Saturday, November 19, 2011

Fire Over England

I briefly mentioned the movie Fire Over England back in March on the birth anniversary of Flora Robson, who ably plays Queen Elizabeth I of England in the film. It's airing tomorrow morning at 7:30 AM on TCM, and is an excellent example of a British historical film.

The year is 1587, a year before Spain was to attack England with the Spanish Armada. Spain was the undisputed power of the sea at the time, and England was somewhat of a backwater. Instead of a normal navy, England gained its wealth through the use of what they would call privateers, but what any other country would understandably call pirates. During one of these engagements, young Englishman Michael Ingolsby (Laurence Olivier) and his father get taken prisoner. The Spanish commander has pity on them and lets Michael stay at his estate, but the father eventually gets tried and executed by the Inquisition. Michael escapes to England, where he meets his Queen who discovers that she can put him to use. Apparently, there's a ring of spies among her court, who are sending secrets to Spain where there are some English expat fifth columnists. (Remember that this was only about 50 years after Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church, so religious differences made it natural that England's Catholics would head to someplace like Spain to fight for the Catholic cause.)

Michael's task is to go to Spain and pretend to be the head of the English spies so that he can get in good with the Spanish court. There's one problem: Michael had been to spain before, and when he was captured, he was nursed back to health by the daughter of the commander who captured him. She's now the wife of one of the members of the court, so she recognizes him. Thankfully, though, she has to help him get away eventually, as otherwise it will be discovered that she had spent a bunch of time helping a foreign agent. By this time, the plot to build the Spanish Armada is on, and only Michael can stop the Armada....

Fire Over England is actually quite a good movie, although I think at times there's a bit much going on. The one thing I haven't mentioned yet is the obligatory romantic subplot, which involves one of Elizabeth's ladies-in-waiting (Vivien Leigh) and Olivier. In real life, they fell in love making this movie, and eventually got married. There are quite a few famous names in the cast. James Mason plays the spy in Elizabeth's court who gets discovered and whose place Olivier takes, while Raymond Massey plays Philip II of Spain. The production values are also quite good. All in all, Fire Over England is one that's well worth watching.