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Anne of the Thousand Days - The Story behind the Masterpiece

At the end of 1969, Anne of the Thousand Days was released in cinemas across the world. An epic historical drama based on the life of Queen Anne Boleyn, the film had a little known French-Canadian Actress, Genevieve Bujold in the titular role, her first in the English language, alongside the iconic Hollywood legend, Richard Burton, as King Henry VIII. I am 36 years old, and so whilst the film came along eighteen years before I was born, I am old enough to remember a time before Showtime's four series long The Tudors that was released in the mid noughties. Whilst the show, and Natalie Dormer's portrayal, undoubtedly brought the subject of Anne Boleyn to a whole new audience, Thousand Days was my introduction to Anne Boleyn in film and television, and I know that for millions around the world who are fascinated by Anne's story that Genevieve's turn remains the definitive depiction of Anne Boleyn. Although it received a mixed critical response, the film was nominated for ten academy awards, with the work of Bujold and Burton, as well as Anthony Quayle who played Cardinal Wolsey, receiving considerable praise. The two leads would be nominated in the best actress and best actor categories respectively, but neither would win. Of it's many nominations, the film only took home the academy award in costume design, which for anyone who has seen the film can see clearly was very deserving. Thousand Day's would fare much better at that years Golden Globes ceremony, in which it would take home best picture and best actress - the one and only time an actress has won a major film award for playing Anne Boleyn. Undoubtedly a product of its time, the film is romanticised and filled with historical inaccuracies, and yet it remains an enduring beacon around which other Tudor films are often judged, particularly if Anne Boleyn is a central part of the storyline, which as it's Anne Boleyn, is fairly frequent! In this weeks blog, I will look back on Anne of the Thousand Days, telling the story of how it was made, behind the scenes dramas, and why, I believe, it retains such a beloved place in the hearts of Anne Boleyn devotees.

Anne of the Thousand Day's was produced by the American Harold Brent Wallis, known as Hal Wallis. It would not be his only outing into the realms of Tudor history on screen, for just two years after the release of Thousand Days, he followed up with Mary, Queen of Scots, starring Vanessa Redgrave as the doomed Scottish queen, opposite Glenda Jackson in her second outing as Elizabeth I (she had recently played Elizabeth, to great acclaim, in the six part BBC miniseries Elizabeth R). Wallis had actually written the part of Mary with Genevieve Bujold in mind, but she politely declined, citing a desire to not be pigeon-holed into the role of queens who lost their heads. In the very first scene of Queen Elizabeth in Mary, Queen of Scots, Wallis placed a deliberate movie easter-egg, calling back a particularly memorable scene from Anne of the Thousand Days. In the latter, Henry VIII is hosting a large banquet for much of the Tudor court right at the start of his attraction to Anne Boleyn. Anne is cold and aloof, annoyed that the king blocked her plans to marry Harry Percy. Mark Smeaton is performing a song called "Farewell my Love" which we discover was a piece of music the king himself composed. When the king ask's Anne "if some young man wrote this song for you Anne, what would you say of it", to which she replies "I would ask him how his wife liked it your grace". This is one of those historical inaccuracies that I reference above, for no matter how confident Anne Boleyn truly was, there is no way she would have ever spoken to the king in this manner, and yet, it stands out as one of the real crowd pleasing moments of the film. A still from this scene is above. It is this that is thus revisited as an easter-egg early on in Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth is being wooed by Robert Dudley aboard a boat gliding along a river. He sings the "Farewell my Love" and tells Elizabeth it was written by the king for her mother. He then tells her of the exchange we see in Anne of the Thousand Days, to which Elizabeth bursts out laughing and says "my god, my mother had the courage of ten". Again, it's silly and entirely fictitious, but as someone who loves both films, I appreciated its inclusion. Irene Papas as Katherine of Aragon alongside Burton's Henry VIII below.

