Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Quentin Durward (MGM, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was Quentin Durward, a frozen-funds production MGM made in Great Britain (with some exteriors in France — the credits listed acknowledgments of four real castles at which they filmed, though given how little they got out of them they could have saved the payments to their owners and built models in the studio) based on a Sir Walter Scott novel (star Robert Taylor had had a hit with a film of Scott’s Ivanhoe in 1952 and so MGM decided to go to the well once again) and starring Robert Taylor as a knight in 1465 in which, as the opening titles told us, the rules of chivalry were getting rather “droopy” (that’s the word they used!) and the advent of firearms was taking the edge off the conventions of medieval warfare.

I got the impression that Scott and his adapters, screenwriters Robert Ardrey (who later left the movie business and became, of all things, an anthropologist, writing the best-selling pop-anthropology books African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative) and George Froeschel, were showing the development of firearms far beyond what would have been historically appropriate for 1465 — one of the castles in the film is shelled with fully developed cannon that looked more like props from a film set in the 19th century, and one fleeing character is laid waste by three perfectly aimed bullets from three guardsmen firing three pistol shots (one each) in succession and all hitting him in the back. (At least they didn’t make the mistake of the 1939 James Whale film The Man in the Iron Mask, set in the 18th century, of having one person fire three shots in rapid succession with the same gun; 18th century firearms had to be reloaded after each shot.)

Directed competently but unspectacularly by Richard Thorpe, Quentin Durward was the last of Robert Taylor’s historical epics — he derisively called them “iron-jockstrap parts” and served notice to MGM that from then on he wanted to do only modern-dress films and Westerns (and his best film in the rest of his MGM tenure, Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl, was a quite good gangster movie set in the 1920’s with Taylor playing a crooked lawyer with a club foot who regains his moral sense after he undergoes surgery that cures his physical disability) — and a bizarrely boring film, a far cry from the entertainment values of his previous medieval movies. Part of the problem is Scott’s novel; it’s one of those confusing epic potboilers he liked to write in which it’s not altogether clear from scene to scene who’s who or which side they’re on.

At the story’s beginning Quentin Durward (Robert Taylor) is a knight who still takes the code of chivalry seriously — the gimmick is that this already makes him an anachronism in 1465 but all too little is done with that premise in the actual film — when he’s assigned by his uncle, Lord Crawford (Ernest Thesiger, a delight to see again even if Thorpe gets far less out of him than James Whale did in The Old Dark House and The Bride of Frankenstein), to go to Burgundy to investigate Isabelle, Countess of Marcroy (Kay Kendall, who got the job after Grace Kelly wisely turned it down and comes off as a virtual carbon copy of Deborah Kerr, red hair and all, though at least the red hair doesn’t flame quite so brightly in the Eastmancolor process used here as it would have in Technicolor), whom Lord Crawford has contracted with Charles, the Duke of Burgundy (Alec Clunes) to marry in order to cement the Burgundian/Scottish alliance that appears aimed at protecting the independent status of both dominions from the expansionism of France and England, respectively.

There are at least three other military forces in France involved in this bizarre farrago of a plot: King Louis XI (played by Robert Morley in the same droll fashion in which he’d played his character’s direct descendant, Louis XVI, in MGM’s Marie Antoinette 17 years earlier), who seems to be on Durward’s side in protecting Isabelle from Charles’ schemes and averting a civil war in France — since naturally, as soon as Durward and Isabelle met, he fell in love with her and lost all interest in winning her for his uncle — plus Count William de la Marek (Duncan Lamont), who has staked out a territory in the woods between Burgundy and France proper (his domain is designated as the Ardennes Forest, which would actually set the action of this film in Belgium — as does the convent in Liège in which Durward temporarily stashes Isabelle) and his forces, and a band of gypsies led by Hayraddin (George Cole), who give us the obligatory belly-dancing scene and are represented by a group of actors utterly at odds with each other as to what constituted a proper “gypsy” accent. Eventually Hayraddin becomes the character dropped and killed by an anachronistically accurate fusillade of pistol shots, de la Marek (why did Walter Scott always give his villains such tongue-twisting names?) is killed in a duel by Durward, and Louis XI and the Duke of Burgundy settle their differences and, after they can’t agree on whom she should marry, finally let her choose for herself — and you don’t need two guesses whom she chooses! (Lord Crawford has conveniently died off-screen, thereby releasing Durward from his original pledge.)

Hampered by a weak supporting cast and a plot that makes virtually no sense, Quentin Durward is at least partially redeemed by some intriguing Sternbergian uses of sound — while there’s plenty of typically rousing music, there are also some sequences “scored” only with amplified natural sound, notably one in which Durward and Isabelle are fleeing through a wheat field and all we hear are their footsteps and the rustling of the wheat as they move through it — and by a cheerily campy approach to the action sequences. The best part of the movie — and the scene everyone remembers — is the one in which Durward and de la Marek have a duel in the bell tower of a burning church, having to stay in touch with their inner Tarzans and swing from one bell rope to the next while simultaneously having at each other with swords and avoiding either being killed by the other or falling to a fiery doom below. Now that part is fun!