Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Sword And The Rose

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's The Sword And The Rose

By 1953, Walt Disney British Films, Ltd was proving to be a success. Under the supervision of producer Perce Pearce, the division had made two hits: Treasure Island and The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men. Walt would periodically visit the sets, so perhaps some of the atmosphere even rubbed off on Anglo-centric cartoons like Alice In Wonderland and Peter Pan. As ambitious as ever, Walt decided to swing for the fences with his next live-action British feature. The Sword And The Rose was pure 1950s Oscar bait, a grand, big-budget romantic costume drama. But the Academy did not bite and audiences were largely unimpressed.

Pearce reunited most of his Robin Hood team, including director Ken Annakin, screenwriter Lawrence Edward Watkin, composer Clifton Parker, and stars Richard Todd and James Robertson Justice. The script was based on Charles Major’s massively popular novel When Knighthood Was In Flower, which had been filmed twice before during the silent era. New to the Disney team was an up-and-coming cinematographer named Geoffrey Unsworth who went on to such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cabaret and Superman.

Todd stars as Charles Brandon, recently returned to England from the “foreign wars”. Brandon arrives as King Henry VIII (Justice) is holding a wrestling match pitting England against France. Brandon volunteers his talents but Henry, unwilling to let a commoner represent the court, has the Duke of Buckingham (Michael Gough, the man who would be Alfred to various Batmen) step into the ring instead. After Buckingham wins, Henry’s sister, Mary Tudor (Glynis Johns) suggests that Brandon take him on. Brandon wins, Mary is smitten and Buckingham and Brandon become rivals for her affection.

At Mary’s behest, Henry appoints Brandon captain of the guards. A clandestine courtship follows. Mary loves Brandon because he’s not afraid to tell her what he really thinks. Brandon loves her because…well, she’s a rich, flirty, attractive princess. Buckingham seethes with jealousy. But the triangle is complicated by Henry’s plan to marry his sister off to the elderly King Louis XII of France.

Knowing there’s not much he can do to prevent the wedding, Brandon resigns his post and makes plans to sail for the new world. Mary runs away to join him, “disguising” herself as a boy to pose as his page. I use the term loosely because it’s the least convincing get-up in the history of cross-dressing. The ship’s crew sees through the ruse (though not as quickly as they should, considering she’s still wearing lipstick and mascara) and send the pair back to shore, where they’re picked up by Henry’s men.

Brandon is locked up in the Tower of London while Mary is shipped off to France after securing Henry’s promise that she be allowed to choose her second husband after Louis’ death. The treacherous Buckingham tells Brandon that Mary has abandoned him to his fate and arranges an “escape”, during which Brandon is apparently killed. In France, Mary does whatever she can to hasten Louis’ death, first getting him drunk, then challenging him to a horse race.

Louis succumbs to whatever illness he’s suffering from and Mary discovers that the new king is eager for her to stick around. Buckingham arrives with news of Brandon’s death and offers to marry her immediately. Just when all seems lost, Brandon returns to challenge Buckingham and win Mary’s hand. The age of chivalry lives on. Or something like that.

Ordinarily, I don’t bother with detailed plot recaps like this because I assume most people are intimately familiar with the majority of the movies we’ve discussed in this column. But it seems useful in this case, partly because the film is relatively obscure but also to help convey just how boring it is. This is not a swashbuckling adventure filled with bold knights and acts of derring-do. It’s the kind of historical romance that your grandmother may have read or watched. It’s the sort of movie that isn’t content with a five-minute ball scene showing elaborately costumed couples dancing in unison. It also needs a lengthy sequence with our leads learning the dances they’ll soon be performing. Yawn.

Cover art for the comic book adaptation of The Sword And The Rose in Four-Color Comics #505

Richard Todd, who had been perfectly adequate as Robin Hood, turns in an identical performance as Brandon. He’s a fine square-jawed, twinkly-eyed leading man but he doesn’t have the presence necessary to elevate inferior material. Glynis Johns is fun and spunky enough to sort of gloss over the fact that she essentially kills the King of France. But she and Todd don’t exactly have the kind of chemistry that ignites the screen.

