Screening History

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Fire over England was released in 1937, rather early for this sort of gallant little England picture. I was enthralled. But then I had been a Tudor loyalist from my first encounter with that dynasty’s propagandist, Shakespeare, and my role model never ceased to be Mickey Rooney, who, as Puck, proclaimed, “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes.” Well, I too had famously taken to the air for forty minutes, but I was undone by an inferior script. Had I not been sabotaged by my father’s direction, Mickey and I might have changed places, and he would be a novelist today while I would be touring triumphantly in Sugar Babies . Life is unfair.

F rom 1937 to 1941 we were treated to a hundred Fire over Englands. The United States was largely ignored .

The young leads of Fire over England were Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in their first film together. Flora Robson was Elizabeth I, and Raymond Massey was the Hitler-like King of Spain who is about to launch a fleet against England. He is also Roman Catholic, and he means to overthrow the Protestant ascendancy established by Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII. Thanks to these films, one knew quite a lot about Tudor times. One also knew exactly what to think about Fire over England , thanks to a series of title cards that start the film.

The first tells us: “In 1587, Spain, powerful in the old world, master in the new, its king, Philip, rules by force and fear.” Hitler and Mussolini immediately spring to mind. The next title card offered hope: “But Spanish tyranny is challenged by the free men of a little island, England.” It was safe now to start on the popcorn. A third card was somewhat confusing: “Everywhere English traders appear, English seamen threaten Spanish supremacy.” We all knew that the famous British fleet was as impregnable as the Maginot Line, and we had seen in the newsreels how the British king liked to dress up as an admiral. But how could a bunch of traders turn into sailors, challenging Spain?

A fourth card appears out of left field: “A woman guides and inspires them, Elizabeth the Queen.” Of course, there were not many of us in that audience who did not know that Elizabeth’s father was Charles Laughton and that her mother, Merle Oberon, lost her head after wistfully stroking what she referred to as “such a tiny neck.” We had also seen Elizabeth mistreat her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, as played by Katharine Hepburn. The definitive Elizabeth, with Bette Davis, would not be screened until 1939, that annum mirabilis of the movies.

A few minutes into the movie we are again told what to think by no less a personage than Lord Burleigh, an ancient courtier, who turns to a handy globe (there is always a globe in these scenes, seldom a map). He then proceeds to instruct the Earl of Leicester in geography, something that the earl probably knew but that we out there in the movie houses of the great isolationist Republic did not. “Here lies England,” the old man croaked, “but half an island, not three hundred miles long nor two hundred miles broad. How small we are, how wretched and defenseless.” He then contrasts the demi-island with all-powerful Spain. He is very glum.

Although a good actress, Flora Robson was not at her ease as a Renaissance sovereign. “I am England,” she thunders; then, rather like Richard Nixon at his zenith, she glances about furtively to make sure that no one has come to take her away.

Upon re-viewing and reflection, Fire over England is unexpectedly bold in its condemnation of Catholicism, at least King Philip’s brand. As someone remarks of the Spanish priests, “They herd souls as we do cattle.” Worse, the script assures us that the struggle between little England and great Spain is actually a “war of ideas,” something that might have given the original Elizabeth a good laugh but caused our heads to nod solemnly as we realized that our common Anglo past was again in peril and, as Lord Burleigh puts it, “We are servants in an old house who train the new servants.” That was us all right, new servants of the old British Empire.

Four years later the Korda team made pretty much the same film called, this time, That Hamilton Woman . Vivien Leigh played Lady Hamilton, and Laurence Olivier played Lord Nelson. Our gallant little island is still not three hundred by two hundred miles in size, but it is menaced now not by a Spanish but by a French dictator while, in real life, the immediate menace in the newsreels was a German dictator. Again the producer was Alexander Korda, and again Winston Churchill helped out with the script, which was the work of one of the few true film auteurs , R. C. Sherriff, famous for the play Journey’s End and the script of that near-perfect film Odd Man Out (1947).

From 1937 to 1941 we were treated to a hundred Fire over Englands .