Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Crossed Swords a/k/a The Prince and the Pauper (1977)

A shorter version of this review was first published at Viewpoints.com, where you can read hundreds more of my write-ups, mostly film-related, as well as my reviews of books, local Austin places, various types of junk food, and some damn fine ales.

1977's Crossed Swords, a/k/a The Prince and the Pauper, is a stellar adaptation of Mark Twain's novel, originally filmed 40 years earlier with Freddie Bartholomew in the title role, and Errol Flynn as Miles Hendon.This version was produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind, in the tradition of their Three Musketeers films, reuniting several key cast members from those movies: Oliver Reed (as Hendon), Charlton Heston (as King Henry VIII), and Raquel Welch (as Edith, Hendon's true love). Other key roles are played by George C. Scott, Rex Harrison, David Hemmings, Ernest Borgnine, and Harry Andrews. For the record, that makes four winners of the Academy Award for Best Actor (Heston, Harrison, Scott, and Borgnine).

The dual roles of Tom Canty and the Prince of Wales are portrayed by Mark Lester, best known for playing the title character in 1968's Oliver! While Lester isn't up to performance standards of his more esteemed castmates, he's not as bad as some critics suggested at the time.

In one of his last roles as a "sexy leading man," Reed is in top form as Miles Hendon, offering him an opportunity to play a character that Flynn, his idol, had played, and also do plenty of swashbuckling, brawling, and shouting, several things he at which he was quite adept. His comic timing is also excellent: when a villain attempts to stab him, he grabs the man's wrist, remarking "Your fingernails are filthy!" then head-butts the guy into unconsciousness.

Rex Harrison, in one of his last roles, is amusing as the Duke of Norfolk, who runs afoul of King Henry early in the picture. Ernest Borgnine plays Tom Canty's cruel and abusive father with an uneven cockney accent, but physically fits the role to a T.

Crossed Swords was directed by Richard Fleischer, a filmmaker whose output varied from groundbreaking work like 1959's Compulsion and 1968's The Boston Strangler to genre flicks like Soylent Green (1973), Mandingo (1975), and Amityville 3-D (1983). While someone like Richard Lester (who had worked for the Salkinds on the Musketeer films as well as Superman) might have bought a little more flash to the proceedings, Fleischer's direction is workmanlike, getting the job done with a minimum of artifice. There is a timeless quality to the film, which has aged very well despite not being a money-maker upon its initial release. No idea as to why the film was given a much gayer title for the US release. The Prince and the Pauper is not only a better title, it also describes the story a lot better.

The recent DVD release is a bare-bones affair, with no extras to speak of, but it does restore eight minutes of footage cut from the US release, and features a nice widescreen transfer.

Available on DVD from Lion's Gate Home Entertainment at The Oliver Reed Store.

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