Cinematic Portrayals of King John

In his essay Good King John, published in the February issue of History Today, Graham E. Seel comments on historical interpretations of King John:

Since his own day.... it has been commonplace to portray John as fatally flawed. 'Foul as it is, Hell itself is defouled by the foulness of John', concluded the chronicler Matthew Paris (c. 1200-59). John was literally diabolical.

If that account represents the medieval view, in the past century John has been given a less predictable treatment, at least in the hands of filmmakers and television producers. Below are a handful of clips taken from the many screen depictions of the King. Some present him as the malevolent brute Paris hints at above; others treat him as a buffoon. Almost none of them present him as the misunderstood victim that Seel's essay suggests.

Firstly, here's a remarkable clip of a performance by the Victorian actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree, from a short film made in 1899 depicting King John's death. The production is believed to be based closely on Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King John:

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From that powerful performance, we move on to the Mel Brooks spoof Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1994) in which Richard Lewis plays the King as a befuddled, bemusing yet wrathful tyrant:

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If that depiction seemed irreverent, the next clip will make it look majestic. Maid Marian and her Merry Men was a BBC television series from the late 1980s in which, as the title suggests, the familiar Robin Hood story was given a gender-based twist. The clip below is the first episode of the series; skip to 12m50s in for a glimpse of King John.

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Perhaps one of the best remembered on-screen depictions of John was in Disney's anthropomorphic Robin Hood (1973), where he appears as a taxation-obsessed lion (voiced by none other than Peter Ustinov) as shown here:

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Finally, this recent example returns John to the diabolical villain of old. The film is Robin Hood (2010), directed with characteristic style by Ridley Scott, and Oscar Isaac is on good form in this clip, in which the divinely-mandated King refuses to sign the Charter of the Forest and declares Robin an outlaw:

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You can read Good King John, Graham E. Seel's essay, in the February issue of History Today.


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