THE DEVIL AND THE PRINCE
Below is the transcript of my recent talk about Prince of Foxes, a 1949, b&w blockbuster featuring Orson Welles as Cesare Borgia. The film was screened as part of the Forum Cinema's 2017 Wide Skies Film Festival and, because it is set at roughly the same time as Thomas' adventures, the organisers very kindly asked me to give an introductory talk explaining the film's significance, as well as a reading from The Devil's Pearl, the next instalment of The Devilstone Chronicles...
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, thank you all so much for coming, and let me begin this brief introduction to Prince of Foxes by reading an extract from one of the original reviews of this classic movie. The film went on general release on the 23rd of Dec 1949 and this review was published by the New York Times the following day. It was written by the wonderfully named BOSLEY CROWTHER who, with a name like that could only be a film critic! Anyway here’s what he wrote…
“A picture of stately magnificence, so far as settings and costumes are concerned, and of unbounded generosity in bringing the Italian Renaissance to popular view has been made from Samuel Shellabarger's "Prince of Foxes". Persons who want to look at palaces, frescoes, Venetian canals, walled hill towns, brocaded costumes and banquet tables will find a-plenty here.
For Twentieth Century-Fox has filmed this picture entirely in Italy and has spared no expense in obtaining the best in scenery which that country affords. The hill town of San Gimignano, Florence, Terrachini, Rome and the Republic of San Marino were all locations for the shooting of its scenes. Beautiful ducal palaces, with their lavishly frescoed walls and exquisite formal gardens, were sweepingly used as backgrounds. Likewise, rich Renaissance trappings and clothing of elegant style were placed upon hundreds of actors. And all were superbly photographed.
Like Mr. Shellabarger's novel, the film tells of a young adventurer who dares to defy Cesare Borgia and is almost destroyed for his choice. Sent by the Great Italian tyrant to a peaceful and prosperous hill town, there to conquer the young wife of an old duke and thus win the town, this rascal, this prince of foxes, responds to the goodness of his host and instead of stealing the young wife allies himself with the old duke. Naturally, Cesare is furious …”
I’ll leave it there so as not to give too much of the plot away and instead move on to the man who wrote the historical novel on which the film is based:
Samuel Shellabarger was a professor of English Literature at Princeton University during the 1920s and 1930s. By day he wrote learned academic papers but he also moonlighted as an author of popular fiction. He wrote a number of historical romances and contemporary murder mysteries under a variety of pseudonyms, as he feared that his reputation as a serious academic would be damaged by his association with such lowbrow subjects, but by the mid-1940s his fiction titles had become so successful he published a pair of historical adventure stories under his own name.
The titles of these books were Captain From Castile, published in 1945, and POF, published in 1947. Both are set in the early years of the 16th Century but they’re not related: Captain From Castile tells the story of the Spanish Conquistadors in Mexico whilst POF features the rise of Cesare Borgia in Renaissance Italy. The books were instant bestsellers and quickly made into movies by 20th Century Fox who cast the Anglo-American star Tyrone Power as the lead in both films.
Power, who’d scored a massive pre-war hit playing the Mexican Robin Hood Zorro, was Fox’s ‘go-to-action-hero’ for costume dramas such as this, in the same way that Errol Flynn played similar roles for Warner Bros. Interestingly Basil Rathbone, who fenced with Flynn in the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood and with Power in the 1940 Mark of Zorro, always maintained Power was the better swordsman who could fence Flynn into a cocked hat! Power also had a much better war record than Flynn. Though Flynn was not the Nazi spy that some muck-racking biographers have claimed, the years of high living were beginning to catch up with the Tasmanian actor and Flynn was rejected for military service on health grounds. Power on the other hand, served with distinction as a pilot in the US Marine Corp before returning to Hollywood to pick up the threads of his film career.
Work on POF began in 1948, just three years after the war had ended, and the producers made the somewhat strange decision to shoot the entire film on location in war-torn Italy. On paper, this looked like a good idea: POF is set in 1500 and apart from being able to use the genuine renaissance buildings mentioned in the novel as backdrops, the impoverished Italian film technicians and other production staff could be hired for a pittance just after the war.
However transferring the entire production to Italy created its own problems, the most serious of which was that the film couldn’t be in colour. After six years of war most of Italy’s medieval buildings were looking very tired and dilapidated and the only way to disguise their battle-scars quickly and cheaply, was to shoot in Black & White. This is what the director Henry King said about location filming in post-war Italy:
“The moment we started working over there, we knew we were wrong. The picture did well, made money and all that, but at the same time a picture of that kind just screams for colour.”
Indeed, as we shall shortly see, the necessity of filming in BW prevents POF from being numbered among the memorable technicolour classics such as Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. That said, cinematographer Leon Shamroy did a fantastic job of bringing Renaissance Italy to the Silver Screen and he received one of his 18 Oscar nominations for this film. So when the hero Andrea Orsini, played by Power, floats dreamily along Venice’s Grand Canal it’s not painted scenery or back projection, it really is Venice, complete with Campanile, Doge’s Palace and Biblioteca. Art historians may complain that work on Venice’s famous library didn’t start until 30 years after POF is set but let’s not be too harsh. There was no CGI in 1949 to erase such anachronisms, and it would’ve been a bit too much to ask the Venetians to knock down their splendid library for the sake of historical accuracy!
