Lorna Doone (Madge Bellamy) is a noblewoman who was kidnapped by bandits as a child. John Ridd (John Bowers) is the big-hearted farmer who rescues her. But the Doones are not about to let Lorna go so easily, especially since she is heiress to an enormous fortune. No cookies are forthcoming.
I will also be reviewing the 1990 TV movie based on the same novel. Click here to skip to the talkie.
Where’s my rebellion?
Lorna Doone was first published in 1869 and it became phenomenal bestseller. It has never been out of print. Author R.D. Blackmore set his tale during the tumultuous transition of power between Charles II and James II but he claimed that he was writing a romance instead of prestigious historical novel. His audience was delighted with the tale, no matter what genre the author chose to claim. The book has been adapted for the screen numerous time, including three silent versions that preceded this one.
I should note that I read Lorna Doone some years back and liked it well enough, it just wasn’t a favorite. I’m more of a Hardy/Dickens/Thackeray girl. I didn’t really have time to reread the whole thing for this review so I used these handy cheatsheets from Penguin and Book Drum to compare the film to the book.
Now, I shall issue a warning: This film has a very, very passionate fanbase. I mean, very very very. And I am going to be frank here: I found it to be just so-so.
Am preparing to be hit on head with brick.
(Ducks behind wall.)
John Ridd (Charles Hatton plays John as a child) is an Exmoor boy who is returning to his family’s farm. During a stop at an inn, John meets Lorna (child Lorna is May Giraci, who played the snotty kid in Miss Lulu Bett), the child of a noble house who is travelling across the moors with her mother. It’s an instant case of puppy love but Lorna soon must depart with her mother.
Lorna’s mom is, to say the least, not the brightest crayon in the box. You see, the wild Doone family has been robbing all who cross their path. But Lorna’s mom figures they will be left alone, being women and all. The inevitable ensues. A band of rogues led by Ensor Doone (Frank Keenan) attack the carriage that the noblewomen are riding in. Lorna’s mother dies and Lorna is carried off.
Fast forward a few years. Lorna has grown up (as Madge Bellamy, best remembered today for White Zombie) among the Doones in their fortified village. She is the apple of old Ensor’s eye. Ensor is getting old and he will soon be succeeded by his kinsman, Carver Doone (Donald MacDonald). Carver means to marry Lorna and Ensor is the only thing standing in his way.
John has grown up too. He is now played by John Bowers and is known as the strongest man in the area. Strongest. No one said a word about being the smartest. He is busy playing in the river when he falls in and gets swept over a waterfall into Doone country. Our hero, ladies and gentlemen.
Of course, John and Lorna meet again and fall right back into love. Their reunion is cut short when Lorna sees Carver approaching. John tells her to signal if she ever needs him and he will come.
Ensor is dying and Carver does not even wait for the last breath to leave him before he drags Lorna to the altar. Ensor uses his last strength to write a letter that reveals Lorna’s true family and declares her a ward of the king. Meanwhile, Lorna’s friend signals John to come to the rescue.
John does indeed save Lorna (after much derring-do) and it seems that all is well. But how can the lovers cope with the revelation of Lorna’s wealth? And what of the vengeful Carver? And just when does the revolution come in? Find out in Lorna Doone!
Director Maurice Tourneur was acclaimed for the cinematic beauty of his productions. Particularly at home when filming hills, cliffs, forests and valleys, Tourneur’s films seem to be bathed in a warm glow. Each frame could be taken, blown up and used as an illustration. Yes, it’s that pretty.
Of course, every director has his flaws and Tourneur was no exception. His gorgeous films are sometimes a bit plodding. It seems this is the eternal trade-off in motion pictures. The most beautiful movies are often also the slowest.
Tourneur had enormous respect for D.W. Griffith but it seems that his admiration for the man went a little far. He has picked up the Griffith-esque habit of having his leading lady express her innocence by romping about and mouthing “oooo, oooo, oooo” at every opportunity. Compare this to the realistic and charming performances he coaxed out of his performers in The Wishing Ring.
In the plus column for the film, I thought that both the child actors playing the young leads were excellent. So excellent, in fact, that I was vaguely disappointed when the pair grew up! Oh well. It happens to the best of us.
Lorna Doone also boasts a rather grand cathedral scene, a beautifully lit (and much more humble!) church, and some stunning characters silhouetted atop cliffs. Boy oh boy did Tourneur love his silhouetted-atop-cliff scenes.
Here is a small gallery of Tourneur filming things silhouetted against other things:
Madge Bellamy and John Bower (who is usually remembered today for his tragic death) are all right in the leads but there is nothing that particularly distinguishes them in the parts. To me, there just was no spark, no oomph! to the romance. I think this is probably because I prefer more self-motivated characters. Lorna is a living, breathing plot device and John has to be shoved or prodded into action at every turn. And when they show a bit of initiative later on, the characters are not shown struggling very much with their decisions. Well, other than John’s bout of noble idiocy but then I am not a fan of noble idiocy. In all fairness, some of this inactivity is from the source material but the film-makers changed the book so much that they could have made the leads more proactive while they were at it.
Now I know you are probably wondering why I am covering this film during Revolution Month when there seems to be no revolution at all. Apart from a very sloppy attempt to assassinate James II’s son (and future dad to Bonnie Prince Charlie), the political unrest of the time period is very much glossed over.
The book wove history liberally into the plot. The death of Charles II, the ascension of his brother to the throne and the rebellion in West Country were all integral elements to the novel’s climax.
