[19 October 2012]
From the wilds of 1955 and freshly released on demand from Warner Archive come two costumed swashbucklers in Cinemascope and Eastmancolor, and both featuring the reliable George Sanders in supporting roles.
The lesser product is The King’s Thief, set in the England of Charles II (Sanders, all foppish and bewigged and be-toy-dogged, lacking only a pinch of snuff). Now that he’s returned to the throne after having defeated that tyrant Cromwell, the monarchy would be a fine institution if only the king weren’t hornswoggled by his most trusted duke (David Niven), a hiss-worthy scoundrel who keeps tricking the king into signing death warrants for his loyal subjects, the better to confiscate their wealth and fortify his own private army. Oh treason! Though to speak truly, loyalty and power seem liquid commodities in this scenario, almost random.
Enter a disenchanted ex-soldier-turned-thief (Edmund Purdom), who hooks up with a plucky orphan (Ann Blyth) to expose the duke. There’s lots of running back and forth, and riding on horses, and dueling with rapiers, and escaping from towers against handsome painted backdrops, and in the end it doesn’t mean much beyond its own color.
The Scarlet Coat is a horse of a different Eastmancolor, and often very lovely. The setting is the American Revolution, a strangely underused subject in Hollywood, and it tells the story of a dashing double-agent (Cornel Wilde) who exposes the treachery of Benedict Arnold (Robert Douglas). Along the way he makes friends with a plucky and beauteous miss (Anne Francis) who’s clearly having a sexual relationship with a real-life British officer, Major Andre (Michael Wilding), described in the trailer as “honored by his enemies.”
Also hanging around is a crotchety and suspicious doctor (Sanders) described as “despised by his friends”. He’s the only one intelligent enough to see through everyone else, and every time he speaks, he has a point. This is a sign of how Karl Tunberg’s screenplay aims for complexity on the subjects of loyalty and duplicity. Although there’s a supposedly happy ending, what with the Yankee rebels winning the war and everything, it ends like a rueful tragedy that honors a member of the enemy (not Arnold, who’s hardly in the picture) and truly regrets the personal damage of war.