ALFRED THE GREAT
UK, 1969, 122 minutes, Colour.
David Hemming, Michael York, Prunella Ransome, Colin Blakely, Julian Glover, Vivien Merchant.
Directed by Clive Donner.
Alfred the Great has the usual spate of battles and pillage but the approach of director Clive Donner is more intelligent than that of the usual spectacle director. He gives a vivid picture of the 9th century Wessex, agricultural, tiny population, intimidated by armed pagan Danes. Wars of resistance are essential, otherwise extinction threatens. All must take part. The pacifist and non-violence positions are put by Alfred (David Hemming, acting well) who finds a conflict of passion and Christian principle within himself. Law, organisation, human dignity are the answers. But until these become accepted, what is to be done? Despite a "Thou speakest" style script, this is a spectacle with a difference and worth viewing.
1. An interesting and enjoyable spectacle? A success? Reviews on its first release were very negative.
2. The traditions of the cinema costume spectacle? Lavish presentation, re-creation of a period, the presentation of history? The conventions of the hero, struggles, romance? The language and archaisms often used in historical spectacles? How well did this film use these conventions?
3. Contribution of colour, location photography, wide screen? The rural atmosphere, the court of Alfred the Great, the presentation of the Danes and their invasions? Village life, monasteries, the battles and the attention to detail of the strategy, the passing of the seasons? The use of symbols to illustrate the history, the countryside, the court, religion?
4. The introduction to Alfred as Great? Why? David Hemmings' style in portraying Alfred? How well was he matched by Michael Yorks Guthrum? Was the audience convinced at the end that Alfred was a great king, with great achievement?
5. The impact of the opening and the pastoral quiet, the sheep, the boy and the girl, the sudden invasion, pursuit, bloodshed and death? A pattern for the rest of the film? The introduction of violence, the aggressive Danes, the nature and viciousness of the attack, the struggle, the power, the death for so many?
6. How well did the film present its environment: Britain in the 9th century, isolated, a small court, feudal background, the place of the Church and its ritual and orders, learning, the Church as a refuge? The kingship, heredity, the placement of the sons, the emblem of the sword, the cross? The invasion by enemies in isolated societies? The all-encompassing fighting and all being involved?
7. Themes of passion? The language of passion, Guthrum and the presentation of innate agressivity, feeling and passion, his comments on Odin as the God of Passion, violence, sacrifice, the continued din, the conventional aspects of passion? The contrast with Alfred and his Christian beliefs? His reserve, reliance on learning, the contrast of his skill and intellect with Guthrum's passion? His silence and the silence of the English? Yet Alfred as a man of passion, losing out to his preserved innocence? Passion influencing his decisions, his battle prayer, his scoffing at the Danes? The importance of his passion as regards Aehlswith? Her presence at the court, the dog and the chase, his kissing of her, the marriage and his decision, his almost raping his wife in passion? Alfred and his passionate love? hate, his nonacceptance of this, his failures? His whipping the nobleman? His experience with the outlaws and learning a balance? His reaction to Aehlswith and her child? The continued contrast throughout the film of this theme e.g. Guthrum and the Danes and the invasion of the monastery, the raping of the nuns, their feasts and their religious celebrations?
8. Themes of religion? The language of religion, the Catholic environment, Rome and its influence, ritual, the Eucharist and its explanation, orders, silence, the use of Scripture? Themes of the compassionate God? The monks and nuns and their being attacked, raped, being involved in battles? The possibility of peace and non-violence? The importance of so many discussions about religion especially with Asher and his role as Alfred's monk adviser? The importance of the discussions with Guthrum about religion and gods? The film's contrasting of Christianity with Danish paganism, similarities?
9. Alfred as lawgiver? The status of law in his England, his memories of Roman ecclesiastical law, his administration e.g. whipping of the nobleman, the discussions with the outlaws? His desire for written law, for equality? For a hierarchy of values, for ruling with noblemen and the Church? Alfred's vision of law and its administration?
10. The background of the history of England - the villages and the kingdoms, the conversion to Christianity, the experience of invasions, the nature of defence, survival, Wessex and its royalty, the nobles, the treaties and the possibilities of their being broken, the need for unity?
11. The background of the Danes - why were they invading, what did they hope to gain? Their appearance, their naval skill, their cry and din, plunder? Their doing deals especially for money? The importance of their defeats?
12. The film's presentation of the battles - Alfred and his discussions about strategy especially at the beginning with the lure of his brother, the various skirmishes? The battles in which he led so many people to death and the resulting treaties? His study of the Greeks, his use of the phalanx and the way this was visualised? The depleted numbers and the rallying cry for all to join in the war, men, women and children?
13. The portrait of Alfred and the film's use of close-ups and profiles of David Hemmings especially for transitions? As a young man, his role in the kingdom, his place amongst his brothers, his age? Seeing him to be ordained? The transition to the hunt, the encounter with Aehlswith? His reading? The symbols of the eagle and the dog as representing him? His military prowess when the need arose? The build-up to his marriage and his feeling betrayed? His skill as a leader, his greatness? His passion causing the death of so many and his decision to hide himself? How did he change over the years? His dislike of Aehlswith in a love? hate relationship? The treaty with Guthrumand his allowing his wife to go? The later taking of her and the child? His trying to win her back as well as defeat the Danes? The possibility of the reconciliation? Alfred and his life as a vocation, motivated by a sense of duty, a warrior king?
14. The role of Asher as being a monk, his continued help, advice, Alfred thinking that he was betrayed by him, their reconciliation, his fighting for the English? As representing the Church in the film?
15. The portrait of Aehlswith? The memories of her playing with Alfred as a child, her arrival and relationship with her father, her feminine presence, her forwardness especially with the hunt and being chased by the dog, her response to Alfred's passion, the reading of Latin at the table? Her marrying out of love, her not knowing the background of the treaty, her experience of the wedding night and her love? hate and wanting his apology? Her willingness to go as a hostage, her experience at the Danish revels? Her comments on her religion? The presence of her maid and the birth of her child? Her adultery with Guthrum and its motivation? Staying with him for so many years? Her being captured and the confrontation with Alfred at the end? An insight into a woman in such historical situations and difficulties?
16. Guthrum as warrior, appearance, contrast with Alfred, his insights and instincts? His discussions with Aehlswith and Alfred, pagan revelry, sacrifice? The importance of the religious sacrifice and its barbarity and blood with the Christian Eucharist? The importance of his being defeated by strategy?
17. The presentation of the nobles, their attitudes, their arrogance, not abiding by the law, their pride, the contrast with the outlaws and their helping of Alfred? The importance of the reconciliation scene when all rallied to his help?
18. Themes of paganism versus Christianity? The presentation and discussion of Christ, of Rome, the order of Christian religion?
19. How important and interesting is this kind of experience of the past, how much insight does it give into the past, into the present, the perennial aspects of human nature?