LIONHEART is one of the last films from the late Franklin Schaffner, a director whose enviable track record (PAPILLON; PLANET OF THE APES) lacked a solid success since 1978's THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. Unfortunately, this film received a shamefully brief theatrical release through Orion
Pictures in 1987, then languished until it made a quiet home-video debut in 1990. A return to the epic filmmaking for which Schaffner is best known, LIONHEART is set in a 12th-century France that is ravaged by plague, poverty, and petty territorial wars. Eric Stoltz plays Robert Nerra, a young
nobleman who, rather than following King Richard the Lionhearted on his latest Crusade, suits up for battle against a rival landowner. Robert is knighted for the occasion, but during the bloody combat he panics and runs. As he wanders the landscape, the disconsolate Robert is mistaken for a
valiant Crusader, and he's joined by numerous orphaned and abandoned children. The kids want protection against the slave traders who prey on homeless youths; of these villains none is more feared than the Black Prince (Gabriel Byrne), a Crusader-gone-bad who sells children to the same Arabs he
once fought. Seeing Robert as the embodiment of virtue and innocence, the Black Prince vows to destroy him. As the ever-growing retinue of children march across France in search of King Richard, the Black Prince follows. When the children reach the sea, they find a castle flying King Richard's
banner. Alas, it's a trap set by the Black Prince, whose forces round up the little ones to make slaves of them. But Robert challenges the Black Prince to one-on-one combat and manages to kill the fiend. At this point King Richard himself rides in with a troop of Crusaders. Now a loyal Crusader,
Robert reunites with his father. Various youthful romantic entanglements are also happily sorted out, and all, in King Richard's words, go off to follow their destinies.
LIONHEART was to have been the first installment in a Crusades trilogy from screenwriter Menno Meyjes (THE COLOR PURPLE). Reportedly, the second entry would have dealt with Arab leader Saladin and might have balanced out the portrayal of black-hearted Saracens seen here. Then again, in LIONHEART,
historical accuracy takes a back seat to standard movie histrionics. There actually were children's crusades during the period covered in the film--naive expeditions of youths who believed their purity would liberate Jerusalem, though the armies of Europe had failed--but it's unlikely that any of
these crusades ended as rosily as the one in this film. There also really was a Black Prince, the son of the British monarch Edward III; however, his ominous nickname referred to his taste in clothing rather than his morality.
Conspicuously aimed at families and younger viewers (the action stays safely within the confines of the film's PG rating), LIONHEART too often serves up the sort of medieval kitsch that the Monty Python troupe effectively trampled in their HOLY GRAIL satire. Burdened with literally every urchin in
Paris, Stoltz's Robert transforms the unruly kids into a well-organized unit with one brief speech. Equally implausible is his rapid metamorphosis from frightened deserter to fierce warrior. The other cast members (Britishers all; there doesn't seem to be a Frenchman in the picture) resemble a
chorus from "Oliver!"--too modern in their dialog and attitude for the period. Look closely, though, and you'll see an early appearance by Sammi Davis, who later went on to showier roles in Ken Russell's LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM and THE RAINBOW. The film also marks the debut of Deborah Barrymore,
the daughter of Roger Moore, but she's stuck with the utterly thankless role of a spirited tomboy who wants to be a Crusader. Barrymore approaches this I-can-lick-any-knight-in-the-castle stuff with enthusiasm, but to no avail. The most intriguing and forceful presence onscreen is Byrne as the
Black Prince. A tortured soul, this once-zealous knight has lost faith in the Crusades and now commits heinous acts as his personal vengeance against God. With his unnatural pallor and black garb, Byrne resembles Olivier's Richard III, and his malice approaches supernatural proportions. It's not
unusual in movies for a villain to be more interesting than the hero, but seldom has the gap been so wide; often it seems Stoltz's colorless Robert isn't worth the Black Prince's evil attentions.
LIONHEART was filmed in Hungary and Portugal, and whenever possible, the company made use of existing medieval castles and fortifications. Extras were recruited from two state orphanages, as well as from the Hungarian Circus Arts Institute, which provided jugglers and street performers. Although
the most visually impressive scenes of this handsome film are the result of well-designed interiors--like the subterranean "city" of orphans--LIONHEART lacks sweeping spectacle.
Film buffs might remember that Schaffner made another medieval epic, THE WAR LORD, early in his directorial career. A further connection with Schaffner's filmmaking past is the participation of Francis Ford Coppola (author of the script for Schaffner's Oscar-winning PATTON), who is credited as
executive producer here. In fact, LIONHEART originated with Coppola's ill-fated Zoetrope production company. The property was then purchased by producer Jack Schwartzman, husband of Coppola's sister, actress Talia Shire, who served as a coproducer on the film. LIONHEART deserves more recognition
than it has received, if only for the names connected with it. (Violence.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1987
- Rating: PG
- Review: LIONHEART is one of the last films from the late Franklin Schaffner, a director whose enviable track record (PAPILLON; PLANET OF THE APES) lacked a solid success since 1978's THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. Unfortunately, this film received a shamefully brief theatr… (more)