DVD Andrew Nickolds
Director William K Howard, 1937, Screenbound 85 minutes
Described at the time by Graham Greene as capturing ‘the very spirit of an English public schoolmistress’s vision of history’, Fire Over England can also be seen as a wake-up call to ‘gentlemen in England now abed’ in the face of the growing Nazi menace. Here the threat is from Spain, its Armada about to be launched against Queen Elizabeth’s navy while her court seethes with spies and intrigue. Not to say romance in the shape of pert lady-inwaiting Cynthia (Vivien Leigh) who entertains the smitten Michael Ingolby (Laurence Olivier), their stolen embraces often improbably conducted in full view of the jealous and sour-faced Elizabeth (Flora Robson) herself.
Ingolby is best described as ‘dashing’ as that’s what he does throughout, between England and Spain where, while recovering from a broken arm sustained in a naval battle, he finds both comfort in the arms of the aristocratic Elena (Tamara Desni) and discomfort, as his father is burnt to death at the hands of the Inquisition. Bent on revenge, Ingolby returns to offer Elizabeth his services and is despatched – to Cynthia’s chagrin – back to Spain in the bearded guise of the traitor Hillary Vane (James Mason), who has leapt to his death rather than reveal the name of his pro-spanish coconspirators.
Quickly rumbled by King Philip of Spain (Raymond Massey, with more than a touch of the Gestapo about him) Ingolby is arrested but makes a swashbuckling escape helped by Elena’s husband (Robert Newton) petrified that her abetting a spy will be discovered. Returning to Tilbury in time to hear the Queen make her ‘I have the body of a weak and feeble woman’ address to the troops, Ingolby is promptly commanded to take charge of the fire ships which are launched against the Armada moored off Calais, causing it to scatter in disarray. The rest is history, or at least a version of history in which the Virgin Queen is seen, not for the first or last time, as poignantly thwarted in love.
In reality, the fire ship attack happened a good two weeks before the Tilbury speech – casting doubt on its being Elizabeth’s personal brainwave. But after all Fire Over England was released in a coronation year and the tone of the film was set from the opening titles, describing how the might of Spain ‘challenged the free people of a little island – England’.
Producer Alexander Korda was always happy to help Winston Churchill – currently on the political sidelines but a minatory presence advocating greater rearmament – in his patriotic endeavours by making subtext-heavy films from Things To Come to The Four
Feathers and Lady Hamilton (known in the US as That Hamilton Woman).
This also starred Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, by then a glamorous couple of Burton-and-taylor proportions and who also (as with Cleopatra) fell for each other on the set of Fire Over England. It gives the onscreen romance, not to mention Flora Robson’s ambiguous disapproval, an extra dimension which is welcome in view of the sonorous quality of much of the dialogue by the screenwriter and novelist Clemence Dane (‘You’ve made me your household pet but you burned my father,’ says Ingolby at one point, breaking off from singing a Spanish love song on the guitar).
Luckily the quality of the production and the technical staff makes up for these shortcomings: it was filmed at Korda’s Denham Studios, the Russian designer Lazare Meerson worked on the opulent sets, and the score was an early work by Richard Addinsell. The film was shot by James Wong Howe, whose career began with Cecil B Demille in the 1920s and who later added black-and-white lustre to Sweet Smell of Success and the Paul Newman western Hud for which he won an Oscar. Fire Over England was well directed by William K Howard, who could move from an intimate moment with the Queen and a courtier with gout to the scene at Tilbury involving thousands of (non-cgi) extras without breaking step. To order for £10.99 including UK p&p ring 0844 3760 009, and quote The Oldie and offer code 169171.
Flora Robson in Fire Over England