A rousing swashbuckler, If I Were King contains one of Ronald Colman’s most engaging performances and an Oscar-nominated turn by Basil Rathbone in a change-of-pace part. The story of a rebellious scalawag who gets vaulted into the nobility and must quash a rebellion in 15th-century France looks and sounds great, thanks to a new 2K master and robust audio track. An excellent commentary sweetens the Blu-ray presentation of this entertaining historical classic. Recommended.
Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power get all the ink when it comes to movie swashbucklers, but no discussion of the genre can be complete without giving Ronald Colman his proper due. Though he didn't unsheath his sword very often, Colman made a big impression when he did, especially in the 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda and If I Were King, released the following year. As French poet François Villon, whose roguish exploits in 15th century Paris lead him unexpectedly into the court of King Louis XI (Basil Rathbone) and into battle against an army of Burgundian rebels, Colman files one of his jauntiest portrayals in director Frank Lloyd's lively, opulent adaptation of the oft-told tale.
Though based in reality, If I Were King is (almost) complete fiction, and writer Preston Sturges concocts a layered and engrossing plot peppered with his inimitable wit. As the movie opens, Paris is cut off from the rest of France and in danger of being overtaken by a legion of revolutionaries from Burgundy. No food or supplies can reach the starving, angry Parisians, one of whom is Villon, who believes King Louis XI is an ineffectual "nincompoop" who has betrayed his people and become paralyzed by the Burgundian threat. Called "the foulest example of laziness and loose living" by the priest who raised him, Villon and a band of cohorts rob the royal storehouse and - in true Robin Hood fashion - distribute the provisions to the hungry city residents.
One of their stops is a local tavern where an incognito King Louis hopes to discover the identity of a traitor. The king overhears Villon's rant about the current state of Parisian affairs and asks Villon if he could do any better if he were king. Villon's blunt retort: "A child of two could do better." Louis is offended, but when the traitor is exposed shortly thereafter and Villon kills him, the king is faced with a dilemma. Though Louis wants to punish Villon for his blasphemy, he also needs to reward him for his valor and patriotism. In a clever compromise, he exalts Villon to the role of Grand Constable, one of the highest positions in his court, and gives him a week to quell the Burgundian rebellion...after which he'll be executed.
If I Were King allows Colman the chance to play a dual role of sorts. During the film's early stages, he's the quintessential ruffian with a scraggly beard, oily hair, and a general unkempt appearance, but he cleans up quite nicely when he becomes a constable, adopting the debonair look of a regal aristocrat. The drastic change fools both his peasant friends and Katherine DeVaucelles (Frances Dee), the queen's beautiful lady in waiting who had a significant chance encounter with Villon prior to his promotion. Romance is a de rigueur element of every swashbuckling film and the burgeoning relationship of Katherine and Villon checks that box.
Aside from the typical themes of bravery, sacrifice, nobility, and patriotism, there's not a lot depth to If I Were King, but the eye-filling spectacle, brisk pacing, lyrical script, and excellent performances make Lloyd's film a captivating bit of escapism. The attention to period detail, sumptuous sets, and lavish costumes (designed by wardrobe doyenne Edith Head) lend the movie an opulent aura and the rousing climactic battle sequence featuring hundreds of extras is a marvel of choreographic precision. Despite winning two Best Director Oscars (for 1928's The Divine Lady and 1933's Cavalcade), Lloyd - whose most famous film is arguably the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty - is largely forgotten today, but hopefully the reissue of movies like If I Were King will garner him renewed respect and reverence.
Colman's irresistible charm also propels the film and his mellifluous voice is music to the ears. No one recites poetry or delivers sardonic quips, inspiring speeches, or rueful remarks with more elegance and grace, and it's a pleasure to watch him navigate the narrative's tricky terrain. Dee, whose beauty always overshadowed her talent, infuses her largely ornamental role with deft nuances, but it's Rathbone who really steals the show as the colorful, crafty, and cantankerous Louis. Almost unrecognizable at first, Rathbone, who specialized in playing dapper, sneering villains before his 15-film tenure portraying iconic sleuth Sherlock Holmes, looks disheveled and raggedy and adopts a high-pitched, whiny voice punctuated by screechy cackles. It's a marvelous change-of-pace performance that justly earned the distinguished actor his second and final Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
If I Were King defines Golden Age moviemaking. Other swashbucklers may have more swagger or exude more style and splendor, but few can eclipse the ebullience, wit, and craftsmanship of this impressive production. If you're in the mood for a bit of history, a touch of romance, a plethora of bon mots, and some sword fights and skullduggery, this is your ticket.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
If I Were King arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand new 2K master revitalizes If I Were King, and while the print is far from pristine, the picture looks vibrant and crisp most of the time. Some faint vertical lines at the edge of the screen and plenty of wear and tear mar the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer during its early stages, but the image quality improves as the movie progresses. Though the picture looks a tad washed out, the ornate adornments of the lavish costumes and sets are quite vivid. Rich blacks and nicely varied grays combine with slightly hot whites to capture all the period detail, while good shadow delineation preserves clarity during the dungeon scenes. Grain is evident and heightens the film's historical feel, but it never overwhelms the picture or dulls the impact of Theodor Sparkuhl's cinematography, which features wonderfully sharp close-ups that showcase Colman's scraggly beard and greasy hair during the initial sequences, Rathbone's age makeup, and Dee's breathtaking beauty. Though far from a stunner, this is a very pleasing transfer that revitalizes this 85-year-old movie.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track outputs clear, well-modulated sound that’s free of any age-related hiss, pops, and crackle. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Richard Hagerman’s spirited. Oscar-nominated music score without any distortion, and all the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend. (Colman’s supreme diction ensures we hear every word he utters!) Sonic accents like the cacophonous clanking of swords during the climactic battle scene and clanging church bells are distinct and subtleties come through cleanly. Despite its vintage nature, this track delivers when necessary and thrusts us into the action.
A couple of supplements enhance the disc.
Audio Commentary - Film historian Julie Kirgo sits down for an engaging and informative commentary that reflects her enthusiasm for this classic film. Kirgo relates the tale to its real-life origins, provides details about medieval poet François Villon, and praises the voice and talent of Ronald Colman. She also cites comparisons to The Adventures of Robin Hood (released the same year) and spends a great deal of time talking about writer Preston Sturges and his witty script.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - In addition to the film’s original preview, a few trailers for other KLSC releases are included.
Spirited direction by Frank Lloyd, a sparkling Preston Sturges script, and the priceless duo of Ronald Colman and Basil Rathbone make If I Were King a very entertaining historical classic. A new 2K master yields a high-quality - but not perfect - transfer that rejuvenates this action-packed, whimsical, and romantic movie that deserves to be rediscovered. Solid audio and a fine commentary track also enhance Kino's Blu-ray presentation. Recommended.