The last film I reviewed, Kohinoor, was part swashbuckler, part romance and part political intrigue. So is Prince of Foxes (though this has none of the comedy that makes Kohinoor such an endearing film). Interestingly, though, that isn’t the only thing common between these two films. They also have one scene in common. It’s a fairly critical scene in the film, where the hero has been imprisoned and is dragged forward, chained and beaten, in an assembly presided over by the villain – who sentences the hero to death. A bystander, one with ample reason to resent the hero, steps forward and disputes the death sentence – simply because it’ll bring the hero’s life to a blessed, quick end. Why not prolong his agony instead? This bystander proposes a gruesome way to do it (the same way in both Kohinoor and Prince of Foxes), and offers to do it. With the exact same results in both films.
I did not supply the details in Kohinoor, and I won’t let the cat out of the bag here. Suffice to say: if you like swashbuckling historicals, this is one Hollywood film you should put on your list.
Starring one of the master swashbucklers of Hollywood, the inimitable Tyrone Power, Prince of Foxes is set in the turbulent Italy of 1500 AD. This is the time of the corrupt, ruthless and power-hungry Borgia family.
The story begins on the 18th of August, 1500, in a cathedral in Rome, at the funeral of Lucrezia Borgia’s husband. Lucrezia is more interested in ogling the priests than in mourning… and her brother Cesare Borgia (Orson Welles), though he admonishes Lucrezia in a sarcastic tone, seems to have had something to do with the fact that Lucrezia’s husband was poisoned.
The ceremony over, Cesare Borgia retreats into a chamber with his noblemen and goes back to planning how to win power over all of Italy. Currently, though he holds Rome and a good bit of Tuscany, he needs to head north – and blocking the way is Ferrara. The Duchy of Ferrara is under Ercole d’Este, whose son Alfonso is an inventor, who spends a good deal of his time designing cannons.
If a marital alliance could be arranged between Lucrezia Borgia – now available, thank the devil – and Alfonso d’Este, it would serve Cesare Borgia’s purpose.
Now Cesare Borgia needs a dependable, cunning man, one who can think on his feet, and is a master both of political intrigue and swordsmanship, not to mention seduction – a ‘prince of foxes’ – who can ensure that Cesare Borgia is able to get his hands on Ferrara (“we will walk into Ferrara through a bedroom”, as he puts it). Borgia’s men look enthusiastic, each of them hoping he will pick them for the mission. This is a prestigious assignment; the man who is picked will end up with at least a weighty title and a good sum of money.
To the disappointment of all the others, Cesare Borgia chooses Captain Andrea Orsini (Tyrone Power). Lord Orsini is quite a favourite of Cesare Borgia’s and has carried out similar missions for him on previous occasions. He is also (and this is known to Cesare Borgia) the lover of Cesare’s cousin, Angela (Marina Berti). Angela is miffed when she discovers that Orsini is being sent off on yet another mission.
En route to Ferrara, Orsini goes to Venice. We learn that besides being a soldier and a political wheeler-dealer, Orsini is also a fairly accomplished painter. In Venice, he takes some of his paintings to an art dealer he knows.
While Orsini and the dealer are negotiating the price of one of Orsini’s landscapes, there is an interruption – and a very welcome one at that:
This is Camilla Verano (Wanda Hendrix). Orsini is immediately entranced by her, and indulges in a (for him) harmless bit of flirting. He is, therefore, a little taken aback when Camilla refers to her husband. The husband is not with Camilla at the moment, but she is obviously a devoted wife.
His work in Venice over, Orsini decides to enjoy the female company available in the city – a ‘lady of the night’ with whom he goes out in a gondola. When they’re walking along beside the canal, Orsini is attacked by someone who comes hurtling out of a dark alley.
Orsini manages to overpower his would-be assassin and takes him captive. This man is Belli (Everett Sloane), and it does not take Orsini long to get the truth out of Belli.
It seems that the Duke of Ferrara already knows of Orsini’s mission to Ferrara. The Duke has no intention of entertaining any marital alliance between his son and Lucrezia Borgia (Lucrezia’s soiled reputation is too well-known). Belli has been hired by the Duke to get rid of Orsini before he can even set foot in Ferrara.
Orsini realises that Belli is a cunning character – and one whom Orsini’s artistic eye immediately finds fascinating: the man’s crooked, scarred face and his long, beautiful hands will be a delight to paint. Orsini therefore offers Belli a choice: either his (Belli’s) life, or the chance to enter Orsini’s service. It doesn’t take Belli long to take a decision. He will become Orsini’s servant.
The pair leaves for Ferrara. On the way, while they’re being rowed down a canal through the countryside near Crispino, they pass an old farmhouse. Orsini expresses an interest in it, and is told by the boatman that the house belongs to the widow Mona Zoppo. The boatman goes on to explain that Mona Zoppo and her husband had only one child, a very intelligent son. The Zoppos saved every penny and sent their son to Padua to study.
Six years back, the son disappeared – became a bandit – and has not been heard of since.
Orsini orders the boatman to stop the boat in Crispino for the night.
