There are not a lot of films about Anglo-Saxon England, but this is definitely one of them.
No video this time, I’m afraid; you’ll just have to find your own copy and follow along.
So we open with some credits in a nice early-medieval-y font, which is cool. The closing credits are actually even nicer, but I didn’t get a picture of them.
We begin not with Alfred but with a shepherd and a barefoot young lady pausing in their sheep-herding (well, he’s sheep-herding, and she’s sitting on a rock playing with a flower) for some makeouts:
I thought this was a bit arbitrary until I remembered it was 1969.
However, their bosky osculating is interrupted by the arrival of the Vikings, who pillage the place up, stab the young man, and steal the girl and the sheep.
The Vikings are suspiciously clean-shaven for the most part, although Guthrum (Michael York) has a little beard. I was a little weirded out by their standard black and grey uniforms. Not only is this not quite accurate, but it suggests a greater level of standardisation among the Viking armies than the English, which if anything should probably be the other way around. At a guess, it’s meant to make them look like zee Chermans, but it could also just be because they are, y’know, the bad guys. Anyway, we cut back to Alfred, who is about to become a priest. I’m too lazy to go look it up, but I’m not sure this actually happened; it’s just a way of saying that Alfred was famously pious. He is dragged out of seclusion by a dude named Aethelstan, who has come to point out that the kingdom of Wessex is at war and they kind of need their leaders to be fighting.
Aethelstan has apparently gone to Ireland for the purpose. Look at that fucking tower! He might as well be wearing a leprechaun hat. In fact, they shot this stuff in Ireland, so I expect they just used the convenient tower. If you don’t know your history, it certainly does look old-timey.
Anyway, Alfred is all torn between God and killing dudes, and this is like the main conflict of this film. In fact, there’s kind of a neat bit where the face of religious-Alfred appears on one side of the screen, warrior-Alfred on the other and then the Warrior turns toward the camera and the other fades away. This happens at several points during the film to indicate some change.
Alfred goes off and fights alongside brother Aethelred I (not “Aethelred the Unready,” that was Aethelred II) and beats the Vikings at the battle of Ashdown. There is a cool aerial shot where you can see that they have actually made a replica of the White Horse of Uffington, which I think is a little nod to Chesterton’s “The Ballad of the White Horse,” which is about Alfred.
So anyway, Alfred wants to go back to being a priest now that the enemy are defeated, but his brother has other plans and arranges a marriage for him with Ealhswith, the daughter of Burgred (here called “Burrud”), the king of Mercia. Ealhswith wasn’t actually Burgred’s daughter but the daughter of another Mercian nobleman. Alfred is initially unhappy with this, but then Ealhswith, who’s been standing with her back to him the whole time like Mary Jane Watson, turns around and he is like daaaaamn.
Also, I didn’t get a good photo, but “Burrud” is Peter Vaughan, from Remains of the Day and Game of Thrones and whatever. Also, Julian Glover’s in here somewhere, but I didn’t spot him. And Ealhswith’s sidekick is Sinead Cusack.
Alfred and Ealhswith start out with smiley verbal sparring but then he flips out, calls her an ignorant pair of tits and storms off, probably because she made fun of him for being able to read. The next day, she is out walking in an outfit that is quite possibly plausible enough but which looks like she’s on her way to pay a call on Mrs Bennet.
He runs into her while out hunting (his dog is called “Zeno,” which is actually pretty funny) and he, I am not making this up, sets his dog on her. And this is the thing that really gets her going; from this point on it’s smooch time. But she is legit frightened when this dog is trying to maul her. They play for keeps in the 9th century. They get married. The marriage is depicted as the families sitting around a table signing contracts, which I like. Oh, there’s Peter Vaughan.
But Aethelred dies and Alfred gets railroaded into being king, which pisses him off. He’s convinced Ealhswith is in on the plot and denounces her, but she lays on the I lurve you stuff and instead he just has horrible sex with her which leaves her pleading with God to help her understand why.
Anyway, being king turns Alfred into kind of a dick. When Guthrum attacks again, he tries to negotiate peace. Guthrum insists on a hostage, then chooses Ealhswith, and she’s like “hmmmm,” and off she goes, relying on the fact that she’s pregnant to keep her safe from his leching.
The stuff with Guthrum and Ealhswith is just … urgh. I get what they’re trying to do, which is twofold:
- Alfred is outwardly all Christian and just, but inwardly self-righteous, proud and judgmental. By contrast Guthrum is outwardly a barbarian but inwardly seems to actually be in love with Ealhswith.
- Michael York, ladies.
And fair enough. But coming on the heels of the dog-mauling bit, it’s just Ealhswith being a directionless playing piece and Guthrum being Zap Brannigan at her, with all the usual guff about being beautiful when you’re angry (because if a woman is so mad at you that she’s threatening to stab you, you should neither be afraid that she will nor concerned that she might be angry about something) and blah blah blah. So there’s that.
Alfred gets thumped by the Vikings when they re-re-invade, and runs off to the Somerset Levels to build up his resistance. There he encounters a merry band of rogues living in exile in the marshes, led by Young Ian McKellen!
Everybody’s in this fucking thing!
He teams up with this ragtag band of outlaws, they do some raids on the Vikings, he learns humility, etc., etc. Finally he sees the error of his previous ways and when his cheesed-off former followers threaten to overthrow him he apologises and says it’ll be justice and equal rights for all under the new regime. I have no idea why the privileged nobles go along with this, since they’re not pissed off at him for violating equal rights but for violating their traditional privileges, but what the hell, eh? They go off to fight the Danes at the battle of Edington, which, spoilers for a thing that happened nearly 1200 years ago, they win. At a critical moment, Ian McKellen, having hidden outside the lines with a clever ruse, turns up with reinforcements and victory is theirs, yadda yadda, but Ian McKellen dies.
Alfred and Ealhswith are kinda-sorta reconciled, but you can see it’s only the very tentative beginning of a reconciliation and they have a long way to go, which I think is a lot better than a big smooch at the end. Guthrum expresses an interest in converting to Christianity, which is a better image than him converting with Alfred’s boot on his neck, which is much more like what probably happened.
The thing that immediately struck me about this movie was that there’s no story of the cakes! The one thing everyone knows about King Alfred. So that’s a bit weird.
History-wise, it’s there in outline, although it mainly uses it as a backdrop to explore the tensions between God and the state and the Alfred-Ealhswith love triangle. It compresses and simplifies a lot of things, naturally. Some of the English costumes and sets are quite accurate, while others are a bit anachronistic, like the various stone towers that seem to be everywhere. In general, it’s not perfect in terms of its historicity but better than I’d expected. Alfred’s sword says AETHELWULF MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN (“Aethelwulf had me made”) on the blade, but I don’t think anyone in the film actually points this out, so there’s some cool attention to detail.
But the love triangle, oh lordy. I thought that a movie about Alfred the Fucking Great wouldn’t have any opportunity for a stock postwar Hollywood rapemance plotline, but oh how wrong I was. The things people put into the past (because they assume they’re “primal” or something) are both telling and dispiriting.
To cheer us all up, here’s a familiar face.