July the 4th is of course a very patriotic day for one nation in particular. Us Brits like to moan about the Yanks now and again because perhaps old rivalries never quite die no matter how close the friendship. We have an even fonder tendency to exchange banter with our French friends across the channel. On Independence Day the story of one of their most fascinating monarchs arrives on DVD.
Henry of Navarre (aka Henri 4) has all the ingredients of an epic historical romp. Its visceral battle scenes, complete with frenetic handheld camerawork as well as sweeping shots, have been likened to Ridley Scott’s iconic set pieces by Variety. Its period details are meticulous and vivid, from costume to setting. Its themes of religious freedom, love and power are at once more inspiring than modern day concerns and still relevant. And of course, as addictive TV dramas such as The Tudors and Rome have proved, no story of royalty and betrayal is complete these days without plenty of nudity and animalistic sex.
Henri, played by Julien Boisselier, is a charmer from childhood. The film begins with the prince of Navarre, a small region of France, paying the girls as a mere boy for a glimpse up their skirts. He goes on to seduce, overpower and caress several other women throughout the course of the film. The first set of bedroom scenes, with a Catholic he is told to marry to secure peace, verge on the violent, fuelled by religious resentment and suspicion. They scratch and bite like tigers just released from a zoo. Henry of Navarre is not a film short on beautiful women or erotic encounters.
But Henri is still likeable despite his cavorting, which prompts his second wife to describe him as a “horny old goat”. Boisselier plays him as a man disillusioned by the role and world he was born into but determined to change things pragmatically. The film begins with Henri leading the Protestant Huguenots against the greater part of France controlled by the Catholic Medici family. Henri is encouraged into a peacemaking marriage in Paris and during this part of the film within the city walls and the Louvre palace, overwhelming tension and intrigue builds, with relationships in the court difficult to decipher. Henri is well meaning but naive and the betrayal eventually comes with the tragedy of the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre.
At this point it’s hard to understand why Henri doesn’t flee but eventually he wins the trust of the traitors and escapes successfully. He returns to his roots in Navarre and builds up the strength of his home. By the end of the film Henri is King of all of France, with the price being his religious belief and identity. But despite his growing wisdom, Henri’s childhood innocence and kindness is also preserved by Boisselier’s performance. This is a very modern film because Henri puts aside labels of religion and ancestry to cherish things that really matter in life and leadership; loyalty, friendship, love and freedom.
Henry of Navarre has its faults. It could do with being half an hour shorter but the two and a half hour runtime is more than filled with the substance of Henri’s fascinating life. Not all of the acting is assured, with Ulrich Noethen’s performance as Charles IX too over the top and caricatured regardless of the troubled nature of the monarch. The battle scenes, despite their initial impact, become repetitive. You are carried through it all though by the compelling complexity and emotion of Henri’s story and the appeal of his character. This would appear to be a diverse film faithful to history that both entertains and educates.
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Nazi Germany is a historical setting we are all familiar with. Films set within the Third Reich often have similarities; good natured people trying to help persecuted Jewish neighbours, informers, political intimidation, concentration camps and the striking red background of the swastika. Equally there are areas often overlooked. The boxing rings for example.
Max Schmeling is a German film directed by Uwe Boll which tells the story of one of the 20th century’s greatest boxers. He became world champion in the early 1930s, getting his big break by beating the title holder by default after an illegal “low blow” from his opponent. The film begins by following Max as a paratrooper for the German army in Crete, where everyone seems to know his name. During a conversation with a British prisoner he recalls how his fame started, flashing back to his regret at being denied the world championship outright. The rest of his career became a struggle to prove he deserved that title.
Schmeling wanted to prove himself outside of Germany as well as within it. He wanted to be the best in the world. He was already a national hero but he wanted to win other countries over with his ability. He frequently flew to America for huge matches at iconic venues such as Madison Square Garden. He was beginning to win admiration around the globe until his task became a lot harder with the rise of the Nazi party. As Germany’s image was soured so was Schmeling’s. One of the interesting themes in this film is that Schmeling saw himself as a boxer first and a German second. And that Nazism would simply pass as though it were an adolescent phase.
Hitler wanted Schmeling to be a symbol of the Aryan race and Germany’s might. As Schmeling sought to arrange fights with the formidable black American boxer Joe Louis, an opponent with an unbeaten record and extraordinary number of KOs that would enhance his boxing credentials should he somehow beat him, the Nazis tried to portray the clash as a battle between races and ideologies. Schmeling was naive in one sense but extremely brave in another, to carry on regardless of this manipulation and insist it was just a boxing match. Through his honour he simultaneously became a political pawn by refusing to recognise the wider significance, and rose above the Nazis by continuing with his dream.
So this film is an epic historical drama, encompassing wide areas of German life before and after the Nazis took power. We see both the glitz of the Weimar era and the race riots of Kristallnacht on the streets of Berlin, when Jewish shops and residents were viciously attacked. The period detail, particularly the costumes, and the variety of locations, are impressive. It is also a story of the rise of a sporting great, with Rocky style montages as Schmeling trains for his big fights and moments of tactical deliberation. And there is a love story, when Schmeling meets his soul mate in actress Anny Ondra and manages to marry her.
The love story gives this film something extra. There are, as I said, a lot of stories set in Nazi Germany, often with romances, sometimes with sporting heroes trying to avoid the control of the regime. But this romance is particularly convincing. Henry Maske gives an Arnie-esque performance, as a simple man falling for a beautiful woman. And Susanne Wuest is believable as first a teasing woman suspicious of a brute pursuing her affections and finally an actress frightened by what the Nazis are doing to her profession.
A short but enlightening “Making of” feature on the DVD reveals the reason for the authenticity of this relationship on screen; Maske is not an actor but a boxer. Therefore, as Wuest puts it in an interview, we have a boxer playing a boxer and an actress playing an actress. Director Boll was impressed with Maske’s performance and put it down to his ability to effectively play himself, identifying with Schmeling to inhabit the character.
Overall this might not be the most original film experience but it is immensely enjoyable. All of its various elements are superbly executed, from the production standards to the acting, from the music to the exciting and raw boxing matches themselves. This feels like an incredibly real snapshot of history and it’s a story that deserves to be well told about a remarkable man.
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