… and Mona Zoppo (Katina Paxinou) nearly faints when her son pays her a surprise visit that night.
After all these years! It turns out that Andrea Zoppo, after his stint as a bandit, decided that urban Italy was a better place to make money than the countryside. The ‘Lord’ is a title he’s assumed to pass himself off as something better than a peasant; and the ‘Orsini’ is something he’s borrowed from a dead branch of the famed Orsini family.
Andrea tells his mother what a long way he’s come, and how high he’s risen in the service of Cesare Borgia.
He’s astonished and bewildered when his mother does not seem to share his enthusiasm. For her, Andrea’s relentless ambition, regardless of ethics or morality, are contemptible. For Andrea, her attitude is puzzling: doesn’t she want to be rich?
Neither of them knows that someone is listening in on the entire conversation. Belli, an eager eavesdropper, now knows Andrea’s secret.
From Crispino, Andrea journeys on to Ferrara. The Duke of Ferrara throws a fit when he realises that Belli, far from murdering Orsini, has become his servant – and he makes it quite clear that he will not have Lucrezia Borgia for a daughter-in-law. No. Orsini can take his unwelcome petition back to Cesare Borgia.
…but his son, the prospective bridegroom, Alfonso (James Carney) when he’s cornered by Andrea and shown a portrait of Lucrezia’s, is of a different mind. Lucrezia shows off to great advantage, and the fat dowry Cesare Borgia offers is a good incentive. Andrea takes his time telling Alfonso all about the advantages of allying with the Borgias – the wealth, the power, the security that will be Ferrara’s – and Alfonso is quick to sign the papers.
Later, back in Rome, the wedding of Lucrezia and Alfonso is being celebrated, when Andrea sees a familiar face: the beautiful Camilla Verano. This time, however, she’s come with her husband. And that is what gives Andrea a shock: Count Marc Antonio Verano (Felix Aylmer), the ruler of Citta del Monte and Camilla’s husband, is old enough to be her grandfather, not just her father. What on earth is a beauty like Camilla doing, married to this old man?
Cesare Borgia soon draws Andrea aside, and explains to him the next plan that Andrea has to execute for the Borgia expansion in Italy. This time, the mission is to get hold of Citta del Monte. Citta del Monte occupies an important strategic location; to go north, Cesare Borgia’s armies will necessarily have to go through Citta del Monte. Right now, this is an independent state, and one virtually impossible to besiege because of its geographic location, atop a mountain.
Cesare Borgia’s plan is to have Andrea Orsini attack Citta del Monte from the inside: surely the lovely Camilla will not be averse to his charms?
So Cesare Borgia engineers a conversation with Count Verano and proposes the exchange of ambassadors – with the Borgias’ ambassador being (who else?) Andrea Orsini.
… Andrea, of course, from the start of his stint in Citta del Monte, begins to work his undeniable magic on Camilla. But to what effect? One night, her maid comes to fetch Andrea to the chapel, where Camilla wants to meet him.
She has only one thing to tell him: that she has asked to meet him so that she can give him a warning. If any harm comes to her husband through Andrea Orsini, she will hate him until her death.
Can Andrea Orsini conquer Camilla? Citta del Monte? Do we even want him to? He isn’t exactly one’s idea of a hero, is he? A philanderer, an ex-bandit, a man with no scruples whatsoever? Can he, perhaps, change? Or will Cesare Borgia and his far-reaching influence continue to blind Andrea Zoppo/Orsini to faith and virtue and ethics?
What I liked about this film:
The settings. Prince of Foxes was shot completely in Italy (in fact, even some of the indoor scenes were shot on location in Italian palaces, including one that Cesare Borgia occupied). It’s a panorama of fantastic murals, vast domed ceilings, heavily carved furniture, and beautiful mosaic floors – and the outdoors are, of course, everything from the canals of Venice to the mountains, with their cypresses and castles. The only regret is that it wasn’t shot in colour. (The possible reasons put forward for that seem to range from somewhat unlikely ones like there being no colour cameras in Italy when the crew arrived for filming, to the much more likely one that there was a shortage of funds).
Orson Welles. Tyrone Power is, of course, the star of the film and in his element as the charming Orsini. But Orson Welles as the brutal, scheming Cesare Borgia, is superb.
What I didn’t like:
Wanda Hendrix as Camilla Verano. The role isn’t too well-written; she’s a colourless sort, and except for that one interesting scene in the chapel when she tells Andrea Orsini off for setting his sights on Citta del Monte (and her!), she has little to do than look saintly and pretty. Which Wanda Hendrix does do – but I kept thinking: how much better Deborah Kerr would’ve been in this role. Or actually, even Marina Berti (who acted as Angela Borgia, you’d recall). Either of them, it seemed to me, would’ve brought more character to that character.
On the whole, though, a very good swashbuckler, with just the right blend of romance, action, and sentiment to keep you enthralled. Worth a watch!
Little bit of trivia:
Prince of Foxes is based on a novel by Samuel Shellabarger, who was well-known both as a scholar and as a writer of historical novels. Another of his books, Captain from Castile, was made into a Tyrone Power film of the same name.