For his ambitious production of Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), Hal Wallis assembled a royal entourage of talents. Top-flight acting talent included Irene Papas as Catherine of Aragon, Anthony Quayle as Cardinal Wolsey, John Colicos as Thomas Cromwell, Michael Hordern as Thomas Boleyn, Peter Jeffrey as the Duke of Norfolk and William Squire as Thomas More. Cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson had photographed Tunes of Glory (1960), Whistle Down the Wind (1961), Nine Hours to Rama (1962), The Chalk Garden (1964) and Where Eagles Dare (1968). Composer Georges Delerue’s previous scores included Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Shoot the Piano Player (1960), Jules and Jim (1962), King of Hearts (1966), A Man for All Seasons (1966) and Women in Love (1969). Screenwriter Bridget Boland had to her collaborative credit the scripts for Gaslight (1940), The Prisoner (1955, from her own play) and War and Peace (1956), while writing partner John Hale had adapted several D.H. Lawrence works for British television throughout the 1960s. Yet all these forces would come to naught were it not for the struggles and strivings of the two marquee leading players, then five-time Academy Award® nominee Richard Burton as the libido-obsessed yet conscience-driven King Henry VIII and the striking Geneviève Bujold as the beautiful, strong-willed maiden Anne Boleyn, who determines to tame the monomaniacal monarch and bear him a royal male heir. Burton had many personal demons, among them his consuming marriage to Elizabeth Taylor, who would be present during the films, and his self-destructive bouts with drinking, and deep guilts about the course of his life.
Playing a ruler politically compelled to dispose of his first wife, “Burton was made uncomfortable by the content of the dialogue, not the quality (the lucid and eloquent screenplay, after all, was nominated for an Academy Award®),” Sam Kasher and Nancy Schoenberger wrote in Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century. “Once again, he was forced to relive the central incident in his life: his abandonment of his much-admired wife, Sybil, to marry Elizabeth, the woman to whom he was hopelessly in thrall. When he speaks the words ‘I will have Anne if it splits the earth in two like an apple and fling the two halves into the void!” how could he help think of the time when he, himself, split the world in two, to divest himself of one wife in order to marry another? And in case he could forget, the script was full of reminders: Henry calls his first wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, Kate – the name of his treasured elder daughter whom he had left to marry Elizabeth, and the role Elizabeth played to perfection in The Taming of the Shrew (1967) three years earlier. And there are two Elizabeths in the film: Anne Boleyn’s mother, and, of course, Boleyn’s child with Henry: Elizabeth I, England’s great queen. And there was his own Elizabeth, showing up as an extra, bedecked with La Peregrina and looking more splendid than any queen.” Not oblivious to her co-star’s dilemma, the professionally focused Bujold rose to the challenge. The producer recalled in Starmaker: The Autobiography of Hal Wallis (written with Charles Higham): “During the picture, gossip had it that Richard and Geneviève were romantically involved. It may have been nothing more than a lighthearted flirtation, but Elizabeth was convinced that she was threatened. She telephoned Richard constantly, checking in on him, asking when he would be coming home. The final scene of the picture was a very dramatic one. Henry confronts Anne in the Tower, but she refuses his royal pardon, preferring death to the disinheritance of her daughter. It was a key scene and we were nervous about it. To our dismay, the day we shot it Elizabeth decided to pay us a visit. A chair with her name on it had stood empty on the set throughout the shooting and, much as I liked her, I was glad it had. I was afraid her presence, her jealousy might affect Geneviève’s performance. Now, when we needed Geneviève to be at her best, we were faced with this unwelcome visit. Elizabeth swept onto the set with her entourage and settled down into her seat. Geneviève was fighting mad. She turned to [director Charles] Jarrott and me and said, ‘I’m going to give that bitch an acting lesson she’ll never forget!’ then took her position in front of the camera. What seemed a misfortune suddenly turned into an advantage. Geneviève flung herself into the scene with a display of acting skill I have seldom seen equaled in my career. Then she stormed off the set. Soon after filming finished, we had an end-of-the-picture party. The two actresses held court at opposite ends of the room. Richard very pointedly never left Elizabeth’s side.”
When the film opened, all the tensions of its making were vindicated when it achieved box-office success despite a lukewarm critical reception due to changing tastes of the time. An exception was veteran New York Post scribe Archer Winsten, who proclaimed it: “An instant classic! Great cast. Impressive settings. The balance between historical pageantry and human detail has never been struck more effectively.” In short order it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards® including Best Picture (plus an Oscar® win for Margaret Furse’s superb Costume Designs) and won four Golden Globes for Best Picture/Drama, Actress, Director (Charles Jarrott) and Screenplay. In sum, “its lavish sets and brilliant photography, its cunning performance by Burton, the epitome of the royal fox and oaf, depending upon his merciless whims, and Bujold’s arresting talent made for a grand, bawdy and often enlightening historical film” (The Motion Picture Guide), just as the producer of Casablanca, Becket and another 1969 gem,True Grit, would have it. The Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray of Anne of the Thousand Days, with Delerue’s majestic march and madrigal melodies on an Isolated Music Track, holds court starting December 18. Preorders open December 5.