On the other hand the magnificent castle of d’Este Dukes of Ferrara, which makes several appearances in the first half of the film, and Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, the city’s perfectly preserved medieval council chamber where many of the film’s interior scenes were shot, were both very much in existence in 1500. Similarly, the Cesta, San Marino’s breathtakingly beautiful mountain top fortress, makes an excellent stand in for the fictional Count Verano’s castle. So if the settings for the film score a good 9/10 for historical accuracy how much of the film’s plot is based on fact?
The shorter first part of the film is indeed based on real events. Here we see Cesare Borgia son of the infamous Pope Alexander VI, trying to arrange the marriage of his equally infamous sister Lucretia to Alphonse d’Este, heir to the powerful Duke of Ferrara. Though it has never been proved, then or now, it’s highly likely that Cesare murdered Lucretia’s previous husband so she would be free to make this dynastic marriage. Tyrone Power’s character is the agent sent to arrange this political marriage, and though Orsini is fictitious Lucretia did wed Alphonse and remained married to him until her death in 1519.
Incidentally POF depicts Alphonse as a true renaissance man, a prince more interested in the science of making cannons than their actual use in war, but in fact he was just as ruthless as the Borgias. When Alphonse learned that two of his brothers were plotting against him, he had them imprisoned in a dungeon underneath his feasting chamber so they could hear the carousing above whilst they suffered the agonies of hunger and thirst. Moreover, Alphonse kept his siblings thus incarcerated for DECADES. One brother died after 34 years in captivity and though the other was released after 50 years in prison he was left to roam the streets of Ferrara as a beggar, whereupon the citizens mocked him for his ragged, out of date clothes… but I digress.
The point of the Ferrara episode in POF is to demonstrate the ruthless ambition of Pope Alexander and his son Cesare, who really did dream of turning the whole of Italy into Borgia Empire. Now, as we all know, Italy was a patchwork of independent principalities and republics at this time but, with the exception of Venice, all these micro-states fell into three main power blocks: The Holy Roman Empire in the north, the Kingdom of Naples in the south and the Papal States, ruled by the pope himself, in the centre. Pope Alexander’s Machiavellian scheme was to add his smaller neighbours to the Papal States one by one, either by conquest or through strategic marriage, then make one of his sons emperor of all Italy.
At first Pope Alexander, who does not actually appear in POF, planned to make his oldest son Juan the ruler of Borgia Italy – Just as a point of interest the Spanish name Juan, is because the Borgias were originally a Spanish family but Alexander relocated to Rome when his uncle became pope Callixtus III. That was 30 years earlier, let’s get back to 1500 and Alexander’s own papacy.
Alexander made Juan Captain General of the papal armies whilst Cesare was sent into the church to ensure God remained on the side of the Borgias. Cesare was made a bishop at the age of 15 and a cardinal at 19 but when Juan was found dead in the mud of a Roman backstreet, Pope Alexander’s ambitions switched to Cesare. Some say that Cesare had his brother murdered, others insist that Juan Borgia died during a brawl in a brothel. Whatever the truth of the matter, Cesare immediately resigned his cardinalship, the first person ever to do so, to take over command of his father’s armies. He also adopted as his personal motto the famous phrase: A Caesar or Nothing.
Having swapped his cardinal’s hat for a steel helmet, Cesare set about building his Italian empire and it’s the wars that he fought to achieve this aim that form the background to the second, longer, part of POF. In this section of the film, the fictional dukedom of Citta del Monte represents all the different towns and cities Cesare Borgia besieged in his quest to make himself king of Italy. Without giving too much away, during his short but bloody career, Cesare really did conquer large chunks of Umbria and the Romagna, and he did lure his rivals to a feast then have them tortured in front of his guests. Yet Cesare’s conquests proved ephemeral and after his father’s death in 1503, his enemies united against him.
One of Cesare’s most powerful foes was the King of Spain, who planned to conquer Italy for himself, and it was a Spanish army who eventually defeated and captured ‘the Borgia Bull’. With his once handsome face now scarred by syphilis, in later life he wore a leather mask to hide his disfigurement, Cesare was sent to Spain in chains but he escaped and ended his days as a mercenary fighting for the King of Navarre but this happened five years after the events depicted in POF.
In this film Cesare is at the peak of his powers and he’s played by Orson Welles who was no stranger to Machiavellian intrigue himself.
Though he didn’t go as far as poisoning his rivals or besieging Bologna, Orson Welles made so many enemies in Hollywood during the 1930s, as well as arousing the ire of the US Tax Authorities, he was forced to spend much of his life after WWII in Europe.
