After watching a series of grim, minimalist “art movies” by the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, and having a sudden craving, not for the social realism of the “Pre-Code” Hollywood of the early 1930s, but for a classic Hollywood costume drama of the 1940s or 1950s, I stumbled upon a film called “Prince of Foxes.” It’s on YouTube in full. Based on a historical novel by a long-forgotten writer named Samuel Shellabarger, it was directed by the American director Henry King, filmed entirely on location in Italy, and stars Tyrone Power as a Renaissance mercenary, or “condottieri,” in the service of the infamous Caesar Borgia. Consuming Prince of Foxes after Tony Manero and Post Mortem was a bit like going to a Greek diner an ordering a “cheeseburger deluxe” after living on brown rice and vegetables for a month. As delicious as the romanticized view of Italian history, which reflects New Deal America at its height, and the straightforward plot were, like greasy french fries covered in ketchup, I’m beginning to find that my tastes are getting a little too good for classic “Code” Hollywood. Something was missing. I wanted a tragic view of history and a tough-minded education in power politics. I got a happy ending that felt a little too much like a cop out. Nevertheless, Prince of Foxes is one one of the most illuminating American costume dramas I’ve ever seen, partly because of the on location shots in the tiny Italian city state of San Marino, and the polished cinematography, but mainly because of one man, Orson Welles.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such a perfect mixture of good filmmaking and bad filmmaking as Prince of Foxes. Welles, who plays Caesar Borgia – if you’ve read Machiavelli’s Prince you know him as a kind of Renaissance Otto von Bismarck, as one of the first practitioners of “realpolitik” – gives Henry King’s movie a depth it probably shouldn’t have. It’s more than just the fact that Welles was a charismatic actor, although he’s certainly that and more. Its that his tragic biography as one of the great artists of American civilization who was stymied, not only by powerful enemies like William Randolph Hearst, but by Hollywood’s shallow commercialism, gives him an aura that contrasts with the shallow commercial and insipid optimism of the film as a whole. The plot revolves around Borgia’s attempt to united Italy and the diplomatic mission of Andrea Orsini, Tyrone Power, a soldier of humble birth who dabbles in painting passing himself off as a member of an old aristocratic family, to the Castel del Monte in Abruzza. Citta del Monte, as it’s called in the film, is a paragon of republican, republican with a small r, virtue. While Borgia believes that might makes right, and the ends justify the means, the elderly Count Marc Antonio Verano, the ruler of Citta del Monte, believes in liberty, freedom, and self-governance, wants no part of Caesar Borgia’s united Italy. Borgia, therefore, has assigned Orsini, a clever and unscrupulous mercenary, to get into Citta del Monte on a mission of good will, assassinate Verano, and make it look like an accident.
Verano, who’s played by the sixty year old British actor Felix Aylmer, also has a much younger wife, Camilla Verano, who’s played by the twenty-one-year-old Wanda Hendrix. Would you believe that Andrea Orsini and Camilla Verano “meet cute” on the way to Citta del Monte? That Orsini initially has no idea that she’s anything more than a fan of his painting? That she’s deeply respectful of her elderly husband’s democratic ideals? That once inside Citta del Monte, Orsini falls so in love with “Madonna” Camilla that he can’t go through with the plot to assassinate her husband? That he becomes a turncoat, organizes the resistance to Borgia’s invasion and that Count Verano is conveniently killed outside the city walls to get him out of the way so that the young couple can get married? That Camilla is a feisty presence herself who wants to resist the Borgias? That Orsini leads a valiant resistance that inevitably fails because the brave citizens of Citta del Monte are outnumbered? That Orsini nobly surrenders himself to an almost certain death by slow torture in order to save “Madonna” Camilla and Citta del Monte? That things look really bad for awhile until Mario Belli, Orsini’s wily comic sidekick played by Everett Sloane, manages to bluff Caesar Borgia, who turns conveniently stupid, into letting him have custody of the prisoner, and it’s a clever ruse which lets Orsini escape? That Borgia, as wicked as he is, has an even more brutal henchman who locks Camilla up in a dungeon when she tries to follow her now lover out of the city and is rescued by a daring sneak attack by Orsini, Belli, and the now aroused citizens of Citta del Monte?
Of course you would. Prince of Foxes is the one hundredth remake of the kind of romance Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland perfected a decade earlier in Michael Curtiz’s great film Robin Hood, but which by 1949 had become stale and formulaic. You can guess every plot twist twenty minutes before it happens, and yet it doesn’t detract from the entertainment, mainly, once again, because of the presence of Orson Welles. In the climatic scene where Caesar Borgia tries to turn Camilla Verano against Andrea Orsini by revealing his humble background, Welles, who was all of thirty four years old in 1949, talks to Power — who was a year older at thirty five — and Wanda Hendrix like a sadistic, but amused father toying his naughty children. The fact that the naughty children get the upper-hand and that you know they will is what makes the film so illuminating. Hendrix, who’s by far the worst, and yet best, thing about Prince of Foxes is ludicrously miscast as a Renaissance Italian. It’s not just the American accent, but her whole presence. It all comes off a bit like Gidget Gets all Serious and Goes to the Renaissance, and yet her vapid performance is what gives scene so much weight. Somehow Welles, a guy from the Midwest, really seems to believe that an all American girl like Hendrix will reject a “cute boy” – and one who’s already a war hero – just because his parents were working class. It’s even funnier when you realize that Wanda Hendrix was briefly married to the real life American war hero Audie Murphy, and yet somehow Welles pulls it off, establishes himself as “Old Europe” to Power’s and Hendrix’s Southern California, as Mussolini or Francisco Franco to their New Deal America, and relishes every minute of it. All it takes to conquer fascism, the film seems to be telling us, is an American boy and an American girl willing to defend truth, justice, and the American way.
Yet the irony is that in real life it was Welles who was the idealist, the great artist put in chains by a cynical American commercialism, and Powers who was a conventional movie star. Prince of Fox’s happy ending, the kind of formulaic resolution forced on American cinema by the Production Code and adopted by Hollywood studio bosses as an easy moneymaker, embodied the true cynicism at the heart of the American empire. Welles, on the other hand, as we know from watching Citizen Kane or the Magnificent Ambersons, had a tragic, not an facile and optimistic view of American history. This is the way power works, his portrayal of Caesar Borgia seems to say, and we can’t just ignore it. It’s too bad we still do.