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Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972)


Main image of Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972)
35mm, colour, 125 mins
DirectorWaris Hussein
Production CompanyAnglo-EMI
ProducerRoy Baird
ScreenplayIan Thorne
PhotographyPeter Suschitzky
MusicDavid Munro

Cast: Keith Michell (Henry VIII); Frances Cuka (Catherine of Aragon); Charlotte Rampling (Anne Boleyn); Jane Asher (Jane Seymour); Jenny Bos (Anne of Cleves); Lynne Frederick (Catherine Howard); Barbara Leigh-Hunt (Catherine Parr); Donald Pleasence (Thomas Cromwell); Michael Gough (Norfolk); Brian Blessed (Suffolk)

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From his deathbed, King Henry VIII looks back on some of the momentous events of his reign, from his break with the Catholic Church to the six marriages that he undertook in order to secure a male heir.

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The worldwide success of Alexander Korda's saucy The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) briefly brought a renewed sense of optimism to the ailing British film industry, but Waris Hussein's The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1972) reflected a very different attitude. Post-war cinema admissions had hit an all-time low, American studios were withdrawing their support and the faltering economy was heading towards energy cuts and the three-day week. Hussein's film begins with a plea for unity and it's hard not to see in its representation of Henry VIII's search for a male heir an echo of the industry's insecurity about its very survival. In fact this proved to be Hussein's last feature film for 25 years.

As the number of British films shrank, the tendency to play safe increased, a trend exemplified by the plethora of features derived from popular television shows. In 1972 alone there were almost a dozen such films, from the cautionary Doomwatch (d. Peter Sasdy) to sitcom adaptations like The Alf Garnett Saga (d. Bob Kellett), Mutiny on the Buses (d. Harry Booth) and Steptoe and Son (d. Cliff Owen), which grossed six times its production cost. Derived from The Six Wives of Henry VIII (BBC2, 1970), Hussein's film stands out from this general run of mediocrity for its decent production values and strong cast.

While the six-part series dedicated each episode to an individual wife, the film focuses on the King himself. The film and the series shared the same executive producer (Mark Shivas) and screenwriter (Ian Thorne wrote the 'Jane Seymour' (tx. 15/1/1970) segment), while Bernard Hepton repeats his fine portrayal of Thomas Cranmer. Of the supporting cast, Charlotte Rampling is galvanising as a wild-eyed, increasingly neurotic Anne Boleyn while Donald Pleasence gives one of his finest and most understated performances as Thomas Cromwell, the king's ill-fated adviser.

Instead of condensing the nine-hour original, the film is structured as a series of reminiscences from Henry VIII's deathbed, galloping (sometimes too swiftly) through nearly forty years. By emphasising his change from a vigorous and athletic young man to the older, massively overweight figure of lore, the cinema incarnation improves considerably on the occasionally ponderous and turgid original by providing much more convincing make-up for Keith Michell (who was only 33 at the time), here brilliantly expanding on his original, highly sympathetic portrait of the monarch.

Sergio Angelini

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Video Clips
1. Young Henry (0:53)
2. Defying the Pope (3:05)
3. The Masque (2:45)
4. Anne of Cleves (3:14)
Elizabeth R (1971)
Asher, Jane (1946-)
Blessed, Brian (1936-)
Bloom, John
Hussein, Waris (1938- )
Pleasence, Donald (1919-1995)
Rampling, Charlotte (1946-)
Henry VIII On Screen