The Private Life of Henry VIII

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The Private Life of Henry VIII is a 1933 British film which was directed and co-produced by Alexander Korda and starring Charles Laughton, Robert Donat, Merle Oberon and Elsa Lanchester. The film focuses on the marriages of King Henry VIII of England. It was written by Lajos Bíró and Arthur Wimperis for London Film Productions, Korda's production company. The film was a major international success, establishing Korda as a leading filmmaker and Laughton as a box office star.

The Private Life of Henry VIII
The-Private-Life-of-Henry-VIII -1933.jpg
Directed byAlexander Korda
Written byLajos Bíró
Arthur Wimperis
Produced byAlexander Korda
Ludvico Toeplitz
StarringCharles Laughton
Binnie Barnes
Robert Donat
CinematographyGeorges Périnal
Edited byStephen Harrison
Music byKurt Schröder
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
17 August 1933
Running time
97 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Box office£750,000[1]


King Henry VIII (Charles Laughton) and Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester) on their wedding night in The Private Life of Henry VIII

The film begins 20 years into King Henry's reign. In May 1536, in the immediate aftermath of the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon), King Henry VIII (Charles Laughton) marries Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie), who dies in childbirth eighteen months later. He then weds a German princess, Anne of Cleves (played by Laughton's real-life wife Elsa Lanchester). This marriage ends in divorce when Anne deliberately makes herself unattractive so she can be free to marry her sweetheart. (In an imaginative and high-spirited scene, Anne "wins her freedom" from Henry in a game of cards on their wedding night.) After this divorce, Henry marries the beautiful and ambitious Lady Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes). She has rejected love all her life in favour of ambition, but after her marriage, she finally falls in love with Henry's handsome courtier Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat), who has attempted to woo her in the past. Their liaison is discovered by Henry's court and the two are executed. The weak and aging Henry consoles himself with a final marriage to Catherine Parr (Everley Gregg), who proves domineering. In the final scene, while Parr is no longer in the room, the king breaks the fourth wall, saying "Six wives, and the best of them's the worst."



Alexander Korda was looking for a film project suitable for Charles Laughton and his wife, Elsa Lanchester. Several stories of the film's genesis exist: the resemblance between a statue of Henry VIII and Laughton, a cabby singing the music hall song "I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am", and a discussion on a set of one of his previous films. Originally, the story was to focus solely on the marriage of King Henry VIII and his fourth wife Anne of Cleves, but as the project grew, the story was modified to focus on five of Henry's six wives. Only the first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was omitted because those involved had no particular interest in her, describing her as a "respectable lady" in the film's first intertitles. Korda chose to completely ignore the religious and political issues of Henry's reign, as the film makes no mention of the break with Rome, and instead focuses on Henry's relations with his wives.[2]


Box officeEdit

The film was a commercial success. It made Alexander Korda a premier figure in the film industry at the time; United Artists signed Korda for 16 films. It also advanced the careers of Charles Laughton, Robert Donat, and Merle Oberon. It was also Oberon's first major film role. Laughton would later reprise the same role in 1953 in the film Young Bess, opposite Jean Simmons as his daughter, Elizabeth.

It was the 12th most successful film at the US box office in 1933.[3] The film premiered to record-breaking crowds at New York's Radio City Music Hall and London's Leicester Square Theatre (now the Odeon West End), running for nine weeks at the latter venue from 27 October 1933.[4] It earned rentals of £500,000 on its first release. The film was one of United Artists' most popular films of the year.[5]


This film was the first non-Hollywood film to win an Academy Award, as Charles Laughton won the 1933 Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance. The film was the first British production to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Laughton was voted Best Actor in a British film by readers of Film Weekly.[6]


Laughton on vintage cigarette card

The historian Greg Walker noted Korda worked in references to contemporary political issues as the film very anachronistically refers to the Holy Roman Empire as Germany and gives the misleading impression that the Reich was far more united in the 16th century than it really was.[7] The frequent wars between the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V vs. King François I of France are portrayed in the film as an example of the French–German enmity with Henry attempting to play the peace-maker.[8] The film makes no mention of the fact that Charles was as Carlos I the king of Spain, and gives the highly misleading impression that the Habsburg-Valois wars were primarily Franco-German wars instead of being Franco-Spanish wars.[7]

