Henry VIII on Film

Simon uses the release of The Tudors Series 3 DVD as an excuse to look at the best and worst screen performances of King Henry VIII.


When you consider the most compelling historical figures committed to film for the big screen in one way or another, certain figures stick out: Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, General Patton, even arguably Jesus (though "historical" is perhaps a stretched definition too far for the beardy God-sprog), and it is precisely because their histories were furnished with personal and political poignancy- whether tragic or spectacular- that they make such ideal camera fodder. You can add to that list arguably the single most compelling of English monarchs, in the obscenely rotund shape of Henry VIII- the original poster-boy for impetulence (who else in response to not being allowed a divorce would disband an entire international arm of the Church?!), and an unsurprisingly familiar filmic figure throughout the annals of cinematic history. With the release of The Tudors Series 3 boxset this week, we've decided to offer you our thoughts on the best and the worst of Henry VIII on screen (small and silver)...


Firstly, it would appear prudent to give mention to Jonathan Rhys Meyers, the lead in The Tudors, and very likely the youngest actor (besides those playing younger versions of Henry in flash-back or story-setting sequences) to play Henry. Personally I dont have a great deal to say about Rhys Meyers as an actor- the first I saw of him, in the excellent Velvet Goldmine alongside Ewan McGregor I was impressed with- he had the beginnings of an on-screen intensity that would no doubt later land him the lead role in The Tudors, but ever since he seems to play instantly forgettable side-characters. In the ten plus years that have passed since Velvet Goldmine was released in '98 he doesnt seem to have landed much on the big screen that afforded him significant screen-time to establish a rapport with audiences. And as Henry, if you can overcome his age, and any initial difficulty marrying his boyish good looks with the traditionally held image of Henry VIII (portly, ginger, short-arse basically) he isnt a bad performer. Three series is testament to some form of popularity- even if my own opinion is that The Tudors has had too long on terrestrial television, and Rhy Meyers simply isnt suited to what I see as an often career-defining role. Anyway, on to the others. A vast number of actors have tackled the role, a collection featuring massive talents like Richard Burton, Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison, which paints a vastly various collection of portraits of the king, but there are two enduring images of Henry VIII from his tumultuous reign: that of the firey (and often chop-happy) lover- more of which momentarily- and firstly, that of the founder of the Church of England, and nemesis of the Pope and Cromwell as his representative in Britain. Henry's relationship with Cromwell and also Cardinal Wolsey is dealt with in a number of excellent films and television series, with the dynamic between the three characters being admittedly one of the more redeeming factors of The Tudors.


Most compelling of all the images of Henry VIII is that of the seemingly viracious lover, and heir-hunter: in particular his courtship of Anne Boleyn, which itself has become the subject of some of the more memorable films devoted to the subject. Richard Burton's Henry, in the 1969 Oscar-winning Anne of the Thousand Days is the best of all the screen Henrys- his was certainly the most acclaimed, taking the Oscar for Best Actor in 1970, while the film picked up another five wins. And even fresher in the memory, and similarly concerned with Henry the Lover are both the British small screen and BBC Films silver screen versions of The Other Boleyn Girl, starring the excellent Jared Harris (of Mad Men) and famous Australian Eric Bana respectively. Personally, I think the earlier TV adaptation surpasses its larger sibling- Harris' Henry shades it easily over Bana's, who I still think was badly undone by an error of casting, and a script that lacked anything for him to work with; it was after all Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson's film, not his.


But then, filmic problems aside, Bana just isnt suited to that role- one need only look at his compatriot Russell Crowe to see the ideal modern Henry VIII- he has the temperament, he has the look and the swagger and I bet he wouldnt be against piling on the beef to fill the king's breeches. Bana, on the other hand, has yet to convince that he is a suitable Hollywood leading man- he is astounding as Chopper Harris in Chopper, his performance in Romper Stomper is equally as terrifyingly good, and you can add to the list his surprisingly good work in Star Trek, but that none of these roles is a bona-fide Hollywood lead says enough in itself. As a warring Henry, I would have taken a high-octane Bana, but to rob him of his edge, and of the fiery passion he is so obviously capable of depicting on screen is to rob him of his best assets- and you end up with this wet fish kind of performance. And nobody wants to see that. Of all the films dedicated to Henry's romantic entanglements, Burton's Anne of the Thousand Days is peerless, and you get the feeling that only an actor as broadly versed in success and as talented as Richard Burton could take on such an iconic and powerful figure. Remember, Burton had already shone in film adaptations of Doctor Faustus, The Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Hamlet and Cleopatra, and obviously held the necessary clout to pull off the role. Henry, like the lead in King Lear, is one of those roles that should be reserved for a particular type of actor at a particular stage of his career, who is deemed fit to do the role justice (which is the reason I so despise Jonathan Rhys Meyers' and Eric Bana's versions). Perhaps that's why 2003 saw Ray Winstone slipping into Tudor garb to fill the considerable shoes vacated last by Jared Harris for Peter Morgan's first Granada Television TV series: Winstone is not exactly a reknowned Shakespearean actor; his violent filmography is a much longer list than his period one, yet he is held in considerably high value by cinema's deal-makers, because he has spent so much time earning his stripes. That's why he now regularly pops up opposite the kings of Hollywood, playing interesting, if not key roles (besides his strange and muscularly enhanced appearance as Beowulf that is): so for British television, he looked a natural choice to play Henry VIII in the second latest series devoted to the Tudor king.


And it almost worked. Winstone carries the same presence as Henry VIII that he showed as early as in Scum, and in every film since; he is mesmorising when he is menacing and he has the kind of masculine screen charisma that you simply cannot buy. But the TV mini-series- helmed again by Peter Morgan for Granada lacks anything like authenticity, and Winstone hams it up a little too much. So, from the sublime to the ridiculous- perhaps the most infamous of portrayals of the portly wife-collecting king was brought to life by none other than the late, great Sid James in Carry on Henry, which took Henry's lacivious nature to its natural progression: painting a bawdy, haw-hawing pervert in place of the real Henry, with more laughs than is probably fashionable to admit to. And of course Brian Blessed has played our king in The Nearly Complete and Utter History of Everything: which is about as lazy casting as has ever happened (and on a par with the clamour to cast him as Zeus or some important Dwarf or other in The Hobbit. Let's get this straight, he is a woeful actor and a man who is exalted only for the hersuit luxury of the lower part of his face and his booming hammy voice (check out for proof his current gig bridging comedy shows with their adverts on Dave- the televisual channel equivalent of a car boot sale: largely second hand goods that have seen too many airings already, but which you cant help but finger again). As a side-note, in a cinematic culture so seemingly attracted to historical figures, it seems strange that noone has really had a go at bringing Margaret Thatcher to the big screen; specifically the conflict between the Iron Lady and Arthur Skargill at the head of the Unions- now that would be compelling viewing... The Tudors Series 3 is available to buy on DVD right now.

WhatCulture's former COO, veteran writer and editor.