Fire Over England - 1937

England against the wall before a tyrannical power

This 1937 film features a young Laurence Olivier, an equally young Vivien Leigh, also Flora Robson (as Queen Elizabeth I), Raymond Massey as King Phillip II of Spain, and a young James Mason also appears in a minor role buried in 15th century costuming, but his distinct voice makes him easily identifiable.

The story is about the looming undeclared war between Spain and England, with spies and double-loyalties complicating things as the two kingdoms maneuver, with Spain holding a distinct advantage and preparing to send their ace-card, the huge Spanish Armada, to destroy Britain's defenses and ferry an army onto its shores. The English leadership is pervaded with panicky men lacking loyalty to the Queen and with some falling into outright treason. The Queen sends a long shot counter-spy (Laurence Olivier) on what looks like a suicide mission into Spain to gather information on just how badly England is compromised by home-grown treachery and what King Phillip might be doing next.

Two surprising elements are in this film, one is how a film of 1937 could accurately sum-up the issues for Britain's coming confrontation with Nazi Germany via obvious visual analogies between Spain's brutal Inquisition and the similar brutality of unsaid and unseen but just out of screen-shot National Socialist Workers Party of Hitler's Third Reich. In just a couple of years after Fire Over England's release the British would be fighting for their lives (filming on Fire Over England began in the Fall of 1936).

The second surprise in this film is how hammy Olivier is at first, and how stiff the story and direction is despite the huge sets and the obvious careful attention given to art direction and costumes (cinematography by James Wong Howe). The initial progress of the tale is hampered by story exposition to get the audience up to speed on the past history and also by the youth of the actors, for example Vivien Leigh, who only makes a handful of appearances in the Fire Over England, but she seems as youthful and slight as Olivier, but like him, only at first.

Flora Robson pulls the film away from flat historical melodrama, though, and by the time Olivier shifts into his double-agent role he has transformed into the inventive and precise actor we're familiar with, and as far as quality goes, the script itself does the same, improving and layering in a background story about the multiple burdens of being Queen, with Flora Robson anchoring the movie while Olivier hurls himself into the action, giving director Erich Pommer two tools on separate continents to illustrate the tale.

The script by Clemence Dane shows how "Queen Bess" is haunted by the execution of her cousin, the deceased Mary Queen of Scots, which also suitably tells the audience that if England can behead one Queen, it (or Germany, I mean Spain) can certainly do that to another. As the story unfolds we're given glimpses of how the Spanish Inquisition operates, leaving no doubt to how many would die if it ever rolled ashore onto Britain.

I originally saw this film many years ago on TV in Athens, Greece, and it made a strong impression on me, but I've spent decades avoiding seeing it again because I wanted to make sure that it would be with a good, clean copy, not one of the battered prints that were in circulation. The Cohen Film Collection Blu Ray set ("The Vivien Leigh Anniversary Collection") contains a clean and restored digital version of Fire Over England that shows off Howe's delicate black and white balancing with 2K mastering. The level of detailing allows us to see the penetrating facial acting of Robson, and Olivier and Vivien Leigh's youthfulness.

The movie sets are large and there's a lot of racing around and climbing, and all of that is done with imagination somewhat in the mode of Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood, but the model ships used for the destruction of the Spanish Armada look just like what they are.... small model ships.

Raymond Massey doesn't have much to do but to be a strangely pedantic King Phillip, possibly unintentionally cruel but nonetheless cruel, not unlike a number of villains Massey played later in his career, usually men showing great intelligence but terribly marshalled to the cause of being bad, or, as in this case with this English film version of King Phillip, being very bad while convinced one is very right and good. In this there is the contrast with the Queen played by Flora Robson who is allowed to have second thoughts and doubts, a very human monarch behind an almost frozen, but penetrating, mask of authority.

Director Erich Pommer gives us a well told story, despite the slow and flat beginning, and once it improves into a Hollywood adventure story, it actually is a very good Hollywood adventure.

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Original Page December 2020