Trompé Setsuled (setsuled) wrote,
Trompé Setsuled

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Orson Welles and Roses by Any Other Names Smell Sweeter Than This Movie

It's usually bad science fiction films that teach us we can put aside our petty differences for racial hatred we can all agree on but in 1950 The Black Rose brought the message that it doesn't matter what kind of human you are so long as you're white. Unless you're Orson Welles. The movie somewhat confusingly tells us a Mongol warlord Orson Welles who slaughters children isn't so bad. But the movie stars Tyrone Power--it's a mediaeval adventure film where for some reason Tyrone Power never gets in a sword fight. The story makes little sense, the characters are cardboard and everything's very poorly thought out. The only good things in this movie are Orson Welles and Jack Cardiff's cinematography. And Jack Hawkins as a Saxon bowman isn't bad, though he looks eerily like Steven Moffat.

Based on a 1945 novel, the film begins in England, two centuries after the Norman conquest, but there's still tensions between Norman and Saxon which seem like the writers got more from studying the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood than from actual historical accounts--though Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone in that film were capable of murdering and raping Saxons while the conflict at the beginning of The Black Rose involves Saxons sapping guards with the pommels of their swords after which the unnamed Norman king furrows his brow and lets everyone go.

The pommel sap and a couple swings of a ridiculously oversized mantel sword are all the swordplay we get from Power who, despite being truly one of the best swordsmen to star in a Hollywood film to this day, seemed to have some absurd preoccupation with being typecast. Which somehow manifests in him starring in this swashbuckler in which he does no swashbuckling.

There's a good film noir Power starred in a couple years earlier called Nightmare Alley though his typically tin-eared, unvarying performance actually worked for the naive con artist he played in that film. In The Black Rose, particularly next to Orson Welles, Power is substantial as a pile of feathers. But he still outshines the female lead, Cecile Aubry as a blonde half-Mongol, half Englishwoman Power and Hawkins meet after they've joined Welles' army in its conquest of China--unable to fight the Normans in England, the two Saxons seek their fortunes abroad where most of the movie takes place.

A lot of it was shot in Morocco and there are some really impressive location shots. The movie looks very, very expensive--the scenes in England use real castles, scenes in China use enormous, gorgeously decorated sets. All of this, I suspect, was part of a trend towards realism, influenced maybe by Italian films but probably more directly by the all-location shot cop film The Naked City. The adaptation of King Solomon's Mines that came out the same year as The Black Rose will give you the authentic location adventure film somewhat lighter on the racism, though.

Despite mentioning people in the Middle East have reason not to love Christians after the first crusades, the movie still takes great pains to tell us how fundamentally noble Englishmen are compared to everyone else. Aubry's English father, we're told, only impregnated her Mongolian mother under duress. Now, I don't expect racial sensitivity from a movie made in 1950, but something halfway plausible would be nice in this case.

Aubry comes off as the product of several generations of inbreeding or maybe simply like a ten year-old. Either way, her romance with Power is incredibly shallow and a little creepy. She refuses to wear the boy disguise that keeps her from death in the Mongol camp because she wants Power to see she's beautiful. She believes Power is the man from a sort of fairy tale prophecy her father told her because he's white and handsome. She actually spends a lot more time with Hawkins and seems to agree with him on not liking how Welles slaughters women and children but she prefers Power because, as she plainly says, he's prettier.

The whole movie is enormously stacked against anyone who's not white but then seems rather amusingly to be utterly beguiled by Welles' performance as the Khan. Welles so disarmingly describes the practicality of wholesale murder the film doesn't seem to blame Power for wanting to stick with him and at the end of the film the Khan gets a sentimental coda.

I loved that Welles and Power play a legitimate chess game at one point in the film--though by anachronistic rules--both move their pawns out two spaces in the beginning centuries before this became part of the game.

Gods, but this movie's beautiful, though. The influence of Rembrandt on Cardiff is really clear.

Tags: jack cardiff, jack hawkins, movies, orson welles, the black rose, tyrone power
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