Set in medieval England, during a perpetual “Hollywood” summer, The Black Shield Of Falworth is Universal-International's first Cinemascope feature. Arming itself with a young and unbelievably enthusiastic Tony Curtis, his unfeasibly attractive real-life wife Janet Leigh and directed with vigour by Rudolph Mate, the ripe 'n' rampant 1954 movie has peasant-warrior Myles seeking to uncover the truth about the father he never knew and find his rightful place in the knightly order of Mackworth Castle, loyal to King Henry IV. Myles (Curtis in tights and padded tunic) immediately incurs the wrath of rebellious Gilbert Blunt, Earl of Alban, whilst protecting his sister, Meg (Barbara Rush) from the schemer's lascivious henchmen. On the run, the pair seek to enrol themselves within the folds of the Earl of Mackworth's servitude, Myles to train as a squire and Meg becoming a maiden for the Earl's bounteous daughter Lady Anne (Janet Leigh). But, Myles having both an instinctive compulsion to discover his birthright and an innately tempestuous nature can do no right from the very first moment he enters the eye-widening new world of chivalry and ceremony, battling against the rules and regulations and coming into bitter conflict with Patrick O'Neil's arrogant Sir Walter Blunt, jealous rival for Lady Anne's heart and vicious snake in the grass in the forthcoming plot for the overthrow of the kingdom. Oh, it's a hotbed of lust and deceit, courage and dishonour, all right and Myles is going to need every ounce of strength and bravery if he is to fulfil his destiny.
Based upon the novel “Men Of Iron” by Howard Pyle, The Black Shield Of Falworth combines romance, comedy, Man In The Iron Mask-style identity crisis and heraldic splendour, yet it falls way below the standards set by such classics as The Adventures Of Robin Hood, Ivanhoe and El Cid. This is not because it is a poor film, you understand, but rather because it sets its sights much lower. It may take in details such as a potential rebellion, but this is really just a last-minute vindication to top 'n' tail Myles' development. Its character examination - a man of noble blood fighting to right a falsehood that has wrongly condemned him to death - is only cursorily dissected and becomes secondary to the courtships and class wars that seem prevalent in Mackworth Castle. Indeed, Mate's film, as flamboyant and lively as it is, is medieval soap of the most simplistic and superficial.
But you can't say that it isn't great fun.
I've always though that Robbie Williams reminded me of Tony Curtis, but Black Shield has horribly shattered that already perplexing association because Myles, with his big curly quiff, padded tunic and freaky arched eyebrows looks just like a medieval clone of shamed glam-rocker Gary Glitter! Now, even if you can get past that perversely distracting element, it becomes evident very early on that Curtis, no matter how much star quality he exudes, is no English knight. With that severely throaty accent and lumpy pugilist's face he coarsens the film and lumbers around the frame like one huge anachronism. His terrific Antoninus in Kubrick's Spartacus was still six years away and, despite sensitivity not being a trait that the fight-loving Myles is renowned for, Curtis still makes loving platitudes to Lady Anne in stolen moments of hidden intimacy clumsy and oafish. But he is honed as a reckless weapon of familial vengeance and in the fighting, Curtis certainly gives a hundred-and-ten per cent. He may not be the most lithe and athletic of performers, looking cumbersome and ungainly even before he dons a clanking suit of armour, but he is defiantly strenuous with a wild streak of brazen physicality. Think Russell Crowe is tights and you're in the right ballpark.
“My father was supposed to have been your friend. But from the day I arrived at Macworth Castle, you've treated me like the son of an enemy!”
Torin Thatcher's Sir James - the stalwart trainer of the young squires wanting to make good as knights of the realm - looks like a cross between a wizened Merlin and Raven off the kids' TV show, with a hint of the Snake Plisskens about him with that nifty eye-patch. Coming over as the initially harsh task-setting Mickey to Myles' medieval Rocky, Thatcher is perhaps the film's most colourful character, despite his penchant for black garb. That the two will become firm comrades is never in question, but the relationship - as daft as it is - is still a cheerily touching one. Elsewhere we have Daniel (Halloween 3/The Last Starfighter) O'Herlihy perfecting a thoroughly transparent charade as a supposedly tipple-loving Prince Of Wales and the hissable villainy of David (Black Narcissus) Farrar as Blunt Snr, with political backstabbing on his mind except when hungry to smash the erstwhile young pup, Myles, in a savage joust to the death. Dandy fop Francis Gascoyne, played by Craig Hill, is Myles' confidante and carousing-buddy and the duo do, indeed, come across as likeable rascals with Gascoyne like a slightly less-wooden Will Scarlett to Flynn's forest-loving Hoodie. And Janet Leigh gives effortless charm to a role that is actually quite underwritten. All too often she is simply used to watch her man go about his antics and then elicit embarrassed sniggers when he comes a-cropper. But there is a chemistry between them that feels neither forced nor downplayed because of their off-screen relationship, which is commendable.