Welles softened his self-imposed exile with the belief that the cultured Europeans would rush to support his plans to shoot a series of film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays but in this he was sadly mistaken. Post War Europe was bankrupt and Welles had to accept a variety of acting jobs in order to fund his Shakespearian projects. His appearance as Cesare Borgia in POF was one of these ‘mercenary’ roles and just as Alexander pulled a few strings to obtain a cardinalship for his son Cesare, so Welles insisted that his friend and colleague Everett Sloane was given the part of Belli the assassin in POF. One of the main reasons for this was that Welles had cast Sloane as the villainous Iago in his version of Othello which he’d begun filming early in 1949 on location in Morocco. Unfortunately filming had to stop after just a few weeks when Welles’ Italian backers ran out of cash.
With no prospect of Othello being completed Everett Sloane was keen to return to the United States so, to keep his Iago on this side of the Atlantic, Welles agreed to star in POF on the condition that Sloane was given the part of Belli the assassin. Welles also demanded extensive script rewrites to enhance his friend’s part, but it was all in vain. Though Sloane does appear in POF, and gives a wonderfully swivel-eyed, thigh slapping performance as the utterly amoral Belli, he walked out of Othello, and Welles never forgave him.
Whilst we’re on the subject of Othello, filming had yet to recommence in 1950 so Welles again agreed to star alongside Tyrone Power in another costume epic The Black Rose. This time, Welles’ condition of accepting the role was that his character’s coat by must be lined with mink, even though this expensive detail wouldn’t be seen on screen. Despite the cost, the producers agreed but at the end of filming, the coat mysteriously disappeared. It subsequently turned up in Othello with the fur lining displayed for all to see!
But let’s get back to POF, I haven’t yet mentioned the film’s female lead Wanda Hendrix who plays Power’s love interest Countess Camilla Verano.
We first meet Camilla in a Venetian artist’s studio where Andrea Orsini, played by Power falls instantly in love with her even though she’s the wife of the elderly Count of Verano. We also learn that Orsini is not free to marry Camilla because, to advance his own career, he’s just proposed to a cousin of the Borgias. This minor inconvenience notwithstanding, Cesare hopes to capitalise on Orsini’s infatuation with Camilla.
Ignoring his cousin’s objections, Cesare orders Orsini to murder the Count of Verano and wed the widowed Camilla so he can add Citta del Monte to his growing empire without fighting a costly war. Orsini agrees but of course things don’t go quite according to plan. In creating this romantic sub plot, which also appears in the book, SS and the film’s scriptwriter Milton Krims were clearly drawing parallels between the fictitious Camilla and the factual Lucretia Borgia and at times poor Wanda Hendrix must have felt similarly ill-used by her three husbands as her career was in turn made and destroyed by the men she married.
Shortly before she began filming POF, Wanda married Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated war hero. Murphy had won every combat award for valour the US Army could bestow and after the war he was invited to try his hand in Hollywood by no less a person than James Cagney.
The uneducated Murphy, who’d been brought up in the direst poverty, was, perhaps surprisingly, quite good as an actor and he enjoyed a moderately successful career playing the lead in dozens of westerns. Unfortunately he made no secret of the fact that he suffered from what we now call PTS Disorder. Like many veterans he became addicted to sleeping pills and even slept with a loaded gun under his pillow. On one occasion he threatened to shoot Wanda unless she give up her own acting career. Mercifully, though Wanda refused, Murphy did not carry out his threat and she set off for Europe to film POF.
This was her first major role after spending several years playing bit ut sadly her performance was panned by the critics and on her return to the US her marriage to Murphy quickly fell apart. They separated in 1950 and though Wanda remained fond of her husband, and spoke sympathetically of his mental problems, divorcing America’s most famous war hero did nothing to help her flagging film career.
In 1954 Wanda married the wealthy James Stack, brother of Untouchables star Robert Stack, and ironically retired from the big screen. She did continue to accept minor roles in popular TV series such as Wagon Train and Bewitched, where she played the wife of a toy manufacturer, but she left acting for good after divorcing Stack and marrying an Italian oil executive. Returning to Wanda’s critical mauling for her role as Camilla in POF, Mr BOSLEY COWTHER, the illustrious film reviewer of the New York Times whom I quoted earlier, said of the cast:
“Both Power and Sloane unquestionably look their parts and may definitely be counted as assets to the general attraction of this film, whilst Orson Welles' eager performance of Cesare Borgia, whom they called ‘The Bull’, is remarkably appropriate to that distinctive soubriquet. Less can be said for Wanda Hendrix, who plays the old duke's young wife. She is much too juvenile and sallow for such an essentially vibrant role…”
In my opinion this verdict is very harsh. Milton Krims’ script is definitely the weakest element of the film and the role of Camilla is especially underwritten. Miss Hendrix does the best she can with the material she’s been given but the fact that Krims was better known for writing westerns and spy thrillers is sometimes painfully obvious. Though poor Milton Krims is no Shakespeare, or even a Shellabarger, there’s still much to enjoy in this classic slice of Forties’ Hollywood so ladies and gentlemen if you would like to take your seats, lets enjoy Wanda Hendrix, Tyrone Power and Orson Welles in PRINCE OF FOXES…