If you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you know of my love for Tudor dramas. The only one I reviewed prior to this is Cate Blanchett‘s Elizabeth. How funny then I’m reviewing another Queen Elizabeth film today, but 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 learned the details behind the movie after watching it helping make sense of the film’s tone, but ultimately The Virgin Queen is a 1950s period love story endeavoring to be a Queen Elizabeth movie.
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 change Elizabeth’s mind, he meets and falls in love with the beautiful Beth Throgmorton (Joan Collins).
The Virgin Queen was originally meant as a swashbuckling love story entitled The Adventures of Sir Walter Raleigh. Once Bette Davis showed interest in playing the role of the Queen, the script was reworked into what’s on-screen. Had I known that going in, I wouldn’t have been so disappointed. Within the first twenty minutes, I wondered how big a role Elizabeth had. Once you start to understanding this isn’t Elizabeth’s story, you’re left with Walter and Beth’s generic love triangle with the Queen. Their story is the narrative thrust, and it presents nothing new. I’ve read better books and watched better movies about the Raleigh’s relationship, and while Elizabeth punished them for their romance, the film fails to include any historical drama or tension. You never understand the Queen’s role in this. She’s not particularly sympathetic – collecting men as her “lapdogs” – and she hates other women; those are her character traits. This isn’t a Tudor drama but a contrived rehash of Romeo and Juliet. Also, the forbidden love between Walter and Beth isn’t romantic. They share poetic speeches and declarations of love supposedly strengthening their chaste, and allegedly beautiful (their relationship was anything but chaste, but I’m sure the censors had a lot to do with that). The need to keep their love pure makes for a hilariously awkward exchange when Beth reveals she’s pregnant with Raleigh’s baby. How this happened is beyond me because Raleigh’s been busy building a ship while Beth’s been with the Queen. I cry paternity test!
The script does its damndest to delineate between good and bad characters with no shades of ambiguity in between. Historically, Walter Raleigh was a massive opportunist; but here 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 complete refusal to submit to the Queen’s will (he’s told “God help your pride if you find favor with the Queen”) is his main subplot. Hindsight shows the Queen was a bit possessive of her courtiers, and yet no one is actually shown refusing the Queen! Raleigh submits to get what he wants, it’s once he’s denied what he wants that he rebels. Bit of a hypocrite. Raleigh also 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! Did you think I spelled that wrong? Nope, the real Lady Raleigh was named Elizabeth “Bess” Throckmorton. I understand changing her first name to Beth as to avoid confusion with our queenly Elizabeth, but why change the last name to something as ugly as Throgmorton? Aren’t we supposed to see her as beautiful and everything the Queen is not?
The Virgin Queen compresses political machinations into a typical feminine competition movie. The Queen doesn’t have any friends, not because she’s crotchety, but because she’s written to dislike 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, jealous woman afraid of losing her hold on men. Not only does the film present a superficial competition by turning Davis unattractive (semi-accurate) and Collins glamorously beautiful, but the climax is built 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 “plead[ing] 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 a speech about her unattractiveness and inability to bear children. The movie lets her understand Beth exclusively on the power of possessing a maternal instinct. This is like the worst of the pre-Codes where a woman who identified with men in every other arena was unable to suppress her feminine “instincts” by the end. For a woman quoted as saying she possessed the “heart and stomach of a king,” we see Elizabeth devolve into a petty, stereotypical woman. Instead of a sweeping line like the one above, Elizabeth declares “I am a woman; a woman not too young.” The script goes against everything history praises Elizabeth for! The moral of the story is “If you get old and ugly, you’re a spiteful bitch. Only pretty women will make you see the error of your ways.” By the end, I was unsure whether I should be sympathetic regarding the Queen or not. She’s left lonely and not possessing love. Is that good or bad? It’s irrelevant at the end because this isn’t her story, it’s 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? I had no doubt of her talent, especially since she filmed an earlier feature playing the same character, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Its been a long time since I watched that, and I might need to rewatch it to compare the two. Davis said playing Elizabeth I was her favorite, and she committed to it; even shaving her hairline to achieve the classic Elizabethan forehead. With that being said, 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 wondered why she’d turned Irish all of a sudden. She’s also given overwrought Shakespearean prose to recite 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 isn’t surprising how shallow it is. Davis is meant to be blustery, but 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 issues with stage blocking; it’s obvious he leans back to avoid a punch before the blow is thrown out! Collins is beautiful, but aside from being Raleigh’s beloved there’s no personality to her.
There’s not even a good swordfight in the movie. Not quite the swashbuckler it turned out to be, huh? The Virgin Queen comes off as a turgid romance seeking to be an epic costume drama. It doesn’t have the cache or appeal of the other Bette Davis-as-Queen Elizabeth role, and this isn’t the Queen’s story to boot. 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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