It would be a gross understatement to say that Max Ophüls knew how to make a camera dance. His cinema waltzes and gavottes, prances and strides, twirls and whirls, tiptoes and swaggers, sweeps and strolls, races and meanders, depending on the mood and meaning of the moment. His tracking shots keep time to the many rhythms of the human body and the human heart.
For The Exile, Ophüls’s balletic camera found an ample partner in Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Playing the future Charles II of England hiding out in the Netherlands, Fairbanks carries the film with a wry, world-weary charm, largely evoked through his posture and how his body travels through the screen space.
(If you need a quick history refresher, Charles Stuart fled England during the period known as the Interregnum rather than face execution by the Puritan zealots who took over his country and killed his father, Charles I. The Exile is a fanciful account of the months leading up to his restoration.)
Prince Charles Stuart’s key strength—the quality that’s kept him alive through all those years of exile—lies in his adaptivity, and Fairbanks communicates this through the nimbleness of his movements.
Whether darting through a marketplace, leaping onto a river barge, or swinging onto rooftops to escape his foes, Fairbanks’s Charles displays a kinetic energy that we seldom associate with royalty. Kings sit on thrones. A monarch’s sedentary lifestyle is emblematic of his status as the pivot around which the whole mechanism of government turns.
But Charles is a vagabond king, a streetwise king, a king whose experiences living among ordinary people have enriched his character.
Charles indicates his respect for the common folk early in the film when he tells his group of loyal companions that he won’t force a return to Britain until his people call for him. We initially get a series of swift camera movements as excited messengers and followers wind through the king’s broken-down headquarters, spreading the news that more and more citizens are chafing under Cromwell’s regime.
This giddiness ceases, however, when Charles gives his friends a reality check. Fairbanks delivers a beautiful speech, recorded in a grave long take during which the camera creeps slowly towards a medium close-up, as the King declares that he’s endured too much suffering to inflict another war on his countrymen.
Now, some reviews of The Exile that I’ve read complain that the pacing lags. If you were expecting The Adventures of Robin Hood, then, yes, it does.
It is, after all, a movie about waiting, about an heir biding his time.
But I think this line of criticism has fundamentally misunderstood what The Exile wants to be: not a swashbuckling adventure, but rather a beguiling historical romance à la Sir Walter Scott.
The movie takes the time to ripen the characters (and our investment in them) and to establish a multi-layered conflict. On the most basic level, The Exile pits Charles Stuart against the sinister Roundheads who want to kill him and deny him his kingdom.
However, the film also dwells on an internal conflict: whether or not Charles wants to take his place on the throne. Laying low in the countryside, Charles falls in love with Katie (Rita Corday), the enterprising and spirited woman who runs the farm where he works incognito.
Their first kiss is a masterstroke of cinematic discretion: we see them embrace through a barn window, as the loose shutter opens and closes, opens and closes… until it finally obscures the view of their passionate reunion. Through this tender relationship, the prince discovers the joys of ordinary life, joys that he must eventually relinquish to do his long-delayed duty.
If you love well-staged action, you’ll need to bide your time until the third act of the film, but it’s worth the wait. When the Roundheads try to seize Charles at Katie’s farmhouse, Fairbanks is a wonder to behold, an effortless, grinning demigod, tracing arabesques with feet that never seem to touch the ground.
He’s not just eluding his would-be assassins. He’s creating art. His buoyant movements seem to establish his ideological superiority over the bad guys. The combat of bodies parallels the combat of ideas.
They demand totalitarian control. Charles advocates for freedom (lightly presided over by a just king). His response to the Roundheads’ rigid, dogmatic beliefs is resourceful and flexible. And he reacts to the Puritans’ brute force by capering and gamboling out of their reach—all the while lovingly followed by Ophüls’s camera.
It’s as though Charles’s belief in liberty translates into physical freedom of motion. Like the reed in La Fontaine’s fable, he bends and doesn’t break.
Consider it a dance-off of regimes. (Unsurprisingly, Puritans don’t dance too well.)
The film culminates in a dazzling sequence set on a windmill, during which our hero climbs onto the spinning blades to fend off his attackers. I don’t want to give too much away, but prepare your mind to be blown.