This was not the first production of Anne of the Thousand Days. It had started out as a play on Broadway in New York in 1948, starring a Tony award-winning Rex Harrison as the king, and Joyce Redman as Anne Boleyn. It is believed that the reason the film was not made till twenty years later owed a lot to the production codes in the USA during the 1940s and 50s. These codes blocked subject matter that would have to be included within the film, that of illegitimacy and adultery. With regard to casting, Bujold was not the first choice for the film makers, instead Hal Wallis had wanted to cast the British actress, Olivia Hussey. With her angular features, large expressive eyes and long thick dark-brown hair, Hussey would have made a spectacular choice, but she managed to talk her way out of the role by an offensive comment made against John Wayne whom Wallis was producing in True Grit. Another altogether different breed of actress was very interested in the role - Elizabeth Taylor herself! Over lunch with Wallis, Taylor said "I've been thinking about it for weeks, I have to play Anne Boleyn". Wallis was apparently horrified, recalling in his diary "Play Anne Boleyn? Elizabeth was plump and middle-aged; Anne was a slip of a girl". Thankfully, Richard Burton, who had already accepted the role of Henry VIII was also present, and he took the issue out of Wallis's hands by looking at Elizabeth, directly in the face, and saying "sorry love, you're too long in the tooth". Any hard feelings were assuaged thanks to Burton's huge salary from the film, which equated to around £25,000,000 by modern standards, as well as cameo roles for Elizabeth, her daughter Liza and Burton's daughter Kate. Richard Burton was no doubt hired in part because he was a master of his craft, but also because of his great fame, which could only help propel the movie forward. The fact that he was relatively slight of frame and not overly tall, nor possessed the red hair of Henry VIII were facts largely overlooked. When Genevieve Bujold was approached for the role of Anne Boleyn, she was asked to do a screen test, which she refused. A bold move in a relatively unknown actress, and yet it was this that supposedly convinced Wallis that she was right for the part. Bujold recalled "that display of hard-headedness matched Anne Boleyn's spirit". Rounding out the principle cast were Anthony Quayle as Cardinal Wolsey, Irene Papas as Katherine of Aragon, John Colicos as Thomas Cromwell and Michael Hordern as Thomas Boleyn.

From a filming perspective, the movie was a combination of sets in Pinewood and Shepperton Studios, and real life locations closely associated with Anne Boleyn. Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne was one such location. It appears early on in the film, with the king visiting the Boleyn family. As the king, atop a house, saunters into the inner courtyard of the castle, Anne Boleyn gleefully looks down from a window above. Penshurst Place is another prominent location, with a large number of outdoor scenes filmed there. Penshurst stands in for Hever Castle, and was likely used for it's bigger size and more open-plan gardens. Notable scenes at Penshurst are when Henry VIII is playing some archery, and after firing an arrow requests for a new boat to be called the Anne Boleyn. It was also in Penshurst that Anne tells the king that she is pregnant. The films costumes were designed by Margaret Furse, and truly are some of the most spectacular depictions of Tudor fashion seen on screen. Save a few errors here and there, the costumes are practically perfect. The designs worn by Genevieve Bujold are particularly stunning. The cut of the materials and the headwear were just complete triumphs. I am more forgiving of small inaccurate plot points than I am bad costuming, because any historical drama is going to need to embellish, but with the fashion, we have so many records of how Tudor fashion looked that it's unforgivable to me to get it wrong. One of the things I hated about The Tudors was the awful costumes, and don't get me started on that travesty that was Reign. Bujold can be seen below in one of the most beautiful gowns from the film, alongside Michael Johnson who played the role of George Boleyn.

From a plot perspective, the film opens at the end, that is to say, we see the king weighing up whether he wishes to proceed with Anne's execution. As Cromwell spurs him on, the king is seen thinking back, crying out "Anne, Anne" and then we jump back a decade to the very first time the king see's Anne Boleyn at a court dance. She is giddily dancing with her intended, Harry Percy, but very quickly catches the king's eye. Henry instructs Wolsey to break the intended marriage of Anne and Harry apart, and to send the Boleyn's back to Hever, with the king confiding to Wolsey that he is "bored by his court, and his Spanish cow". When Anne is informed by Wolsey that her hoped for marriage to Harry Percy can not go ahead, she reacts furiously, and warns the Cardinal "although I am only a girl you'll know you have an enemy". When Wolsey informs Anne that the reason for the breakdown of her engagement is owing to the king having turned his eye on her, Anne retorts "I will not be the mistress of a king, even with the blessing of a prince of the Church". When Anne and Henry meet, Anne is rude and indignant, speaking so plainly of her dislike for the king that he furiously orders her to the court to act as a lady-in-waiting to the queen, to ensure she is constantly under his eye. As the delights of the court, the dancing and the new clothes clearly rub off on Anne, she is shown to soften towards the king, or at least finds herself becoming more attracted to him, and in particular the power the king exudes.

