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Film: Fire Over England

"My people, I am come to live or die amongst you all; to lay down, for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and valour of a king, and of a king of England, too! Not Spain nor any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm. Pluck up your hearts! By your peace in camp, and by your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory!"
Queen Elizabeth I (Dame Flora Robson)

Fire Over England is a 1937 British Swashbuckler film produced by Alexander Korda's London Films, directed by William K. Howard, and starring Laurence Olivier, Flora Robson, Leslie Banks, Vivien Leigh, Tamara Desni, Robert Newton, and Raymond Massey, and nominally based on a novel by Historical Fiction author A.E.W. Mason; the score is by noted English composer Richard Addinsell of "Warsaw Concerto" fame. Produced at a time when the Jewish Korda was desperately trying to rouse Britain for the coming fight with Nazi Germany — a not entirely popular position in those war-weary times — ''Fire Over England" used the "Black Legend" of Spanish aggression and Elizabeth I's glorious opposition to the invading Armada to reflect the need for a vigorous defence of England's liberties.

Synopsis:
The film begins with an Anvilicious title-scroll stating that Spain's King Philip II, who rules "by fear and force," is opposed only by one freedom loving little island led by a woman — Elizabeth the Queen. Michael Ingolby (Laurence Olivier), fighting with his Privateer father Richard against the Spanish, is allowed to escape when their ship is seized by the Spanish captain Don Miguel, his father's friend, though Sir Richard Ingolby is arrested by The Spanish Inquisition. Michael makes his way to Don Miguel's house, where he is nursed to health by Don Miguel's daughter, Eleña (Tamara Desni) — who (though she is to be married) rapidly falls in love with him, though he is in love with Cynthia (Vivien Leigh), granddaughter of Lord Burleigh (Morton Selten). However, when Michael learns that his father has been executed, he turns on them and for England. There, Queen Elizabeth (Flora Robson) is playing diplomatic cat-and-mouse with the Spanish, but is torn between the cautious policy of Burleigh and the overtly aggressive one of the Earl of Leicester (Leslie Banks), who fears for her safety, as some of her own courtiers are plotting against her — among them, Mr. Hillary Vane (a young James Mason), drowned when Leicester attempts to arrest him. Elizabeth, Burleigh, and Leicester convince Michael, over Cynthia's objections, to return to Spain in place of Vane to learn the details of the plot. There Michael, though confronted by Eleña, now married to Count Pedro, Governor of the Palace (Robert Newton), convinces her not to give him away; however, the ever-suspicious King Philip (Raymond Massey) himself discovers his identity. Count Pedro, fearing that if Michael is tortured he will reveal Eleña's concealment of his identity, allows him to escape. Michael makes his way to England, where Elizabeth is already making ready to repel the Spanish Armada, and reveals the members of the plot against her. She confronts them personally, and convinces them personally to sail fire-ships against the Armada, which is defeated. Michael and Cynthia are reunited, and Elizabeth leads her people in a prayer of thanksgiving for their deliverance.

Fire Over England almost certainly inspired the 1940 American swashbuckler The Sea Hawk, and it is interesting to contrast the two films, especially as the central part of Queen Elizabeth I is played by the same actress in both. The English film is slower-paced, given over more to high-flown Elizabethan dialogue (often from historic sources, as for instance, the Queen's authentic Tilbury speech), and with a stronger sense of period; the American film is more rapid, heavily dependent on action sequences, with more modernization, and less emphasis on historical accuracy. Michael Ingolby is far more emotional, even unstable, than The Sea Hawk's Geoffrey Thorpe — who could imagine Errol Flynn bursting into tears? The American film is far more straightforward; its Elizabeth shows little of the faults and doubt that plague her in ‘Fire Over England' (the American Elizabeth would never have slapped Doña Maria, as the English one slaps the minx Cynthia note ). Finally, the American film treats the vexed subject of religion much more gingerly than the English film, which has no hesitancy about portraying the struggle against Spain as primarily a battle for religious liberty.


