Sprawling epics were all the rage in the 1950s, with fantastical biblical yarns and timeless tales of undefeatable conquerors popping up in theaters near and far, usually presented to eager audiences via the modern miracle of of CinemaScope and stereo sound. And yet, long after American filmgoers had had their fill of wildly inaccurate and often preposterous cinematic blockbusters which damn near bankrupted Hollywood’s biggest studios, the Brits decided it was their turn to rewrite history and produce a large-scale saga which people would avoid in droves. Thus, Alfred the Great ‒ the UK’s 1969 throwback to the great epics of the ’50s ‒ was born into a small straw manger.
(Or was that a character from another epic? It’s hard to keep track sometimes.)
Here, a half-comatose David Hemmings, already on the downward slope from the wave his 1966 starring role in Blow-Up caused, stars as the King of the Anglo-Saxons himself, who ‒ in this reality ‒ is a simple man destined for priesthood when his brother, King Æthelred of Wessex (Alan Dobie), summons him to help thwart off invading Vikings. When his noble sibling kicks the bucket sometime after, Alfred reluctantly takes the throne and sets about establishing himself as a great leader. His first decision? He lets Viking leader Guthrum (Michael York, the real star of the movie) kidnap his Mercian bride (Prunella Ransome) as a gesture of good faith. Talk about someone who understand the art of the deal!
And that is just the first step Alfred the Not-Quite-as-Great-as-History-Books-Previously-Stated makes as he attempts to unite the three estates of the realm ‒ clergy, nobles, and peons ‒ in order to create a better country for all. Or something like that. Honestly, this movie is such a mess, it’s hard to say what director Clive Donner (who had previously brought us What’s New, Pussycat before retiring to mostly television work after this) and his team of writers (one of whom was Cape Fear screenwriter James R. Webb) were trying to do. Apparently, the filmmakers’ efforts to reach the growing late ’60s counterculture via filmic parables to long-deceased royalty included doing the same sort of drugs the kids were doing, which is the only explanation I can come up with.
Among the embarrassed co-stars are Colin Blakely, a young Ian McKellen (yes, that one!), Peter Vaughan, Julian Glover, and ‒ perhaps most notably ‒ Vivien Merchant, whose scripted dialogue was so horrendous, she instead opted to ne’er say a single word on-screen. And when you stop to consider the sort of dialogue which made it into Alfred the Great‘s final cut, well, let’s just say I have an entirely different adjective in mind that would best describe this one. In fact, the box office flop was never even given a home video release in the US, which makes this low-key Warner Archive Collection DVD-R (presented in 16×9 widescreen with a bonus trailer) far greater than poor ol’ dear Alfred himself.