Although the 1954 movie The Black Knight was a stinker, in Alan Ladd it had an interesting lead…and having been shot in England, showcased some of the greatest British actors of my time. I should apologise in advance to all readers under 50, most of whom will not know what any of this is about.
The weather being cold, damp and dizzly-grey here yesterday, I got into hibernatory mode. A comfort lunch was followed by a rare visit to the TV set, in whose listings I found a movie, The Black Knight, that has a special significance for me. Made in 1954, it was the first film I ever saw in the cinema; as a special birthday treat, Dad took me to the matinée for my seventh birthday in February 1955.
The old Gaumont cinema in Manchester was a pretty special place, near the top of Oxford Street and home to the biggest screen in town. The frontage radiated wonderful Italian renaissance kitsch, and the interior was designed by Theodore Komisarjevsky. In the basement was a buffet restaurant, and a bar that looked longer than Blackpool pier. This was the beginning of a lifelong passion for lavish cinemas and historical movies.
I say historical, but The Black Knight looks pretty hysterical today. It goes beyond cod history into Hollywood tosh. But I was seven years old and far too young to wonder why the lead actor had the only American accent in King Arthur’s court a thousand years ago…or was it 600 or 1200 years? It’s hard to be sure.
The actor concerned was Alan Ladd (left) a man far better known for his roles in classic westerns and film noir, but by now thought to be a tad past his sellby date and in need of work. As luck would have it, Pinewood Studios in England needed an international star to lift the film’s distribution potential, and so Ladd got the job. It could be that Alan felt it was time to get away from typecast headgear, in which case he couldn’t have chosen a more startling role than this one.
Alan Ladd was a devastatingly good-looking bloke, but as you can see he looked a complete pranny in his Black Knight outfit. The visor on his helmet was more unpredictable than Eric Morecambe’s glasses, and during a scene with “King Mark” towards the end of the film, it falls on his nose. A consummate professional, Ladd didn’t miss a beat. The budget obviously didn’t stretch to that many retakes, so it stayed in the movie. (The more sharp-eyed of you will have spotted that his Knightly uniform is white).
The only element capable of giving The Black Knight a contemporary relevance is the fact that it was about expansionist Islam trying to undermine Christian England. The plot (which should’ve been consigned to the graveyard prior to shooting) involved a cardboard Arab using a pretender to usurp Good King Arthur, and thus turn Blighty into a Sharia Hell. Its credibility is dealt a crushing blow by throwing in Stonehenge as a Saracen centre of evil where flaxen-haired, pure Saxon virgins are sacrificed to a nasty God who is never specified, as such.
But these minor details are as nought compared to the period dress (500 years too late), the likelihood that Arthur was an Angle who pushed back the Saxons – if he existed at all – and that Islam didn’t get off the ground until the following century.
However, for a seven year-old tucking goggle-eyed into his ice-cream tub, the film was pure spectacle – not least because everyone on the screen was fifteen feet tall, whereas on our little Bush telly at home the average height of heroes was six inches.
The love interest struggling to get out from the sprained plot concerns a lowly blacksmith (Ladd) who wishes to win Lady Linet’s heart. But because the wicked Tories have reinstated the rigid self perpetuatin’ boss-class system an’ cut our NHS to the bone roit, he must first of all become a noble knight.
However, setting all that shlock aside for as long as possible, the film is chiefly interesting because of the English actors in it who went on to become stars in their own right….probably despite the movie rather than because of it.
André Morell was an excellent stage actor who later carved a career in television following his role as the eponymous professor in BBC’s classic sci-fi horror Quatermass and the Pit.
Patrick Troughton became the second Dr Who after William Hartnell packed in the role. For me Troughton is by far the best ever Doctor Who, because he played the character as a confused, bumbling and generally incompetent Victorian dandy. Himself an incurable eccentric, during his spell as a naval lieutenant during World War II he wore a tea cosy on his head to keep warm. He was also a very brave man who won several medals for variously ramming U-boats and destroying an enemy E-Boat more or less single-handed with a deck-mounted heavy machine-gun.
Peter Cushing went on to be the most famous name at Hammer Studios, where his villain roles as Dracula and other blackguards earned him a comfortable living. Shortly after his part in TBK, he starred memorably as Winston Smith in the first ever TV production of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was scripted by Nigel Kneale, the greatest UK TV horror writer of all time, and also the creator of Quatermass. Cushing too played Dr Who in several films, and had a lucrative cameo role in Star Wars IV.
Harry Andrews was a stalwart of British cinema, perhaps best known for his hard-case military roles in several classic films, including The Red Beret, Ice Cold in Alex, 633 Squadron, The Hill, Charge of the Light Brigade, and Play Dirty. Andrews was gay, and had only one partner, Basil Hoskins, throughout his life. Before moving into cinema he was a classical Shakespearian actor much admired by the likes of John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier.
Last but not least, John Laurie was known to three generations of theatre, cinema and TV addicts respectively, but he is best remembered as the archetypal Scottish doom-merchant Private Frazer, a role he developed during the nine-year run of Dad’s Army. In a way this is sad, because he too was admired in his youth as a Shakespearian actor, once being voted the best Hamlet of the 1920s British theatre.
As for Patricia Medina (the object of the Black Knight’s intentions) I have to confess that, until yesterday, I’d never heard of her. But she was quite a character, on and off the screen. In 1941 she married Richard Greene, the man-in-tights later made famous by The Adventures of Robin Hood on ITV in the late 1950s. They were divorced ten years later, at which point she decamped to Hollywood and married Joseph Cotten in 1960. They stayed together until his death following a long illness, during which her personal caring for him was described as “angelic”. She spoke four languages, and was allegedly witty in all of them: when asked by an Italian customs officer why she had two fur coats in her luggage, she replied “Because I may be here for two days”. Patricia Medina died aged 93 in 2012.
Alan Ladd himself lived a controversial life, but was both diligent and intelligent: he invested his earnings well, was one of the first actors to diversify into production, and died a wealthy man. He was notoriously short at 5′ 6″, which led him to be cast against small actresses, or play some scenes standing on a foot stool. But he overcame the problem because his voice was one of the best ever for cinema, and (with the obvious exception) he chose scripts wisely. As the wandering ex-gunslinger in Shane he was magnificent, and alongside High Noon, the movie remains an all-time classic of the genre.
The controversy involved apparent suicide attempts (never proven) and a taste for drugs and alcohol that was up there with Robert Mitchum’s. He did die rich, but very early….aged 50 from a heart attack caused by a lethal mixture of Scotch, barbiturates and valium. Before that, he was involved in what looked like an attempted suicide attempt when he shot himself through the heart. He always claimed he took out the weapon on hearing a prowler, and then tripped up while holding the cocked gun.
The sad truth is that Alan Ladd was a lifelong sufferer from chronic insomnia, and abused various drugs in an attempt to bring on sleep. There is nevertheless no recorded instance of him being either late or drunk on the set.
Equally sad was the demolition of the Gaumont cinema. It closed in 1974, and sat there decaying until Rotters nightclub opened. The club last until 1990, when it too closed and, in an act of uncontrolled nihilism, the building was pulled down. The site sat empty for some years, and was eventually replaced by an oustandingly brutalist multi-storey car park.
Says it all, really.