To be fair, this may be more Disney’s fault than the actors. On the face of it, The Sword And The Rose feels like an attempt to branch out into more adult-oriented fare. There’s nothing in the movie that would be particularly appealing to younger audiences. The action and adventure scenes are perfunctory and rare. But Disney’s idea of romance remains remarkably chaste. The result is a movie that seems explicitly designed to satisfy nobody.

There are a few things about the picture that work. James Robertson Justice, Little John to Todd’s Robin Hood, appears to be having a grand old time playing Henry VIII. And Michael Gough is effectively smarmy as Buckingham. His performance is reminiscent of Vincent Price, who was playing a lot of slimy characters in period pieces himself around this time. We’ll see all four of The Sword And The Rose’s lead actors again in this column.

This is also a nice-looking movie thanks to Unsworth’s cinematography, the lavish costumes designed by Valles, and the matte paintings of Peter Ellenshaw. Annakin used Ellenshaw’s work sparingly in The Story Of Robin Hood but he makes up for it here. Ellenshaw reportedly painted more than 60 backgrounds for The Sword And The Rose, giving the film an epic scope.

Perhaps I should say that I assume this is a nice-looking movie because the version that’s most readily available looks pretty terrible. Disney hasn’t yet made the film available on Disney+, much less Blu-ray. The only DVD release to date has been a Disney Movie Club Exclusive. You can buy or rent it online but it looks like a digitized VHS. I’m sure The Sword And The Rose doesn’t exactly have a fervent fanbase but come on, Disney. You can do better than this.

The Sword And The Rose was released in August of 1953 and landed with a resounding thud. Walt’s hoped-for Academy Award nominations failed to materialize (although he dominated the ceremony elsewhere, something we’ll get into next time). And for the first time since the war, box office returns were significantly less overseas than expected.

One theory for the UK’s lack of interest in The Sword And The Rose holds that British audiences couldn’t get past the film’s historical inaccuracies. This is absolutely the kind of “historical” drama that makes actual historians tear their hair out in frustration. Charles Brandon wasn’t some commoner that Henry chanced to meet at a wrestling match. He was one of the King’s oldest friends, having been brought up in the court of Henry VII. Brandon and Mary never attempted to escape by sailing to the new world. The English wouldn’t start colonizing America at all for another fifty years or so. Any student trying to use this movie in lieu of reading a textbook would get an immediate “F – SEE ME” in red ink slapped on their test paper.

But audiences forgive the most egregious factual errors if they’re in service of telling a ripping good yarn. The Sword And The Rose is not that. It’s a stodgy, plodding drama that doesn’t know what audience it’s trying to please. Too boring for kids and too juvenile for adults, it’s a misstep in Walt Disney’s journey into live-action filmmaking.

VERDICT: Disney Minus.

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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men

Original theatrical poster for Walt Disney's The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men

Walt Disney is one of the most quintessentially American figures of the twentieth century. His name is synonymous with a nostalgic, homespun vision of small-town American life. He’s held up as the embodiment of the classic American Dream, building an empire out of nothing but talent, hard work and determination. So it must have been somewhat galling for Walt to have to make his first several live-action features in the United Kingdom about quintessentially British subjects.

With millions of dollars still frozen thanks to England’s post-World War II recovery program, Walt had little option but to establish an overseas production presence. Perce Pearce, who had transitioned from animation to live-action, had been dispatched to oversee the production of Treasure Island. Pearce had not gotten along with director Byron Haskin, with Walt having to act as mediator during the movie’s contentious post-production. But Walt stood by his longtime employee, sending Pearce back to England in 1950 to produce three more features.

Walt had apparently decided that if he was going to have to make pictures in England anyway, he’d might just as well make them as English as he possibly could. For his follow-up to Treasure Island, Walt settled on one of the most famous tales in English folklore. The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men (complete with quaint spelling for extra Englishness) was Disney’s first crack at the oft-filmed legend. It would not be their last.

At first, Pearce tried to reunite the team from Treasure Island. Script duties once again fell to Lawrence Edward Watkin, Disney’s go-to writer on the live-action British projects. Robert Newton was a contender to play Friar Tuck. They even tried to find a role for Bobby Driscoll, although considering his young age, he would have been more of a Merrie Boy than a Merrie Man.

