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Amber St Clair means to get on in life and despite a poor background knows she has the assets to do it. Husbands, lovers, prison and a liaison with King Charles II form a tapestry of apparently calculating ups and downs, although in fact the one love of her life, Bruce Carlton, is never far from Amber's thoughts. Written by
Jeremy Perkins <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Kathleen Winsor's novel is frequently referred to as a "bodice ripper", a description often used for mildly salacious historical romances, generally featuring passionate, strong-willed heroines and dashing, tempestuous heroes. Although the Catholic League of Decency saw to it that much of the salaciousness went missing between book and screen (Puritanism in America is clearly not an exclusively Protestant phenomenon), the film version still preserves a healthy ration of tempestuous passion. The heroine is Amber St Clair, a beautiful farmer's daughter in the reign of Charles II, who becomes an actress, a fashionable London lady and eventually the mistress of the King himself. The decade immediately following the Restoration was one of the most dramatic in English history, and the plot of "Forever Amber" milks that drama to the full, featuring plague, fire, a highwayman, a duel, and the heroine's numerous love affairs.
I would agree with the reviewer who pointed out the similarity of the plot to that of "Gone with the Wind", with Amber as a seventeenth-century Scarlett O'Hara and her lover Lord Bruce Carlton as the Rhett Butler figure, the one man whom the heroine truly loves but eventually loses. Amber's obsession with Bruce brings out the best in her character- she courageously and selflessly nurses him through the plague- but also the worst, seen in her unsuccessful attempts to destroy his relationship with his new American wife Corinne. It also ruins her chances of happiness with any other man, leading to the deaths of her elderly husband and a fiancé (killed in a duel) and to the loss of the King's favour. (He cannot bear the idea that his mistresses might have feelings for other men).
The ending of the film, in which Amber loses her young son to Bruce and Corinne, seems to have been added by the film-makers to placate the League of Decency, showing her being punished for her sins. It also provides the pretext for a display of American patriotism, with the implication that the boy will enjoy a morally purer life in the New World away from the aristocratic decadence of the Old. This contrast between the innocence and purity of Young America and the cynicism and corruption of Old Europe is, of course, a common theme in American popular culture, but I was rather surprised to find it pushed as far back into history as the good old colonial days of the sixteen-sixties. As young Bruce junior was destined to become the master of a Virginia plantation built on slave labour, I doubt if his new life in the colonies was any morally purer than the life he might have led as an English aristocrat and the son of the King's mistress.
As a historical melodrama, "Forever Amber" is not in the same class as "Gone with the Wind". This is partly because of the look of the film- the colour is rather dark and muddy- but mostly because the leading actors could not bring to their roles the same depth that Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable brought to Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler. I found it ironic that Peggy Cummins was sacked from the part of Amber because she was not "worldly enough", as I felt that Linda Darnell also came across as too young and innocent, particularly in the later scenes where Amber has matured into a scheming courtesan. It perhaps might have been a better film if the slightly older and more experienced Susan Hayward (who was also considered) had got the part. As for Cornell Wilde, he made a rather uncharismatic Bruce, and I found it difficult to conceive of him as the great love of Amber's life. The other characters do not make much impression, with the exception of George Sanders' King Charles. He was perhaps slightly too old for the part (Charles was only thirty at the time of the Restoration) but his cynical, saturnine interpretation of the role was probably closer to the real Charles than the dashing "merry monarch" of the popular imagination. Him apart, however, this film is a largely forgettable historical melodrama. 5/10
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