From the December 1948 Broadway opening of Maxwell Anderson’s historical drama that dealt with challenging themes of royal infidelity, illegitimacy and sociopolitical upheaval, it took roughly a thousand weeks for Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) to reach the screen. One individual who saw that production during its acclaimed 10-month run (which earned Rex Harrison the Best Actor Tony® crown for his wily and dexterous performance as British King Henry VIII) was prolific, decades-spanning Hollywood producer Hal B. Wallis. His formidable resumé already included a couple of popular stage-originated cinematic encounters with English monarchs, 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (also from an Anderson play) and 1964’s Becket (from the Jean Anouilh/Lucienne Hill drama that won four Tony® Awards including Best Play). The latter starred Peter O’Toole as King Henry II and Richard Burton as his one-time best friend and eventual Archbishop of Canterbury, the martyred Thomas Becket. About the latter, the film eminence recalled in Starmaker: The Autobiography of Hal Wallis (written with Charles Higham): “Richard and I got along famously. He told me he wanted to do another picture with me and that he liked Maxwell Anderson’s play Anne of the Thousand Days very much. Could he please play Henry VIII? Would I buy the play for him? I had seen the play on Broadway and was struck by its powerful theme. It was the love story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Henry divorced his wife, even the Church, to marry Anne, then had her beheaded when she failed to produce a male heir to the throne. The play had great cinematic possibilities.”
And by 1969, when a new openness to adult themes had surged into Hollywood moviemaking and Fred Zinnemann’s distinguished film version of Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons (1966) earned critical acclaim, audience popularity and refreshed memories of the 16th-century political and marital intrigues of Henry VIII, Wallis took steps to realize those possibilities, moving his production shingle from a reluctant Paramount Pictures to an enthusiastic Universal Studios, and navigating an edgy period of depressive behavior from Burton, who had second thoughts about his earlier enthusiasm and had to be threatened with a lawsuit to honor his commitment. In Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars, biographer Bernard F. Dick reports: “The reasons for Burton’s change of heart will never be fully known, although they are inferable. When Elizabeth Taylor, whom Burton marred in 1964 after his divorce from Sybil Christopher, discovered her husband would be playing Henry VIII, she immediately asked Wallis is she could be his Anne, although at 36, she would hardly have been the nubile creature that captivated Henry. When Burton pointed that out to her, she took it in stride.” To direct, Wallis chose London-born Charles Jarrott, who’d only made one previous theatrical feature (the 1962 crime thriller Time to Remember) but as a 12-year veteran of British television had helmed a 1964 “period-adjacent” BBC production of The Young Elizabeth that the producer admired. Wallis’s Anne Boleyn would be ultimately entrusted, after an exhaustive search for an unknown, emerging talent, to a quite capable 26-year-old Montreal native who had already gained favorable attention via her work in Alain Resnais’ La guerre est finie and Philippe de Broca’s King of Hearts (1966). In Starmaker, Wallis recalled: “A miracle happened. After months of futile interviews, an agent called to tell me he had just the right girl for the part. I had heard that many times before, but at this point I was willing to believe anything and wearily suggested he bring the footage to my screening room. It was 300 feet from a Canadian film called Isabel [1968, written and directed by Paul Almond], about the ghost of a young woman who haunts her lover. The minute she appeared on screen, I was riveted. I saw a tiny, seemingly fragile young woman made of steel – willful, passionate, intense. She was exactly the actress I wanted to play Anne Boleyn. Even her French accent was perfect: Anne had been educated in France. I hired the girl without meeting or testing her. Her name was Geneviève Bujold.”
The producer, Dick chronicled, “collaborated with the screenwriters [Bridget Boland and John Hale], making certain that Anne was the companion film to Becket. Anderson’s play was framed by a prologue and an epilogue – the prologue spoken by Anne, the epilogue by both Anne and Henry, but with Henry getting the last word. Becket had a similar framing device, as Henry II recalled the past at Becket’s tomb. To forge a parallel with Becket, Wallis retained the flashback structure of the original, but with a different narrator – Henry, reliving the time from his first meeting with Anne to her execution. Just as Becket opened with Henry’s arrival at Canterbury cathedral, Anne begins with Cromwell rushing in to inform Henry that Anne, her brother George, and Harry Percy have all been executed – the cue for a flashback, after which the action returns to the present with a reflective but unrepentant Henry.” With several historically authentic English locations lined up for filming, Wallis would embark on a production that he hoped would duplicate the impact of Becket, with a mercurial, moody male lead, and a female star and a director who had not yet fronted a major studio film. The journey to the Panavision Technicolor screen undertaken by Anne of the Thousand Days, a December 18 Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray release with Preorders opening December 5, continues tomorrow.