“I've heard of your trouble-making in the dormitory ...”
Tony Curtis, perhaps eager to endorse some action-man credentials before the infinitely superior The Vikings (in which he loses a hand and battles the awesomely ferocious Kirk Douglas), indulges in a simply staggering amount of fighting, ducking, diving and energetic rolling about. Even when he isn't engaged in impromptu melees in the barracks he appears to be looking around for a trestle table to kick over or a curtain that he can swing from, forever spoiling for a fight with the knighted toffs. Some of this stuff borders on school play dramatics - tussling piles of squirming combatants from under which Myles is dragged to safety - but then other skirmishes are quite accomplished. Curtis earns his tights with a series of table-leaps, his slightly lumpy form pivoting nicely to then kick said tables over into the path of successive waves of pursuers. The jousting sequences are well-handled, with some fleeting, but exemplary camerawork that either races alongside the horses or captures their ferocious charging from a very dangerous position almost directly in front of them. The wildly swinging weapons come perilously close to the horses, too, making you wince involuntarily before the reassuring impact of clashing steel. But the most brilliantly staged fight-sequence must be the chaotic and incredibly visceral duel that sends Myles and Walter Blunt smashing into walls, through chairs and tables and sprawling down stairs. Grabbing any weapon they can reach and literally hammering away at each other with such fury that it seems they have gotten too much into character and taken their fictitious dispute over Janet Leigh for a real love-war.
So long as Curtis is embroiled in such frantic skirmishing, the film coasts along. When it slows down, as it does for a stretch in the second half, and decides to flower its plot with nefarious intrigue and skulduggery, it loses vigour. The impetus all along has been that we are heading for a fight - a big one - in which Myles will be able to prove himself and win back his father's once proud reputation. But the narrative frustratingly leaves this till virtually the last minute - although the climactic action is still worth the wait.
“Work him again and again - I want to know if his spirit can be broken!”
Yet ample fun is to be had simply watching Tony Curtis affect his serf-to-knight transition. His handling of stately dialogue when confronted with high court etiquette is, well, ridiculous with a Bronx brogue that he knows he cannot disguise so, perhaps wisely, doesn't even attempt to. But he knows when to send himself up and with such scenes as the almost Sid James-style spying over the wall at Lady Anne and the panto-esque stumbling-about in his bland-as-Gort suit of armour he cannot fail to amuse. Everyone knows this is just camp frivolity and the essence of Flynn's cavalier spirit is never far away.
“Alban's death will end the ring of evil around King Henry. The fate of the realm rides on your lance!”
So, no pressure, then?”
Rudolph Mate started out as a cinematographer on celebrated classics as Carl Dreyer's Vampyr (see review) and Gilda before then moving into directing with the likes of this and the much more action-packed The 300 Spartans, but he never lost his visual flair. Mackworth Castle may be secreted in the California hills - look at those trees, the blue sky and veritable heat-haze - and its inner walls and buildings may resemble the stucco of a Mexican village, but he films the sets with a width and depth that makes the castle and its ground seem much more expansive and “lived-in” than the ramshackle fabrication really is. The inner chambers and rooms are spacious and hung with charming period detail such as shields and tapestries, and whilst none of this looks particularly authentic, the various courts are never less than interesting to look at. One or two matte painted backgrounds look a touch too soft and misty to be anything other than the pastel-tinted whimsy of Hollywood artists, but his command of the pageantry and excesses of costumed drama is still highly evocative. One environ that looks great in a kind of Alice In Wonderland fashion is the enclosed courtyard of manicured lawns, fountains, gazebos and ornate, maid-ensnaring ponds in which Myles and Francis seek to woo their sweethearts. The final sprawling battle, somewhat revisited in the cult-fave The Sword And The Sorcerer - in that differing factions keep springing up behind their once-supposed friends in a big game of bluff and double-bluff along the battlements - is exuberant and rewardingly violent with swords thrust under armpits and arrows thunking into chests with merry abandon. Our two nemesis, meanwhile, thunder about in their cumbersome armour and, even though they could be anybody behind those visors, having seen both Curtis and Farrar going for it with devilish glee, you kind of know that Mate has allowed the two stars to just go for it.
Spirited fun from start to finish, Black Shield never intends to be anything more. Commendably sticking to the ethic of simple dynamics and reckless heroism, Mate's film plays by the conventions of the form with a heart that is willing to please. We have fisticuffs, horse hi-jinx, a climactic battle and love between the clanging broadswords - and, at the end of the day, what more could you ask for?
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