For those of you who do not sit about wondering just who revolted against James II (or have not watched Captain Blood recently), here is a very very short breakdown: Charles II managed to have sons with every woman in Europe except his wife. This meant his brother, James II, inherited the throne. Charles II’s illegitimate son, James, Duke of Monmouth, led an unsuccessful armed rebellion against his uncle. Monmouth was executed and his followers tried in the Bloody Assizes, which resulted in hundreds of Englishman being sentenced to forced labor in the West Indies. Among them (according to Hollywood and Rafael Sabatini) was a young Irish doctor named Peter Blood, who bore an astonishing resemblance to Errol Flynn…
So you see, the Monmouth Rebellion was kind of a big deal and it gets cut completely. Sigh. I feel cheated. Horribly cheated.
Lorna Doone is a much beloved silent film and I really wanted to like it more than I did. It just left me cold.
Oh and for those of you wondering, the order of things is book, cookie, Tourneur movie.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★
Where can I see it?
Kino has released a lovely tinted print on DVD (it is also available to stream). The score by Mari Iijima is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. I know that it has its fans but I just did not dig it. It was too repetitive to suit my taste and the odd pauses were distracting. There are bargain releases available but remember that the image quality will likely not match what Kino offers.
Ladies and gentlemen, in this corner we have Maurice Tourneur’s classic 1922 version of the historical romance, Lorna Doone, and in that corner we have the 1990 version starring Polly Walker, Clive Owen and Sean Bean. Which “not a cookie” film will be named champion? Let the fight begin!
The Talkie Challenger: Lorna Doone (1990)
I love British TV historical dramas! Particularly the older, stuffier, more respectful ones. Nothing makes me more irritated than people who proclaim that they are going to “reinvent” the historical drama when all they do is add tacky and/or trashy gingerbread that becomes instantly dated or drastically miscast legendary parts in an attempt to get attention. </rant> Most of my favorite titles are from the ’90’s so I was pretty happy to be watching the 1990 Thames Television version of Lorna Doone.
I realize that there is also an acclaimed 2000 version of the story. However, it runs 180 minutes, which is longer than the 1922 and 1990 versions combined. I didn’t feel that it would be fair to review a mini-series (which by its nature is much more complete) against a feature-length film. The 1990 version is 87 minutes to the 1922 version’s 70. Much more of an apples to apples comparison.
Here we go!
John Ridd’s father was murdered all over the opening credits. The killer is Carver Doone (Sean Bean, another excellent reason to review this version), a nobleman/bandit whose family terrorizes the vicinity. John (Clive Owen) grows up all dark and 90’s angsty and is determined to avenge his father.
However, John is fishing one day when he falls into the river, goes over a waterfall and lands right in the arms of Lorna Doone (Polly Walker). Not a terrible predicament, all things considered.
Lorna is the favorite of the family patriarch and object of Carver’s rather aggressive affections. That doesn’t stop John and Lorna from falling in love and beginning a clandestine romance.
John’s family also has a bit of lawlessness in it. Tom Faggus (Miles Anderson) is a highwayman and rebel against King James II. He is also a cousin of the Ridd family and they give him shelter.
Things take a turn for the nasty when Carver finds out about John and Lorna. He is a rather, um, emotional man and reacts in a manner some would describe as violent. The rest of the film concerns John’s attempts to keep Lorna safe from Carver, the discovery of Lorna’s true identity and the final attempt to eliminate the menace of the Doones.
And I am once again done out of my Monmouth Rebellion! Boo!
This version, like the silent, is missing a certain amount of spark with only Anderson and Bean working up a whole lot of enthusiasm for the proceedings and they are not onscreen nearly enough to suit me.
So I am left with a fairly odd dilemma… In order to determine the winner of the Battle of the Meh, I have done something that I have never done before: I have left the book out of the equation. I know! This is so very not me. It seemed only fair, though. The book is not really my favorite and neither film follows it particularly well. So I am going to measure the films as films and pretend that there was never a novel.
So, here is the breakdown:
Best looking film: The silent. Maurice Tourneur simply cannot be defeated on this front.
Best supporting cast: The talkie. I liked all of John’s family better in this version and I particularly liked Miles Anderson’s highwayman (even if it was instantly obvious that he was toast).
Best Carver: The talkie. Oh yes, the talkie! I show you picture now.
See? The talkie.
Best John: The talkie. I am not nuts about the character but I felt that showing his father’s murder gave Talkie John a better motive and a deeper character.
Best Lorna: The silent. In spite of her “ooo, a bunny! ooo, a rainbow!” mannerisms, I was slightly more convinced that she was willing to give up everything for John and I liked her fleshed-out relationship with Ensor Doone.
Best costumes: The talkie. They look grittier and more lived-in. Plus, I love those skull-spangled gloves Carver sports. A must-have for the goth in your life.
Best battle: The silent. It is an angrier, more impassioned battle and Tourneur’s cinematography is pristine. The talkie version is more of a straightforward shoot ’em up.
Best King: The silent. He’s grander and more humorous and it is easier to see him being dethroned. Though I was quite thrilled to see my beloved Captain Hastings, Hugh Fraser, as James II in the talkie, I am unwilling to believe anyone would want to depose him.
So, we have a tied game, do we not? Well, things can’t end like this. What can we use to break the tie?
The final fistfight between Carver and John!
And the point (and the game) goes to… The silent. The silent version of the fight is more vicious (John tears out Carver’s bicep with his finger. Let me repeat for emphasis. John tears out Carver’s bicep. With his fingers.) and it does not fall into that hoary cliche of having the hero suddenly try to save the villain’s hide. Nope, Silent John cheerfully lets Carver sink into the bog. Talkie John’s conscience gets the better of him but too late to save Carver. Well, that was convenient.
And the winner is…
But not by much. I think it may be time to break out that 2000 miniseries…