The improvement seen in the relationship between Henry and Anne was at direct odds with the relationship between Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold, at least according to Burton that is. The making of Anne of the Thousand Day's came up repeatedly in his diaries which were made public a few years ago. The actor had very little good to say of his on-screen co-star, nicknaming her "Gin", for Bujold's apparent habit of turning up to the set hungover and smelling of..., well, the clues in the nickname. As a man known for his weakness for the bottle, it was rather like the pot calling the kettle black. Burton also decried Bujold's talent, suggesting Elizabeth Taylor would have been better, and saying of Bujold that she had all the power of a "dying knat", and lacked the "spit, venom and arrogance" needed to play Anne convincingly. He also suggests that dislike of Genevieve was widespread across the entire production, writing that she upset nearly everyone and was "vulgar and rubbish", certainly choice words. As best I can tell, Genevieve Bujold has never commented on the remarks made by Richard Burton. The only juicy bit of gossip we have directly from Bujold was her response to the fact that Elizabeth Taylor kept showing up to the set, supposedly concerned that her husband and Bujold were having an affair. Bujold was incensed, especially as it was the powerfully charged scene in the tower at the end of the film. She told the films director, Charles Jarrott "I'm going to give that bitch an acting lesson she'll never forget!". I must admit, I have always been shocked by Richard Burton's comments. Anyone who has seen Anne of the Thousand Day's can see quite plainly that Bujold played the role of Anne Boleyn with intense power, or to use Burton's words, spit, venom and arrogance. She gave an acting masterclass, and so either Richard Burton had unbelievably high standards, or he lashed out, recognising that his 27 year old co-star, largely an unknown, stole the entire film from under him. Certainly he later commented that he hated the film and was shocked when nominated for an Oscar. Whilst the actor was undoubtedly a genius, his diaries come across as filled with jealousy and spite.

Back to the film itself. Anne is shown as eventually falling in love with the king, they marry, after the lengthy legal battle against Katherine of Aragon, and we see Anne's coronation procession through London. Henry and Anne's happiness is dealt a crushing blow with the birth of Elizabeth, not the hoped for son, and their marriage soon begins to wane. Anne refuses to sleep with the king unless he put Sir Thomas More to death for failing to acknowledge her queenship. Anne loses a subsequent pregnancy, delivering a stillborn boy. The king, now repelled by his wife, orders Thomas Cromwell to find a way out of the marriage. We then see Cromwell torture Mark Smeaton by having knotted rope twisted into his temple. Whilst playing with her two year old daughter, Anne is visited by her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk and informed that she is arrested. She is escorted to the Tower of London and informed that she is there on a charge of adultery. Anne looks down from a window and see's the men arrested alongside her, including her own brother. A look of complete horror crosses Anne's face, as she knowingly says "incest, oh god help me, the king is mad, I am doomed". We then go to the trial of Anne Boleyn. The trial is one of, if not the most historically inaccurate parts of the film, but is gripping none the less. Anne furiously upbraids the assembled crowd, telling them "by what lawful authority am I called here? I am your queen, and as such, share the king's immunity from arrest and trial" - talk about spit, venom and arrogance aye Richard.....In a heart-breaking and largely ficticious scene George Boleyn is also brought in to stand alongside his sister, and then their father, called forward as a witness to confirm their identities. Mark Smeaton is called to the bar to provide evidence, but is plainly terrified and only acting in accordance with Cromwell's demands. Spotting this, Anne asks the Duke of Norfolk if she can question Mark, which is granted. She approaches the musician, telling him "I know well you have been tortured, but tell them the truth Mark, have courage". With Mark refusing, and saying three times that he slept with the queen, suddenly the king appears, having been listening in from behind a wall. He approaches Mark and the queen, and clearly sees straight through Mark's lies. When Smeaton is told he will die either way, he finally acknowledges that there had been no improper conduct between him and the queen. He is led away, and Anne, hopeful, looks at her husband, gently smiling. Sadly, the king says "still, it might be true". As I say, the trial is highly inaccurate. There is zero evidence of Anne being given the right to cross-examine anyone, and we know beyond doubt that the king did not intercede, the last time he and Anne Boleyn met was the day prior to her arrest. Anne and George Boleyn at the trial can be seen below.

