Sep 14, 2016
Warner Archive: David Hemmings as Alfred the Great (1969)
Making its Warner Archive DVD debut, Alfred the Great isn't an unheralded classic, though it has some fascinating elements. Starring David Hemmings in the title role and Michael York as Guthram, a brutal Viking with a Prince Valiant bob, it's a visually striking epic with inventive battle scenes, and a jumble of a script with lines that even seem to baffle the stars.
On the verge of taking vows for the priesthood, young Alfred is convinced to go to the aid of his brother King Ethelred (Alan Dobie) on the battlefield. Second to the throne, he wants to reject the politics and violence of ruling, but he's a natural leader, something his brother knows and welcomes. He's also a great strategist, drawing from keen observation of his own life experiences to triumph on the battle field against the Danes who have invaded their land. When Alfred's brother dies, there's no doubt that his destiny has been laid out for him.
Before his brother's death, Alfred had married, but not consummated his union with Aelhswith (Prunella Ransome), a Mercian princess. Trapped in his new role, the frustrated king finally brutally takes his bride and she becomes pregnant. In a battlefield negotiation, the randy Guthrum takes Aelhswith as a peace offering, and is quite willing to wait for her to give birth. As it turns out the princess finds her captor more sexually appealing than Alfred, though his brutality repulses her.
And this is a brutal film, full of whippings, nun rapings and bloody sacrifices. It constantly hammers home the point that this was not a pleasant age to be a woman. The showy, stagy script is essentially a collection of proclamations and speeches, spit out with similar fury.
Despite all the fury and bloodlust, there's a sort of hippy dippy vibe to the film, with all the shaggy hairdos and an occasional band of jesters tone. That feeling extends to the battle scenes, as if a bunch of flower children have taken some bad acid and gone berzerk. It's a sloppy, nasty tableau, anticipating the actual grubby decline of the sixties. For that reason, there's a freshness to Alfred's dilemma. His ninth century angst feels not that far removed from modern anxiety.
While the darkness of the interior scenes can make it difficult to make out details, the outdoor location photography is richly-colored and appropriately not lush in a pretty way. The DVD image is good and the images essentially clear.
David Hemmings is comfortable in his role as the clever, smug ruler. His Alfred rebels with the knowledge that he is smarter than everyone else. Still, he is always tortured by the knowledge that his desire for peace will always be at odds with his talent for war. This portrayal is not much removed from his cocky photographer in Blow-Up (1966) who finds himself stunned by the cruelty of the world around him while still inhabiting his own reality.
The film is also notable for featuring Ian McKellan in one of his first screen roles. As Roger, a bandit who aides Alfred, he is engaging and noble, but oddly not as attractive as he would be in later years when he finally achieved international stardom.
As Roger's consort Freda, Vivien Merchant is an intriguing presence, more powerful and with greater autonomy than the other women in the film, though for an unnamed reason she never speaks a word. Rumor is it was the actress's rebellion against the quality of the script, and while I have not been able to confirm this, given the quality of the rest of her stage and screen work, it is plausible she protected her reputation by remaining mute.
Overall, Alfred the Great isn't that great, but its connection to the youthful turmoil of the day, and the ingenuity of its battle scenes lend it some distinction.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.