Tropes Employed In Fire Over England:

  • As the Good Book Says: Over the image of the sinking Armada, Elizabeth quotes an historical sermon by an English bishop, based on Exodus XV, 10: "Thou didst blow with Thy winds, and they were scattered."
    • Similarly, the film ends with Elizabeth reciting the General Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer.
  • Broken Aesop: What is meant as an in-universe example by Count Pedro:
    "You see, Eleña, the whole trouble comes from treating your enemies like human beings. Don't you see, my dear, that if you do that, they cease to be enemies? Think what that leads to. It's the end of patriotism — it's the end of war — it's the end of — of everything."
This comes perilously close to overthrowing the entire propaganda purpose of the film. One wonders if Korda's writers were entirely committed to his message, or were trying to seem reasonable to those who might doubt — or were so jingoistic that they applied this to every other nation but Britain.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: As Don Pedro assures Michael, "You English fool — you'll be persuaded until you tell everything. We understand persuasion."
  • Les Collaborateurs: The English courtiers plotting against Elizabeth (for unstated reasons, interestingly).
  • Dark Reprise: Of Michael's tune, "The Spanish Lady's Love," which he uses to entreat Eleña not to reveal his identity.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Elizabeth, particularly at Michael's expense.
    Michael: Your Grace has made a fool of me.
    Elizabeth: Oh, blame Nature, lad, not me.
    • King Philip also gets off a couple of nice cold ones, as when Michael has "clumsily" spilt ink all over his dispatches to England:
    Philip: That is the sand,note  and that the ink.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Interestingly, Michael has to do this to Eleña after she has fallen in love with him. After he has denounced her as a "Spanish devil" and returned to England, she has married another man and is fully aware that Michael is in Spain as a spy; he must convince her not to give him up.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything??: The Spanish in this film clearly are stand-ins for the Nazis.
  • Double Entendre: As a non-sexual example, Michael's toasting the Spanish with "To the salvation of England."
    • More usual, perhaps, is the part when Elizabeth, finding Cynthia kissing Michael, exclaims, "Who gave the wench leave to mount my throne?"
  • The Empire: Spain is depicted as being this, "supreme in the New World, powerful in the Old," and opposed by practically no-one but the English.
  • Evil Is Deathly Cold: As a sort of spear version of an Ice Queen, King Philip is always cold, both figuratively and, as he himself says, literally.
  • Evil Overlord: King Philip
  • Fake Nationality: None of the Spaniards in this film show the least sign of having ever even seen Iberia. Even the obviously non-English Eleña is German note  rather than Spanish.
  • Flynning: Michael engages in a little light sword-play in the sea-fight at the beginning of the film and while escaping from the Escurial.
  • The Ghost: Sir Francis Drake, who is mentioned again and again in this film, but never actually appears.
  • Grande Dame: Eleña's dueña, who is scandalized by the girl's "mannerless" English-style behaviour.
  • Gratuitous Spanish: As when the Spanish ambassador, who otherwise speaks Lyceum English, calls Drake, El Draco. note 
  • Heel-Face Turn: When Elizabeth confronts them, alone and unarmed, all the English conspirators sink down on their knees and shout, "God save the Queen!"
  • The Heretic: What Eleña at first calls Michael, and what Sir Richard is presumably burnt for being.
  • The High Queen: Elizabeth
  • Historical-Domain Character: King Philip II; Queen Elizabeth I; William Cecil, Lord Burleigh; Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.
  • Hot-Blooded: Michael starts out the film without a very great command of his emotions, but becomes more cool and calculating under the tutelage of Queen Elizabeth herself.
  • Hypocrite: The Spanish ambassador, who congratulates Elizabeth in insulting terms for surviving an assassination attempt — while plotting to assassinate her.
  • I Am the Noun:
    Elizabeth: For I am England!
    Ambassador: And I am the Voice of Spain.
  • Knighting: By Elizabeth — "Rise up, rise up, Sir Michael Ingolby."
  • Knight Templar: King Philip, who cannot rest until he has subjugated heretical England.