Byron Haskin jumped the Disney ship after Treasure Island wrapped, so Pearce hired English director Ken Annakin. Annakin had been a documentarian during the war who had transitioned to features. He was known in England for the comedy Holiday Camp and its three sequels revolving around the working-class Huggett family. Annakin evidently got along with Pearce better than Haskin had, as he’d stick around to direct three more live-action Disney features.

As Robin Hood, Disney cast Richard Todd. Todd had become a major star in England after his Oscar-nominated performance in the 1949 war drama The Hasty Heart. He makes for a fine, if not exactly inspiring, Robin Hood. He’s earnest and idealistic but he’s not going to erase all memories of Errol Flynn. Nevertheless, we’ll be seeing more of Richard Todd in this column.

As is often the case, the bad guys make for more compelling figures than the good guys. Songwriter and radio personality Hubert Gregg is suitably weaselly as the treacherous Prince John. He’d reprise the role a few years later on a couple episodes of the popular British TV series The Adventures Of Robin Hood.

Peter Finch is even better as the Sheriff of Nottingham. Finch had started his acting career in Australia before returning to England with Laurence Olivier’s Old Vic theatre company. His star began to rise in England after his performance as the Sheriff. He’d go on to international success with films like Sunday Bloody Sunday and, of course, his legendary turn in Network, for which he won a posthumous Oscar. We’ll see him again, too.

Robin’s Merrie Men are filled out by an assortment of character actors who would have been readily familiar to contemporary British audiences. James Robertson Justice is a burly and boisterous Little John. James Hayter, who also had the lead role in the 1952 adaptation of The Pickwick Papers, is a capable replacement for Robert Newton as Friar Tuck. Hayter would go on to play the role again years later in Hammer Films’ A Challenge For Robin Hood.

While none of the actors are miscast, The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men could use a star of Newton’s caliber to really elevate the material. Newton’s flamboyant performance as Long John Silver in Treasure Island defines that movie, for better or worse. No one in Robin Hood stands out, which makes this suffer in comparison. Not only to Treasure Island but also to Errol Flynn’s definitive The Adventures Of Robin Hood, which was packed full of outsize personalities.

Dell Four-Color Comics adaptation of Walt Disney's Robin Hood

Flynn’s movie casts a long shadow over Disney’s interpretation, as it has over every other Robin Hood movie since 1938. There are echoes in Robin’s first meeting with Little John, in the introduction of Friar Tuck, and in the archery contest with the golden arrow prize.

But Disney’s version does manage to make some interesting tweaks to the familiar story. Here, it isn’t Robin who splits his opponent’s arrow. Rather, it’s Robin’s father, Hugh Fitztooth (Reginald Tate), who splits Robin’s arrow, with both father and son declared winners of the competition. When Fitztooth is later killed by the Sheriff’s men, Robin takes up the life of an outlaw to avenge his death.

The introduction of Robin’s father puts a new focus on Robin’s motivations and history that the Flynn movie is largely unconcerned with. Robin and Marian (Joan Rice) also have an existing relationship that predates his life as an outlaw. That makes her more of a natural ally and active participant, rather than someone who must be won over to Robin’s cause.

Disney’s version is also unique as one of the few versions of the story that was actually shot in Sherwood Forest. Cinematographer Guy Green, who won an Oscar for his work on David Lean’s Great Expectations, does an excellent job capturing the natural beauty of the locations. Matte wizard Peter Ellenshaw, fresh off his work on Treasure Island, enhances Green’s work with a handful of subtle but stunning matte paintings.

The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men became another success for Walt Disney, especially in the UK. Its reputation has faded over time, overshadowed by countless other Robin Hood films and the continued influence of Errol Flynn’s classic. Disney itself has contributed to the glut of other Robin Hoods that are more fondly remembered than this one. In 1973, they dressed a cartoon fox in people clothes for an animated version. But we’ll get to that later.

This first attempt certainly isn’t a bad little movie but it does feel somewhat inconsequential. Treasure Island had scope, grandeur, and Robert Newton’s larger-than-life performance. It felt like a movie. The Story Of Robin Hood feels more like a pilot for an unrealized television series. It’s entertaining enough while you’re watching it. But don’t be surprised if you’ve forgotten most of the details the next day.

VERDICT: It’s enough fun to be considered a Disney Plus but a very, very minor one.

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