In the interwar period, the Treaty of Versailles was widely considered in Britain to be too harsh towards Germany, and successive British governments attempted to promote revision of the Versailles treaty in Germany's favor while at the same time not wishing for a situation where Germany might dominate Europe.[8] The Locarno treaties of 1925 were an example of a British attempt to improve Franco-German relations, and evidence from the time suggests that such a foreign policy was very popular with the British people.[9] Henry's monologue in which he warns that the French and Germans will destroy Europe because of their mad hatred for one another and it is his duty to save the peace by mediating the Franco-German dispute would have been understood by a British audience in 1933 as a reference to the current British foreign policy of trying to revise the Treaty of Versailles in Germany's favor without weakening France too much.[8]

In the 1930s, the power of strategic bombing was vastly exaggerated, and at the time it was believed that strategic bombing could not only destroy cities, but also end civilization itself.[8] The way in which Henry paints the Franco-German enmity in starkly apocalyptic terms as threatening to "destroy" Europe refers more to the fears of the 1930s rather than the 1530s.[8] Notably, in the film both the French and the Germans are portrayed as equally the aggressors, which fitted in with popular British views of Franco-German relations in the interwar period.[10] The Hapsburg-Valois wars were primarily fought in Italy, but the film gives the impression that Flanders was the main battlefield; a British audience in 1933 would have understood the references to fighting in Flanders as a reference to the First World War, where Flanders was one of the main battlefields.

In the same monologue, Henry says: "In my youth, in Wolsey's time, I would have accepted one offer or another. But what's the use of new territories or wars, wars, wars again?".[10] The antiwar views the film gives Henry again fitted to the popular view at the time that the sacrifices imposed by the First World War were not worth it, and another world war would be an utter disaster.[10]

In 1932, the World Disarmament Conference opened, and at the time the conference generated much discussion in Britain whether the nation should disarm or rearm.[11] Among the pro-rearmament camp was a tendency to favor increasing spending on the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, though not the British Army, as the "continental commitment" in the First World War where Britain sent a large expeditionary force to fight on the continent was considered to be a mistake.[12] The film makes a reference to the World Disarmament Conference and the current debate about rearmament, where Henry is warned by Thomas Cromwell that spending on the Navy will "cost us much money", leading him to retort that not to spend money on the Navy will "cost us England".[13] Korda was close to more right-wing MPs of the Conservative Party, and the way in which the film has Henry advocate a stronger Navy, saying that he needs "ships, ships and more ships" to allow him to "compel" the French and Germans to make "peace, peace, peace" reflects the thinking in Conservative circles at the time.[13] Korda disliked the Labour Party with its call for disarmament, and Henry's navalist message in the film was intended as a rebuke to those who called for Britain to disarm more.[14] Likewise, the film's navalist message that only a strong navy could preserve the peace was equally intended as a rebuke to the National Government, which in the light of the Great Depression was cutting military spending at the time, and was debating more cuts to defense spending.[15]

In the 1920s-1930s the way that Hollywood dominated the world film industry and the weakness of the British film industry by comparison was the source of much angst in Britain at the time.[16] By 1925, only 5% of the films being shown in Britain were British, with the majority of the other 95% being American.[17] In 1932, a former diplomat, Sir Stephen Tallents, published a call for what he called "The Projection of England", saying that Britain needed films to project its own image, warning that if the British film industry failed to tell its own stories that would define Britain, then Hollywood would do so.[18] As part of "The Projection of England", there was a marked interest in the Tudor era, which was seen nostalgically as a simpler, better and "purer" time.[18] As part of the nostalgia for the Tudor era, there was an increased interest in "Ye Olde England", an image of the Tudor era as a prosperous, happy time untroubled by class divisions and economic depressions, which became a defining feature of how Britishness or more accurately Englishness was defined in the interwar era.[18]