In addition to starring and doing his own stunts, Fairbanks co-wrote and produced The Exile, made at Universal Studios. Partially on the recommendation of Robert Siodmak, he selected Max Ophüls as his director. If this be a vanity project, here’s to vanity.
Despite the long-ago-and-far-away setting of The Exile, its emotions hit home, due (I would argue) to the personal experience of the two men who shaped it. Fairbanks delivers arguably his most moving performance as the heir to a burdensome, if illustrious, legacy—something he clearly felt in real life, as the son of silent superstar Douglas Fairbanks, sometimes called “the King of Hollywood.”
The smile and the ability to wear a dashing moustache ran in the family.
As Fairbanks Jr. said in an interview, having a famous father “made it [his career] more difficult in the sense that people expected more from you.”
Despite the doors his family opened, Fairbanks remembered that there were directors and executives who would say, “ ‘You aren’t the man your father was.’ The door may be open to get in, but it stays open, to get kicked out of that much quicker, too.” However, just as Charles Stuart proves himself entirely worthy as a monarch, Fairbanks Jr. bears his father’s mantle with grace and a flair that was uniquely his.
One also suspects that Max Ophüls’s experience fleeing Nazi encroachment through Europe added to the bitterness of this film’s portrayal of exile—and to the grimness and malevolence of its villains. In 1947 it would have been hard to watch the stern, humorless, black-hatted Puritans hunting down and dispatching dissenters and not think of S.S. agents.
Ophüls conveys the oppressiveness of the Roundheads through the eerie gliding camera that snakes through their headquarters and through the stark, low-key lighting that the villains seem to bring with them. You couldn’t find a more different aesthetic from the warm, inviting glow of Holland in The Exile‘s early scenes.
The director shoots the Puritans in manner more akin to what you’d expect from Universal horror flicks of the 1940s than from a light-hearted swashbuckler of the same era. This visual choice portrays Cromwell’s followers—and, by extension, all despots—as real-life monsters.
Interestingly enough, Universal feared the glut of Technicolor adventures on the market in the mid-1940s and vetoed Fairbanks’s desire to film The Exile in color, an unusual move for an A-budget movie.
However, black-and-white turned out to be the right choice, in my opinion, since it let Ophüls evoke the deathly threat of the Roundheads and endow The Exile with the feeling of a period engraving.
To highlight the contrast between the single-minded Roundheads and the easygoing Charles, Ophüls interjects a sequence of vivid crosscutting. We see the doomy Puritans scheming in their cavernous lair, plotting Charles’s demise. Meanwhile Charles frolics around Katie’s bright farm, helping to plough fields and toting around baskets of adorable chicks (yes, really).
Playing the formidable Colonel Ingram, Charles’s antagonist, Henry Daniell, that great and perpetually chilly character actor, cranks up the frost to career-high levels.
Daniell dispenses with the comforting roguishness and devilish wit that make audiences come to cherish swashbuckler villains, like Levasseur in Captain Blood or even Rupert of Hentzau in Prisoner of Zenda, in spite of themselves.
No, Ingram is a irredeemable fanatic, devoid even of humanizing vices like lust or greed. He considers himself the mouthpiece of God’s will.
When Ingram shows up at Katie’s farmhouse, Ophüls startles us with the sudden change of ambiance. We never see Ingram actually arrive. He just seems to materialize.
Ophüls transitions from the happiest scene in the film to Ingram in a spooky long shot, sitting dead still at the farmhouse table, cloaked in low-key gloom. Charles peers out at his enemy from the kitchen, and the prince’s rakish smile is replaced with true concern for the first time in the film.
It’s as though Ingram has carried the pall of despotism around with him. This evil man and all that he stands for will finally force the reluctant king to fight for his throne… and his survival.
The Exile is an underseen and underrated gem: an adventure with a heart, a romance with panache, and an artful swashbuckler that recaptures the romance of silent cinema. I’m grateful to have seen it on TCM (as part of the network’s Summer Under the Stars tribute to Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), and I really hope that it’ll get a DVD release some day soon.
This post is part of my TCM Discoveries Blogathon. Please check out all of the wonderful entries!