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In 1463, Paris is besieged by the Duke of Burgundy, arch-rival of the king, who is content to sit tight while the poor starve. But there are traitors in Paris, and King Louis goes undercover to find one, thereby meeting Francois Villon, poet, philosopher and rogue. By chance Villon kills the king's traitor and is ordered to replace him...as Grand Constable of France! But there's a catch... Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
If English Medieval history is unevenly shown in Hollywood films (see my comment on YOUNG BESS), French Medieval history is non-existant. The sole real centers of films on France from 1000 to 1500 are those dealing with Joan of Arc and those dealing with that contemporary pair of Louis XI (the "Spider King") and Francois Villon, the great vagabond poet. In short, the period of roughly 1429-1431 (with a brief look into the future, via George Bernard Shaw, into the 1450s), and 1471 - 1477). The rest of the fifteenth century is ignored. As for preceeding eras, BECKET, THE LION IN WINTER, and THE CRUSADES all deal with the tangle of French and English politics in the years 1160 - 1199, and the two films of HENRY V do deal with the invasion of France in 1415, and the battle of Agincourt (but no films about Crecy or Poitiers).
Louis XI was one of the most astute, crafty monarchs of France or any other nation in history. He is not a loveable figure (as his nickname of "Spider King" shows). But loveability was not a viable policy for any French monarch. England was a constant threat, even after the final defeat of the English in the Hundred Years War in the 1450s (long after Joan of Arc was burned). The monarchs would insist on keeping the Kingdom of France among their titles (after England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland) into the 18th Century. There were dynastic marriages between the Burgundian royal house (modern day Belgium and Holland and the Rhineland make up what was Burgundy) and the British. Louis had to constantly balance friendly relations with realism about British aims (and Burgundian aims for that matter). Things came to a head in 1470 when Phillip of Burgundy, a wise leader, died and his son Charles the Bold (more accurately "the Rash") became Prince of Burgundy. Because of certain French lands near Paris owned by the Burgundians, Charles was a subject of Louis. But Louis's government was poorer than Charles's and he kept toying with either breaking his liege position with Louis or seizing the French throne. This latter policy led to a series of wars, including a siege of Paris. Remarkably, due to superior leadership qualities, Louis beat Charles - or rather Charles beat himself. In 1477 Charles died in a battle against another target - the Swiss republics. Louis died in 1483, the first really great modern French monarch or leader.
He was suspicious, and ever ready to use torture. But given the general standards of his period (the same time as the Wars of the Roses, and of the likes of Cesare Borgia) his use of torture was actually consistant with his contemporaries. Louis popped up in other stories aside from IF I WERE KING
he was the king in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (in the 1939 film played,
more kindly, by Walter Hampden). In a silent version of IF I WERE KING, BELOVED ROGUE (with John Barrymore as Villon)Conrad Veidt played him as more crafty and dangerous - and superstitious. He would also show up as the monarch fighting Charles the Rash in the film of QUENTIN DURWARD (after the novel of Sir Walter Scott) that starred Robert Taylor. In the present film he is played by Basil Rathbone, for once not tied down to sleuthing or to using a sword against Tyrone Power or Errol Flynn. He is able to demonstrate the frustration of a wise monarch, hampered by traitors and by a lack of popular support. The screenplay by Preston Sturges gives him some good lines of humor as well (he was a capable comic actor - see his pompous dried-out composer in RHTHYM ON THE RIVER, or even his greedy relative in WE'RE NO ANGELS). The make-up on his face makes his eyes look constantly rhumey and nearly unrecognizeable.
Villon is a great poet, of whom we know much but not enough. We don't know when he was born or when he died. We know he was a criminal (a thief and a murderer) but was able to avoid the scaffold - at least in known recorded history. In this film and BELOVED ROGUE he is forced to come to the aid of France, taking over the key job of High Constable (the previous High Constable, whom he killed, was a traitor to Louis). As this is a fiction, we are led to believe Villon manages within a week to instill spririt into the people of Paris, and to lead them to defeat the Burgundian army. Actually it was Louis who did that, with Charles's incomparably bad choices helping him. Still it makes a good story, and an enjoyable historical fantasy. The only thing missing is the Rudolph Friml score from Friml's operetta version, THE VAGABOND KING which did not appear until 1954 on screen. But even without that music it was enjoyable.
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