Despite its subject matter – that of political intrigue in the court of Elizabeth I, and a cast that includes Bette Davis, Richard Todd and Joan Collins, Henry Koster’s The Virgin Queen (1955) is a turgid unremarkable retread of English history made fictional for the benefit of a not terribly prepossessing romantic yarn.
Davis had already shaved into her hairline once before to play the enigmatic English ruler for 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Then, the wordy foreplay between Davis and costar Errol Flynn had been based on a magnificent stage work from imminent playwright Maxwell Anderson, generating considerable sparks beneath the Elizabethan collars and cuffs.
On The Virgin Queen, the script by Mindret Lord and Harry Brown is leaden and dull – moving its characters like chess pieces about a board and very boring faux history. Originally, Lord and Brown had wanted to write a story, not about Elizabeth, but Sir Walter Raleigh. Davis’ involvement on the project necessitated a rethinking of that idea and hence the film developed along the lines of a tailor-made vehicle for Davis’ talents.
The story opens with the arrival of Lord Leicester (Herbert Marshall) on foot at an inn after his carriage has been trapped in the mud. To the inn’s carousing inhabitants Leicester offers a small purse of gold as remuneration if they will help him get on his way as quickly as possible. Sir Christopher Hatton (Robert Douglas) laughs off the suggestion that he sully himself even in service to the Queen. Sir Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd), however, takes heed of the proposition as a means of positioning himself within the Queen's court.
The ploy works. Raleigh meets Elizabeth (Bette Davis) and the two shares an initial intimacy of sparring remarks overheard by one of the Queen’s ladies in waiting - Beth Throgmorton (Joan Collins). Beth immediately catches Raleigh’s eye. However, recognizing his opportunistic streak, Beth discourages Raleigh’s advances shortly thereafter. Raleigh next asks Elizabeth for three ships that he will sail in her name to the new world for treasure. Unable to convince Elizabeth of the feasibility in his plan, Raleigh sulks off like a petulant child. However, Elizabeth’s loss is Beth’s gain.
A quite romance develops between Beth and Raleigh – a pas deux thwarted when Elizabeth has a sudden change of heart. She grants Raleigh his commission to build one ship to suit his own fashion and purpose – The Golden Falcon – which she also commands him to sail to the new world in England’s name. Driven by ego, Raleigh temporarily forsakes Beth to toil on the designs of his grand vessel with friend, Lord Derry (Dan O’Herlihy). Meanwhile, court spy, Chadwick (Jay Robinson) alerts the Queen of a cautious secret; that Beth and Raleigh have not only become lovers, but have, in fact married without her consent. Beth is currently with Raleigh’s child.
Furious, Elizabeth orders Raleigh’s imprisonment as a traitor. Learning of Beth’s pregnancy too late, Raleigh instructs Lord Derry to flee with his wife into the Scottish highlands. The pair is captured on the road by Sir Christopher and Derry is killed in the resulting duel. Locked in the Tower of London, Raleigh faces certain death – more so after Elizabeth arrives to command that he repent for his sins against the crown only to discover that he is more obstinate than ever. In reply, Elizabeth cannot bring herself to kill Raleigh. Instead, she commands him to board the Golden Falcon with Beth and bring back to her the promised riches from the new world.
The inconsistencies between history and fact are many and obvious, beginning with Lord Leicester’s initial befriending of Raleigh at the inn. Lord Leicester was in fact Robert Dudley (played by Errol Flynn in 1939’s Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex) – the Queen’s great love during her youth whom she was forced to behead after Robert’s determination to rule England by marriage threatened Elizabeth’s own political safety.
Compared to The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Virgin Queen is a more restrained and subdued production. Its sets are less spectacular, though not perhaps its costumes. Davis is in fine voice and temperament as Elizabeth – pouring out equal portions of womanly contempt and authoritarian command. Richard Todd makes a valiant enough Raleigh, though he is not the man of history as much as he has been forced into that romantic mold for women who fancy their heroes in tights and a cod piece. In the final analysis, The Virgin Queen is second tier entertainment; just another period drama from a vintage when such offerings were plentiful.
Fox Home Video’s anamorphic Cinemascope image exhibits a rather appealing visual presentation. Colors are rich, bold and vibrant. Flesh tones are a tad pasty at times. Fine details are generally realized, though image sharpness is often less than stellar. Age related artifacts are absent for a very smooth quality throughout. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital remastering of the original 6 track stereo. Dialogue is directionalized. Music cues have a very nice spread. Extras include an isolated music track and ‘making of’ featurette.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)