Hemmings is “Alfred the Great” in the epic story of the legendary Saxon King.
The film opens as Alfred is about to take his vows as a priest when the Danes
invade to pillage and rape their way across England. Michael York is Guthrum,
the Viking leader of the invaders. After fierce battles, the Saxons and Danes form
a truce and Alfred agrees to Guthrum’s additional terms; swapping hostages.
Guthrum picks Alfred’s wife, Aelhswith (Prunella Ransome), as hostage and takes
her with him across the English Channel to Denmark.
Viking scenes are played for every last ounce of lusty Pagan Medieval violence
and gusto. A relaxing night out with Vikings is no stop at your local coffee
shop. Axe tossing games, knife fights and rape ensue in the great hall while
Guthrum cheers on the Viking good times. Aelhswith retreats to her room to be
with her baby and handmaid, but she’s followed by Guthrum who rapes, though
ultimately she willing accepts him as her lover.
back in England, Alfred continues his struggle to unify the warring Saxons
under his leadership. Alfred is literally wallowing in the mud, surviving along
with his closest associates as they find allies in thieves and other common
folks who are eager to join him against the local barons. They develop tactics
and after savage battles with the feuding kingdoms and form an alliance under
Alfred’s leadership just as an invading fleet of Danes is seen approaching
through the mist-covered river. Another
great battle between Saxons and Danes ensues and Alfred is reunited with his
wife and child. The movie is a serviceable epic, but it’s lacking in several
areas. For one thing, the casting is off. Michael York has far more charisma in
every scene than David Hemmings. The movie would have benefited if York had
played Alfred and Hemmings Guthrum. There’s very little in the way of chemistry
between Hemmings and Ransome and it was entirely predictable that Aelhswith would
become enthused about being Guthrum’s lover.
movie marked the second big screen
appearance, of Sir Ian McKellen who would gain fame in many roles including the
fantasy Tolkien Middle Earth series as Gandolph. The movie also features appearances by
other familiar and up-and-coming actors like Colin Blakely as Asher, Peter
Vaughan as Burrud, Julian Glover as AEthelstan (try and say that name fast
three times) and Vivien Merchant as Freda. For some reason Merchant does not
speak a single word in spite of her prominent role in the movie. According to
critic Pauline Kael, who was no fan of this film, Merchant may have refused to
say her lines because the dialog was unspeakable.
wanted to like the movie, but it isn’t one of those films you yearn to watch
more than once or twice in a lifetime. It has its moments, but lacks the
grandeur you might expect in a film about Alfred the Great. Why was Alfred so great? You’ll have to find
out on your own because you won’t know after watching this biopic.
the Great” was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in summer of 1969 and shown in
some territories in an extravagant roadshow presentation with the 35mm format
blown up to 70mm. The Warner Archive DVD transfer is good and clocks in at 122
minutes with the trailer as the only extra. Recommended primarily for fans of
British historical epics.