We love movies that celebrate bigness, as in: Big hats, big clothes, big hair. The bigger the better, in our opinion.
So we were thrilled to see the British historical adventure, Fire Over England (1937), a fast-paced drama with clothes so large they barely fit through the door.
The film takes place in 1588, during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, in the midst of a tricky geopolitical situation. Spain and England are this close to war, and Elizabeth must Tread Carefully to avoid escalating the conflict. The Spanish (sans irony) accuse the English of stealing their plunder from the New World, and the English accuse Spain of capturing British merchants and torturing them vis-à-vis the Spanish Inquisition.
Talk about storytelling efficiency. This movie crams ambition, intrigue, and romance in a brisk 92 minutes.
It’s also an allegory for European politics in the late 1930s. In the film, Spain is the restless, tyrannical power. (“Spain is the prison of all freedom,” says one character.) Members of the Inquisition snuff out those with different views, because we all know the Right Opinion is whatever the Powerful say it is.
England, on the other hand, is the bastion of freedom, a symbol of all that is Good. Its monarchy is so tolerant that even those who attempt to assassinate the Queen are given a Second Chance.
The fabulous Flora Robson plays Queen Elizabeth I, a shrewd but somewhat world-weary woman. She must be cunning enough to outwit the Spanish and the enemies in her own court, and it’s a wonder she’s not a Basket Case.
Robson-as-Elizabeth also struggles with her age and appearance. To make matters worse, one of her ladies-in-waiting (Vivien Leigh) is young and beautiful and is romantically involved with Laurence Olivier, which stirs the Queen’s envy.
As for Olivier, he’s a handsome but callow young man who must suddenly Grow Up in the face of tragedy.
Fire Over England is a surprisingly clever movie. It illustrates Freedom vs. Tyranny ideologies with disturbing frankness.
For example, while Olivier is in Spain, trying to free his father from the clutches of the Inquisition, he spends a night on the beach outside Lisbon with his Spanish flirtation (Tamara Desni, sporting the most bizarre collars). They watch smoke hovering over the bay, and Olivier later learns the sickening truth: The smoke was from the fire burning his father’s remains.
Spanish leaders do not disguise their hatred for the English. As King Philip (Raymond Massey) says, “I lived a year with Englishmen, and I hated every one of them. And how it rained.”
Massey doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but his menace looms over the film. His management philosophy is, “Only by fear can the people be made to do their duty, and not always then.”
It’s a tense atmosphere, and it’s hard to guess how the film will end. Will England and Spain declare war? Can Olivier return safely to England? Will the Queen survive attempts on her life?
This quagmire needs a strong, capable leader to pull us through. Luckily, we have Elizabeth I.
Fire Over England is a notable film for a few reasons. It was the first film Laurence Olivier starred with Vivien Leigh, and sources say this is the film where they fell in love. (IMDb says they were dubbed “the lovers” on the set.)
When Hollywood agent Myron Selznick saw Leigh in the film, he felt she would be the perfect Scarlett O’Hara. Gone With the Wind (1939) was already in production, but the role of Scarlett was yet uncast. Myron introduced Leigh to his brother, producer David O. Selznick, who would cast her, and Leigh would win an Oscar for her portrayal of Scarlett.
Fire Over England also shows us a legendary leader at work, a person smarter than Everyone Else, who also happens to be a woman.
If you have the chance to see Fire Over England, we hope you’ll jump at the opportunity. The story is as outsized as its costumes, and we mean that in the best possible way.
This post is part of The 8th Annual Rule Britannia Blogathon, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts.
Fire Over England: starring Laurence Olivier, Flora Robson, Vivien Leigh. Directed by William K. Howard. Written by Clemence Dane & Sergei Nolbandov. London Film Productions, 1937, B&W, 92 mins.