As part of "The Projection of England" effort, the character of John Bull was also tapped into as a symbol of Britishness/Englishness.[19] The character of John Bull was portrayed as uncultured, but also as good-natured, kind, boisterous and exuberant, full of a zest for life and good humor, which were all qualities that were taken as being typically British/English.[17] Though John Bull might be more than a little unsophisticated, his lack of sophistication hid a mind that was shrewd and cunning, which very much reflected the British self-image at the time.[17] Korda, an Anglophile Hungarian Jew who wanted very much to be accepted in his adopted country, applied much of the imagery and personal traits associated with John Bull to Henry VIII in his film.[17]

The historian Suzanne Lipscomb noted that in film: "Henry is the victim of manipulative women, a sympathetic and wronged man, who just wants to be loved and happy like anyone else. He turns to food in his loneliness, devouring and flinging a chicken leg over his shoulder. The audience is encouraged by vicarious identification into considering kingship to be an unenviable burden."[2]

Catherine of Aragon was excluded because she was a "respectable woman" as the introduction says.[20] In reality, the decision to exclude Catherine of Aragon was taken because of her stubbornness in refusing to be pushed aside to allow Henry to marry Anne Boleyn, saying she was the queen and would remain so, which might have weakened the audience identification with the king.

The film presents Anne Boleyn as a noble victim who behaves with stoic dignity as she awaits her execution, which accords with the known facts of the last hours of Anne's life.[21] No mention is made of the fact she was convicted of trumped-up charges of incest with her brother, who was also executed, which might had alienated the audience against Henry, who knowingly allowed an innocent man to be executed just to give him a pretext for executing Anne.[21]

The film inaccurately portrays Henry as marrying Jane Seymour on the same day as Anne Boleyn was beheaded; in fact, Henry only obtained permission to remarry from Archbishop Cranmer on that day, and the king married Jane on 30 May 1536.[22] The film's picture of Jane as a vain, stupid, child-like woman who was only concerned with her clothes and appearance is inaccurate; the real Jane Seymour was an intelligent woman.[22]

Anne of Cleves is incorrectly shown in being in love with another man before she marries the king, which is presented as her reason for wanting to end her marriage with Henry.[23] Walker noted, "...there is no need to invent reasons why an young woman in her twenties might not wish to be married to a bloated, ill-tempered monarch twice her age".[23] The relationship between the king and Anne of Cleves is played for comic effect, but the film's picture of both parties wanting to end the marriage was based in reality, through it took several months to end the marriage instead of over the course of a single night, as portrayed in the film.[23] The desire of Anne of Cleves to stay in England is explained in the film in romantic terms because of her love for Peynell, but in reality her unwillingness to return to Cleves seems to have been to escape the tyrannical supervision of her stern brother, the Duke of Cleves, who did not allow her to go outside without an escort and made her wear a veil in public. Given the way that her brother had treated her, Henry's offer to Anne of Cleves of an estate and income that allowed her independence must had been very appealing to her.[23]

The real Catherine Howard was an immature teenager of limited intelligence who apparently did not understand that she was risking her life by committing adultery with Thomas Culpeper.[24] As part of its efforts to present Henry in a generally favorable light, the film portrays Catherine Howard as a mature, intelligent woman who knew the risks of adultery, which makes Henry's decision to have her executed more forgivable to the audience.[24]

Likewise, Catherine Parr was not like the nagging tyrant portrayed in the film; the real Catherine Parr was an intellectual with a strong interest in Protestant theology, and she had a kindly, gentle character.[25] Instead of nagging the king, Catherine Parr liked to engage Henry in intellectual discussions about religion to keep up his spirits as his health rapidly declined in his last years, which the film changed in order to play the Henry-Catherine relationship for laughs.[25]


The Private Life of Henry VIII is credited with creating the popular image of Henry VIII as a fat, lecherous glutton, constantly eating turkey legs and tossing the bones over his shoulder (although in the film, Henry actually eats an entire chicken).[26][27][28][29][30]

Historian Alison Weir has pointed out that this image is contradicted by primary sources, noting "As a rule, Henry did not dine in the great halls of his palaces, and his table manners were highly refined, as was the code of etiquette followed at his court. He was in fact a most fastidious man, and – for his time – unusually obsessed with hygiene. As for his pursuit of the ladies, there is plenty of evidence, but most of it fragmentary, for Henry was also far more discreet and prudish than we have been led to believe. These are just superficial examples of how the truth about historical figures can become distorted."[31]

Copyright statusEdit

Due to overlapping changes in British copyright law, the film never fell into the public domain in the UK, and is now due to expire at the end of 2026, 70 years after Alexander Korda's death. In countries that observe a 50-year term (e.g. Canada, Australia, etc.), it expired at the end of 2006.