Condemned to death, we see Anne in her chambers at the tower, looking from a window as a scaffold is built below. She sits down, and decides to recount the days she and king spent together. Using wooden markers, each representing 100 days, Anne says "the days we bedded, married, were happy, bore Elizabeth, hated, lusted, bore a dead child, which condemned me, to death, in all, 1,000 days, just a 1,000". Now the eagle eyed amongst you will notice an error here, or in film speak, a blooper, for in Genevieve's hands were not the ten markers needed to reach 1,000 days, but nine, to match the nine things she recounted, but don't lets that spoil a good story, from which the film drew its name. In truth, Anne was queen for 1,085 days, but alas, that doesn't really have the same ring to it. What comes next, although again entirely ficticious, is perhaps the greatest part of the entire film, and is the reason why I believe the film is so beloved and also why Genevieve Bujold's performance as Anne is so iconic. The king visits Anne, wishing to know from her own mouth as to whether there is any truth to the accusations. She retorts "have you fallen into your own trap my lord? Any evidence you have against me, you yourself bought and paid for, do you now begin to believe it?". When she tells the king that his presence is pleasing to her eyes and heart, he softens, and offers her a deal. If she agrees to annul their marriage and give up all rights as queen, he will allow her to leave England, with Elizabeth. Anne see's straight through the offer, knowing well it is being given so the king can marry Jane Seymour, and in turn render their daughter illegitimate. She refuses, telling Henry "once I told you any children we had would not be bastards, you promised marriage, and the crown, now you try to dance out of your promise, well I won't have it, we are man and wife together, king and queen, I keep that, take it from me as best you like". Henry shouts in anger that Anne's decision will see her put to death, and from there, that "best scene" I reference above plays out. Anne spits out to the king that she lied, that she slept with half his court, telling the king "look, for the rest of your life at every man that ever knew me, and wonder if I didn't find him a better man than you". After the king slaps Anne, she goes on, hitting him where it hurts most - "but Elizabeth was yours, watch her as she grows, she's yours, she's a Tudor. Get yourself a son on that sweet pale girl if you can, and hope that it will live, but Elizabeth shall reign after you, yes, Elizabeth, child of Anne the whore and Henry the blood stained lecher shall be queen. And think of this Henry, Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours, she shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built, my Elizabeth shall be queen, and my blood, will have been well spent". Now, obviously this is a very made up scene. Most agree, myself very much included that Anne was innocent of all charges against her, but even so, this scene is filled with such electricity and power that it is easy to overlook the inaccuracies. I think for many, we would have loved Anne to have been given that moment to really tear Henry down to size, which is why the scene remains so iconic.

As the scene closes, Anne breaks down in tears, and we then cut to the king signing her death warrant. Anne is seen at prayer prior to her execution. She greets Sir William Kingston, and utters the famous "little neck" quote. Anne is escorted to the scaffold, and in a break from accuracy, her scaffold speech was cut. I suspect the speech she delivered moments earlier to the king was deemed sufficient enough to please the audience, giving Anne a moment to say all she thought. She is beheaded, and we then cut to the king ordering his entourage to "Mistress Seymour's". Princess Elizabeth is seen in the grounds of Penshurst, walking away from the camera as Anne's rant at Henry is replayed over the top, and with that, the credits roll.

Anne of the Thousand Day's is easily my favourite film based on the Tudor period. It unquestionably played a major role in my life long interest in Anne Boleyn, and as I have said, Genevieve Bujold's depiction of Anne remains a firm fan favourite. Even Bujold herself retains a claim over Anne. When Susan Bardo, the author of "The Creation of Anne Boleyn", was writing her book, she reached out to Genevieve Bujold and was surprised to receive both a response and a willingness to talk about the film. When Bardo asked Bujold if she believes any actress could match her portrayal, Bujold supposedly paused for a few seconds, then looked at Susan Bardo straight in the face and said "never, Anne is mine", and I could not agree more. Bujold truly is the greatest Anne Boleyn ever seen on screen in my opinion. Yes the film itself is filled with inaccuracies, but her portrayal of Anne, contrary to Richard Burton's acerbic conclusions conveyed everything that I believe the real Anne Boleyn inhabited - pride, glamour, strength, wit, cleverness, boldness, and yes, venom, spit and arrogance. One of the other touches that Bujold brought to the role was her accent. As a French-Canadian, she speaks English with a slightly unusual quality. That isn't to say her accent is strong, but it's clear there is something else going on that, it's not straightforward "English English", and given Anne's lengthy stay on the continent as a girl, I rather suspect the real woman herself spoke English with a slightly affected tone. To this day, Thousand Days remains legendary with fans of Tudor England. From the stunning set designs, the jaw-dropping costumes, and the quality of the acting talent assembled, it is one of the most important and often quoted sources when assessing the Tudor's on screen. If you are reading this but haven't seen it, then please stop whatever you're doing, any track it down!

Written by Adam Pennington

10th September 2023


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