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ALFRED THE GREAT (director: Clive Donner; screenwriters: story by James R. Webb/Ken Taylor/based on the novel by Elenor Shipley Duckett; cinematographer: Alex Thomson; editor: Fergus McDonell; music: Raymond Leppard; cast: David Hemmings (Alfred), Michael York (Guthrum), Prunella Ransome (Aelhswith), Colin Blakely (Asher), Julian Glover, Ian McKellen (Roger), Peter Vaughan (Buhrud), Vivien Merchant (Freda), Sinead Cusack (Edith), Alan Dobie (Ethelred); Runtime: 122; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Bernard Smith; MGM; 1969-UK)
“All I can say, if this is the true story of Alfred the Great, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The 9th century Alfred (David Hemmings), Prince of Wessex, became the first and only British King to be called ‘Great’ after he united the country. But the film has no claim on using that adjective to describe itself. It’s a dispirited, pretentious and flawed attempt at being a Lawrence of Arabia, but as a historical curio it scores some points with vivid battle scenes, colorful period costumes and enough background material to keep it barely alive on life support. Clive Donner (“What’s New Pussycat?”/”Luv”/”Oliver Twist”) misdirects the biopic by missing several opportunities to keep it from going under in boredom and shows little ability to helm an epic; his impulses are all wrong: from allowing for David Hemmings to be a slightly camp Alfred while wavering between yearning to be a priest and loving a bloody battle (speaking his lines as if he were Bette Davis, and never getting even close to the stature of the great man he was portraying) and the wooden Old English dialogue kept intact that would be funny if comedy was what was being attempted in this stuffy history lesson of a pic.

It opens with the 22-year-old Prince Albert one hour away from being a priest, but he doesn’t take his vows as he leaves for battle because of an invasion by the pagan Danes. Albert leads the Christian Anglo-Saxon army in victory, while his older weakling brother Ethelred (Alan Dobie) takes a back seat to the bloody battle. The rest of the pic is a ho-hum affair with the pious Alfred guilt-stricken over his lust for blood.

The battle hero marries Aelhswith (Prunella Ransome), the pretty freckled daughter of Buhrud (Peter Vaughan), King of Mercia, but never takes her in the sack because he still aspires to be a priest. The chaste Alfred takes the throne of Wessex when his brother dies and consummates the marriage by raping his wife, and gives up his aspirations to be a priest.

Guthrum (Michael York), leader of the Danes, again attacks and pillages the English countryside forcing Alfred to agree to a treaty whereby he will give up a large part of his treasury and his wife (of whose pregnancy he is unaware) as hostage. Since his defeated army is on the run, Alfred survives by residing with bandits in the marshland and vows to never take up the sword again. But with the help of the nobles and peasant reinforcements, he puts together an army and defeats the Danes and rescues his wife and newborn child. It ends with Alfred uniting all the various kingdoms in England into one and Guthrum in defeat now respecting the Christian God.

It was based both on a story by James R. Webb and a novel by Elenor Shipley Duckett, while the tedious screenplay was by Ken Taylor. All I can say, if this is the true story of Alfred the Great, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”