Happy birthday to King Charles II of England who was born this day in 1630, seen above portrayed by George Sanders in 1955's The King's Thief. Seeing Sanders play Charles II was an exciting prospect for me but sadly I found it to have been a squandered opportunity, the film being for the most part a third rate imitation of the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood. Though it does pay a little better attention to history than the better film, The King's Thief is more fascinating for analysing the purpose of what it intentionally got wrong than for what it got right.
Charles may have been pleased and perhaps puzzled by the kind piece of propaganda centuries after his reign. What vested interest did the makers of this American swashbuckler have in establishing Charles II as a war hero who "defeated Cromwell" in the Restoration? In this history the Restoration was apparently a war that reversed the fortunes of the Royalists who lost the English Civil Wars. In reality, Oliver Cromwell died of old age in 1658 and the Restoration was a bloodless affair in which Parliament invited the Stuart heir, Charles II, back from exile to take the English throne. Well, it was bloodless until Charles started executing the most prominent people in Cromwell's government.
All this rewritten history is back story to establish the firm moral character of the king, his only failing being that he trusts the fictional James, Duke of Brampton, the film's villain portrayed by David Niven. There is no Brampton in England big enough to have a duke, one wonders if this was a heavily modified James, Duke of York, Charles II's brother and successor as king, when he became James II. In Charles II's intrigues with foreign Catholic powers, James was even more transgressive, becoming openly Catholic in a country that was still not so friendly to Papists.
David Niven's character never mentions his religion. His scheme is to frame various members of the nobility for treason so he can appropriate their lands in a situation somewhat reminiscent of landowners who were dispossessed of, and uncompensated for, properties they acquired in the Civil Wars and Interregnum by the returning Royalists. One of the people Niven has executed is the father of the film's top billed star, Ann Blyth, or rather her character, Lady Mary.
She's living in Normandy for some reason as the film begins. Since Royalist sympathies are portrayed as making a person pure and good, the implication seems to be that her family was exiled to France during the Interregnum for loyalty to the king in the Civil Wars, though this is never made clear. Now she must make a dangerous journey back to England in the hopes of clearing her dead father's name and her own. She catches the eye of both the Duke and of Michael Dermott, the thief of the title, played unimpressively by the dim shadow of Errol Flynn called Edmund Purdom. It's too bad no-one had the idea to swap him out for the guy who plays his sidekick, Jack, a very young Roger Moore.
Despite the title, Michael has little to do with the king, though he is fiercely loyal to him. I think the idea may have been to make Charles II as much like Richard the Lionheart in The Adventures of Robin Hood as possible, Michael being a thief like Robin who's able to break the law as much as he likes without transgressing the Hays code because he's on the side of the real morality. It may have actually worked if the film had been set in the last years of the Interregnum and given that most of the costumes actually look pre-Restoration, I wonder if this was originally the plan.
I took these screenshots from TCM's trailer but I rented the movie last week on YouTube where the Eastman Colour isn't nearly as degraded as the images make it appear. It's an entertaining enough film, an escape from Newgate prison, Ann Blyth's beauty, and Niven's scenery chewing being highlights. The sword fights are pretty lacklustre except for Niven's smug instructions to Michael during their first fight. Sadly, Sanders appears in only a couple scenes.