In the United States the film's original 1933 copyright registration[32] was not renewed after the initial 28-year term, and thus it fell into the public domain there. As a non-US film still in copyright in its country of origin, its US copyright was automatically restored in 1996, with a term of 95 years from release, that will therefore expire at the end of 2028.


  • Law, Jonathan (1997). Cassell Companion to Cinema. London: Market House Books Limited. ISBN 0-304-34938-0.
  • Magill, Frank (1980). Magill's Survey of Cinema. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Salem Press, Inc. ISBN 0-89356-225-4.
  • Korda, Michael (1980). Charmed Lives: The Fabulous World of the Korda Brothers. London: Allen Lane. ISBN 0-7139-1318-5.
  • Walker, Greg (2003). The Private Life of Henry VIII: A British Film Guide. London: I. B. Tauris. ISBN 1860649092.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b "British Film Losses". The Barrier Miner. Broken Hill, New South Wales. 8 February 1936. p. 3. Retrieved 4 August 2012 – via National Library of Australia.
  2. ^ a b Lipscomb, Suzannah. "Henry VIII: a King Caught on Camera". History Today. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  3. ^ "Box Office Successes of 1933". The West Australian. Perth. 13 April 1934. p. 3. Retrieved 9 July 2012 – via National Library of Australia.
  4. ^ Popular Filmgoing in 1930s Britain: A Choice of Pleasures, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2000, pp. 77–78
  5. ^ D. W. (25 November 1934). "TAKING A LOOK AT THE RECORD". New York Times. ProQuest 101193306.
  6. ^ "Best Film Performance Last Year". The Examiner. Launceston, Tasmania: National Library of Australia. 9 July 1937. p. 8. Retrieved 4 March 2013.
  7. ^ a b Walker, Greg (9 September 2001). "The Private Life of Henry VII". History Today. Retrieved 10 April 2021.
  8. ^ a b c d e Walker 2003, p. 54-55.
  9. ^ Walker 2003, p. 55.
  10. ^ a b c Walker 2003, p. 54.
  11. ^ Walker 2003, p. 54-56.
  12. ^ Walker 2003, p. 56.
  13. ^ a b Walker 2003, p. 57.
  14. ^ Walker 2003, p. 55-56.
  15. ^ Walker 2003, p. 56-57.
  16. ^ Walker 2003, p. 29-30.
  17. ^ a b c d Walker 2003, p. 31.
  18. ^ a b c Walker 2003, p. 30.
  19. ^ Walker 2003, p. 30-31.
  20. ^ Walker 2003, p. 89.
  21. ^ a b Walker 2003, p. 90.
  22. ^ a b Walker 2003, p. 91.
  23. ^ a b c d Walker 2003, p. 93.
  24. ^ a b Walker 2003, p. 94.
  25. ^ a b Walker 2003, p. 95.
  26. ^ "Painting of Henry VIII Holding a Turkey Leg – Debunking Mandela Effects".
  27. ^ "The Private Life of Henry VIII". 30 August 2010.
  28. ^ Body in Medical Culture, The. SUNY Press. ISBN 9781438425962 – via Google Books.
  29. ^ Richards, Jeffrey (10 February 1984). The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain. I.B. Tauris. ISBN 9781848851221 – via Google Books.
  30. ^ "The Private Life of Henry VIII". History Today.
  31. ^ Weir, Alison (18 April 2011). Henry VIII: King and Court. Random House. ISBN 9781446449233 – via Google Books.
  32. ^ US Copyright Catalogue of Copyright Entries, 1933, Volume 6, No. 8, page 361 – 3 November 1933, #7757.

External linksEdit