Thursday, February 4, 2016

Quentin Durward: The Dying Days of Chivalry

Robert Taylor in the title role.
After Ivanhoe (1952) and Knights of the Round Table (1953), MGM was hoping the casting of Robert Taylor in a third medieval picture would once again generate big profits. Unfortunately, Quentin Durward (1955), which reteamed Taylor and director Richard Thorpe, failed to find an audience. That's puzzling for a movie that boasts colorful scenery, lively swordplay, and an affable cast. It may not be Ivanhoe, but Quentin Durward is an entertaining swashbuckler that deserved a better fate in '55 and should be more fondly remembered today.

Taylor plays the title character, a Scottish knight in 1465 who, by his own admission, was "born perhaps a few minutes too late." Quentin is an honorable, honest, valiant--and also poor--man. Alas, he lives during the "dying days of chivalry" when political intrigue and treachery dominate Europe.

This is not a painting, but one of the real castles used in the film.

Robert Morley as the French king.
His elderly uncle sends Quentin to France to arrange a marriage with the lovely and wealthy Isabelle, Countess of Marcroy. The Duke of Burgundy wants Isabelle (Kay Kendall) to marry Quentin's uncle, but the Countess refuses and seeks the protection of King Louis XI (Robert Morley). The King has his own plans for Isabelle's future and those plans naturally benefit Louis more than Isabelle. Meanwhile, Quentin gains King Louis' confidence and, of course, falls in love with the beautiful countess.

Veteran British actor George Cole.
While the castles and costumes may draw attention, the best swashbucklers rely on likable actors cast in well-written roles (e.g., The Adventures of Robin Hood, Scaramouche). That's good news for Quentin Durward, which provides Taylor with one of his best parts. He hits all the right notes as the valiant knight, but he also finds humor in the character (e.g., Quentin isn't shy about accepting money). Robert Morley softens King Louis' treacherous side by making him a royal rascal. And George Cole steals scenes aplenty as a gypsy who tries to rationalize his good deeds.

Kay Kendall--Grace Kelly was first
offered the part.
While Kay Kendall shows some spunk as Isabelle, the cool beauty lacks the sizzle that Elizabeth Taylor brought to Ivanhoe. That leads to the one significant flaw in Quentin Durward: the lack of a worthy villain. George Sanders was brilliant as the conflicted baddie in Ivanhoe. In his place, Quentin Durward offers a cardboard blackguard played by Duncan Lamont. I think Lamont could have played a worthy adversary, but his role is poorly-written and he's barely in the picture.

Taylor and Lamont do engage in one of my favorite swashbuckler duels. They swing on bell ropes over blazing flames as they lunge toward one another with their weapons. The fight ends too abruptly, but still ranks as one of the most original I've seen. (Click here to watch it on the Cafe's YouTube channel.)

In a 1954 Quentin Durward review, the venerable entertainment industry newspaper Variety wrote: "This lively film version of Walter Scott's Quentin Durward finds knighthood again in bloom with enough dash and costumer derring-do to make fans of swashbucklers happy." That's an accurate summary and, in my book, a pretty good endorsement for watching this forgotten favorite.

7 comments:

  1. The end days had arrived for that sort of film by '55. And...that name. Couldn't MGM at least prefaced it with "The Adventures of...."

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    1. A very good point on the title, Bill.

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  2. I've never even heard of this film! I'm not sure how much I like Robert Taylor in these types of films, but this one definitely deserves a look. Thanks!

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  3. I was also born a few minutes too late! I'm a big fan of this one, and the book as well. It's just the sort of thing that Phantom Empires is all about. Taylor is a really underestmated bad mamma-jamma, wot?

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    1. He was a lot more versatile than people give him credit for.

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  4. I've never heard of this film, either. I'd love to find it, as I know I'd love it. And I thought I had seen all the swashbucklers. Great article.

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  5. I could not resist watching the fight on the bell ropes scene that you shared in the link in your review, Rick. Yikes! As if the bell ropes and weapons weren't enough, the whole set is in flames! Awesome scene and another fabulous article, too.

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