  • Leave Your Quest Test: When Michael is asked to return to Spain as a spy, Cynthia begs him instead to retire peacefully to the country with her instead.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Michael for Cynthia; Cynthia for Michael; Eleña for Michael; Elizabeth for Michael; Elizabeth for Leicester; Leicester for Elizabeth: Pedro for Eleña (possibly Eleña for Pedro, though she doesn't show much sign of it).
  • Manly Tears: Perhaps averted; Michael's reaction to the news of his father's death is positively hysterical.
  • Mary of Scotland: Her execution leads a crazy Scotswoman to try to assassinate the Queen. (No, honestly.)
  • The Mole: Hillary Vane is this at Elizabeth's court for the baddies.
  • Music of Note: Richard Addinsell's sweeping score, including a haunting little tune, "The Spanish Lady's Love," used to represent Michael (and worked into the plot).
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Except for Eleña, all the Spaniards in this film sound as if they had just stepped off the boards of the Old Vic — and she sounds as if she had just left the Friederichstadtpalast.
  • Oblivious to Love: Michael and Cynthia have this exchange, as they wait for the Queen to return from hunting:
    Michael: Did she read my application to re-join the fleet?
    [Cynthia nods.]
    Michael: Will she grant it, do you think?
    [Cynthia shakes her head.]
    Michael: Why not?
    Cynthia: Because she likes you.
    Michael: Did you speak for me?
    Cynthia: I didn't dare; she is still at odds with me.
    Michael: Why?
    Cynthia: Because she likes you. [He looks puzzled; she glances at him disgustedly.]
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: Heard when the Inquisition come to arrest Sir Richard Ingolby and during his execution, and again in the Escurial.
  • Eerie Pale-Skinned Brunette: Both Eleña and Cynthia.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: As worn by Elizabeth; lampshaded by Hillary Vane: "I've heard the Queen owns three thousand dresses."
  • Pirate: What the Spanish consider Drake (and by implication, Ingolby).
  • Privateer: Sir Richard Ingolby; Drake from the English point of view
  • Purple Prose: For example: "Do not deceive yourself. I know you love me and would risk your life for me — but these men risk more than their mere lives: once they are caught, I cannot help them and they know it; once they are caught it is death by fire. But that does not stop them from dying for me. They still cry, 'Save the Queen.'"
  • The Renaissance: The Elizabethan setting.
  • Reverse Mole: Michael is this at King Philip's court for the goodies.
  • Romance on the Set: Though both Olivier and Leigh were married at the time they were making this film, they fell in love on the set, and shortly after filming had ended, began an affaire that ended in both of them divorcing their respective spouses and marrying each other. That marriage itself would end unhappily as a result of Leigh's mental illness.
  • Rousing Speech: Queen Elizabeth's speech at Tilbury, which is a direct quote from history, and may make you want to go out and fight a Spaniard.
  • She Is the King: As referenced in the Queen's Tilbury speech
  • The Spanish Inquisition: Burns Michael's father alive.
  • Title Drop: "But one day, Your Grace, the pistol will be loaded — and as the shot echoes across the sea to Spain, the Armada will sail — and then there will be Fire Over England! Flames! Torment!"
  • Villainous Demotivator: King Philip, of course:
    Philip: Employ rigorous means. Only through fear can the people be brought to do their duty ... and not always then.
  • War Was Beginning: Fire Over England begins with a remarkably pompous and tendentious one:
    "In 1587 Spain Powerful in the Old World Master in the New — Its King Philip Rules By Force and Fear — But Spanish Tyranny is Challenged by the Free People of a Little Island — England..."
  • We Used to Be Friends: Sir Richard Ingolby attacks the galleon of his former friend, Don Miguel de Casanz — when they encounter each other in battle, Ingloby tells his son, "We were friends once." "Enemies now!," shrieks Michael, and attacks.
  • The Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask: Elizabeth, who is riddled with fears for her country's and her own future, regrets for her lost beauty, jealousy of Cynthia's youth, beauty, and relationship with Michael, and guilt for her execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

The DybbukFilms of the 1930sThe Grand Illusion

alternative title(s): Fire Over England
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