If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you should know of my love for Tudor dramas. I think the only one I’ve reviewed for the blog is Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth. How funny then that I’m reviewing another Queen Elizabeth film today, only this one takes place when our virgin Queen is a fair bit older. The 1955 film The Virgin Queen is a mixed bag of Elizabethan melodrama, Shakespearean romance, and a queen who just happens to be named Elizabeth. I only learned the details behind the movie after watching it, which helped make sense, but ultimately The Virgin Queen is a 1950s period love story that endeavors to be a Queen Elizabeth movie. If Davis wasn’t here I probably wouldn’t have watched this at all.
Sir Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd) hopes to entice Queen Elizabeth (Davis) into funding his expedition to the New World. Unfortunately, the Queen likes Walter too much to send him away. As he tries to make Elizabeth change her mind, he soon meets and falls in love with the beautiful Beth Throgmorton (Joan Collins).
The original plans for The Virgin Queen had it being a swashbuckling love story called The Adventures of Sir Walter Raleigh. Once Bette Davis showed interest in playing the role of the Queen, the script was reworked into what it is now. I think if I had known that going in, I wouldn’t have been so disappointed. Within the first twenty minutes, I started asking just how big a role Elizabeth would have. Once you start to understand that this isn’t Elizabeth’s story, you’re left with Walter and Beth’s generic love triangle with the Queen. Their story is the main thrust of the narrative, and it doesn’t present anything new. I’ve read better books and seen better movies about the relationship of the Raleigh’s, and while Elizabeth did punish them for their romance, the film doesn’t include any of that drama or tension. You never understand the Queen’s role in all this. She’s not particularly sympathetic, she collects men to be her “lapdogs,” and she hates other women; those are her character traits. If anything, this isn’t a Tudor drama but a contrived rehash of Romeo and Juliet. Furthermore, the forbidden love between Walter and Beth isn’t that romantic. They share poetic speeches and declarations of love which is supposed to make their relationship chaste and beautiful (their relationship was anything but chaste, but I’m sure the censors had a lot to do with that change). The cloying need to keep their love pure does make for a hilarious, and awkward, exchange when Beth reveals she’s pregnant with Raleigh’s baby. How that happened is beyond me because he’s been busy building a ship while she’s been with the Queen. I cry paternity test!
For history buffs, the script does its damndest to delineate between good and bad characters with no shades of ambiguity in between. According to history, Walter Raleigh was a massive opportunist; but here that opportunism is born out of altruism, and he has clear limits to what he will do for his chance to go to the New World. His fierce independence and his complete refusal to submit to the Queen’s will (since he’s been told “God help your pride if you find favor with the Queen”) is his main subplot. Here’s the thing, hindsight shows that the Queen was a bit possessive of her courtiers, and yet no one actually is shown refusing the Queen! Raleigh submits to get what he wants, it’s only once he’s denied what he wants that he rebels. Bit of a hypocrite there. Furthermore, Raleigh lived very comfortably in the Queen’s employ, which is why he was able to carry on an affair with Bess Throckmorton in the first place! Oh, did you think I spelt that wrong? Nope, the real Lady Raleigh was named Elizabeth “Bess” Throckmorton. I can understand changing her first name to Beth, as to avoid confusion with our other Elizabeth, but why change the last name to something as ugly as Throgmorton? Aren’t we supposed to find her beautiful, and everything the Queen is not?
Yeah, The Virgin Queen compresses political machinations into a typical feminine competition movie. The Queen doesn’t have any friends, not just because she’s crotchety, but because she’s not written to like women. The real Queen had several female confidantes, Bess Throckmorton being one of them, but here that’s removed to make the Queen an old woman, jealous of losing her hold on men. Not only does the film present a superficial competition by making Davis extremely unattractive (semi-accurate) and Collins extremely beautiful, but the climax is built solely around two women talking about a man! When Walter is taken to the Tower of London, Beth goes in the dead of night to confront the Queen in her bedchamber. Beth pleads for leniency because she’s pregnant, and doesn’t want her child to grow up without a father. I appreciated the Queen smugly scoffing at Beth needing to “plead her belly,” because it is a cheap shot. Of course, for all the Queen’s desire to be a strong ruler, regardless of gender, this segues into her speech about not being pretty and unable to bear children. Yes, the movie has her understanding Beth on the power of possessing a maternal instinct. This is like the worst of the pre-Codes where a woman who identified with male traits was unable to suppress her feminine “instincts” for the entire film. For a woman quoted as saying she possessed the “heart and stomach of a king,” we see her devolve into a petty, stereotypical female. Instead of a sweeping line like the one above, we have Elizabeth declare that “I am a woman; a woman not too young.” The script goes against everything history praises Elizabeth for being! The entire moral of the story is “If you get old and ugly, you become a spiteful bitch. Only pretty women will make you see the error of your ways.” By the end, I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to be sympathetic with regards to the Queen or not. She’s left lonely and not possessing love. Is that good or bad? It’s irrelevant because at the end this isn’t her story, its Raleigh’s and Beth’s. Their love is secure, so screw Elizabeth!
If I had to think of anyone to play Queen Elizabeth I, I’d definitely envision Bette Davis. Who better to play the Queen of England, than the Queen of Hollywood (although that’s debatable)? I had no doubts about her talent, especially since she had done an earlier film playing the same character, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. It’s been a long time since I watched that, and I think I might need to rewatch it in order to compare the two. Davis said playing Elizabeth I was her favorite role, and she committed to it; even shaving her hairline to get the classic Elizabeth high forehead. With that, I don’t believe this is her finest interpretation of the role. For starters, Davis has a hard time maintaining her British accent for 92 minutes. At certain points I was wondering why she’d turned Irish on me all of a sudden. She’s also given overwrought Shakespearean prose, while Todd and Collins’ language isn’t nearly as flowery. Since the role of the Queen wasn’t written for a distinguished leading lady, it’s not surprising how shallow it is. Davis is meant to be blustery, but instead growls all her lines like an angry grandmother who wishes you kids would turn down the damn TV! Todd is okay, but he’s no Errol Flynn. He’s not as naturally charismatic, or as fun to watch as Flynn. He also has some issues with stage blocking; it’s obvious he leans back to avoid a punch before the blow is even thrown out! Collins is beautiful, but aside from being Raleigh’s beloved there’s virtually no personality to her.
There’s not even one good swordfight in this movie. Not quite the swashbuckler it turned out to be, huh? The Virgin Queen comes off as a turgid romance that seeks to be an epic costume drama. It doesn’t have nearly the cache or appeal of the other Bette Davis-as-Queen Elizabeth role, and this isn’t even the Queen’s story. I recommend checking out other Queen Elizabeth movies if that’s what you’re seeking, because this film isn’t about her despite the title. If you’re interested in Sir Walter Raleigh, the movie presents a highly sanitized, 1950s version of his life.
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