improve over time. It's said that this performance convinced David O. Selznick to cast her as Scarlett O'Hara and based on looks alone you can understand why.

Olivier and Leigh began an affair shortly after filming completed. They would go on to star together in two other films (21 Days Together and That Hamilton Woman) and in numerous stage productions over the course of their 20-year relationship. In this film you get to see them fall in love, which is reason enough to check out Fire Over England

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