BOOTLEG FILES 355: “A Queen is Crowned” (1953 Technicolor documentary on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II).
LAST SEEN: The full film is available on YouTube in a seven-part installment.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: There was a VHS video release, but no U.S. DVD release.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The production has been out of circulation for many years.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is available on a British DVD label, so maybe a U.S. release will follow.
There has been a lot of news coverage recently of the British royal family – Prince William’s engagement, Prince Charles’ limousine coming under attack by student protestors, Prince Andrew getting dissed in the WikiLeaks cables and Queen Elizabeth getting into a contemporary groove via a Facebook page. However, there was a time when the royal family was seen as something more than fodder for celebrity gossip tabloids or punch lines for scandal seekers. To appreciate what existed (and what was lost), you need to go back nearly a half-century and take in an award-winning feature-length documentary that, sadly, has become somewhat forgotten.
The film is called “A Queen is Crowned” and is remarkable in many ways – most notably for the manner in which it was created. The film captured Queen Elizabeth’s coronation ceremonies in London on June 2, 1953 – and four days later, the fully completed, 86-minute Technicolor film was having its theatrical premiere in New York City.
Making a film of the Coronation Day activities created a severe logistical challenge. Every available Technicolor camera in England was brought in to capture the full event – and since it was a documentary record, it would be impossible to stop the proceedings if there was a camera or lighting malfunction. As a result, the film’s producers wound up with more than six hours of footage taken from multiple locations. While some degree of assistance came by pre-recording Guy Warrack’s lush music score and Laurence Olivier’s exuberant reading of Christopher Fry’s narrative text, the rush to process the expensive Technicolor film and edit the miles of film into a commercially viable format for presentation across the Atlantic in a mere four days was a feat that has never been duplicated.
There was one interesting glitch in “A Queen is Crowned” – no telephoto or zoom lens was available for the filming of the coronation. As a result, the film is mostly presented in a series of long shots. Because of this, the viewer watches the coronation take place from a distance – and the lack of cinematic intimacy actually enhances the strangeness and beauty of the regal spectacle.
And, indeed, it is a strange and beautiful spectacle. The film details the centuries-old traditions of the royal coronation, including the presentation of the five swords of state, but it also ties into the still-fresh memories of World War II by displaying the great stained glass window at Westminster Abbey that honored the heroes of the Battle of Britain. The new monarch is brought to the coronation in a 200-year-old gilded coach drawn by “eight Windsor grays,” and she enters a ceremony rich with jewels, robes, flags and an ancient protocol involving clergy, statesmen and other royals.
But the monarch is a 27-year-old beauty. Her movie star gorgeous features and fair porcelain skin is stunning in Technicolor. As she moved through the coronation, it seemed as if the spirit of youth was being absorbed within the ancient realm of pomp and circumstance – yet, at the same time, her striking personality defined the moment as the vibrant symbol of a new postwar kingdom. (Little did anyone know what was to come, of course, but that’s another story.)
In a somewhat controversial move, it was decided not to show the anointing of the new monarch with holy oil. Although it is a crucial part of the coronation ceremony, it was considered to be a bit too profane to show the elderly clergy rubbing oil on the body of the nubile young queen.
This is not to say that the film is lacking in genuine emotion. Shots of a fascinated young Prince Charles and a beaming Queen Mum watching the ceremony are genuinely heartwarming, and the film is nearly stolen by Tonga’s ebullient Queen Salote as she happily waves to the London crows while riding in the rain-soaked royal procession in an open carriage.
Although the coronation was broadcast on television (American viewers saw black-and-white kinescopes rushed across the Atlantic for next-day viewing), “A Queen is Crowned” was theatrically released to great acclaim in the U.S. by Universal-International. The film won the National Board of Review’s Best Foreign Film Award and the Golden Globe Award for Best Documentary. It also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary, but lost to Walt Disney’s groundbreaking nature film “The Living Desert.”
Over the years, however, “A Queen is Crowned” lost its appeal as the British royal family saw its reputation change for the worse. Vanguard Cinema released the film on VHS video in 1989, but to date there has been no U.S. DVD release. The film is available on a British DVD label, however, and it is possible that a U.S. release may come in 2012 to tie-in with the queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
However, an enterprising video bootlegger has made the film available in its entirety on YouTube. If you do a search for “Coronation of Elizabeth the Second in 1953,” you will get the entire film in a seven-part installment. It may not be the ideal way to see the film, but it is better than nothing.
“A Queen is Crowned” is a notable product of a very different era. But in many ways, it was a more remarkable time, and the film offers a beautiful record of an extraordinary moment in history. As one astonished YouTube viewer commented after watching this film: “Mamma mia! Do such things actually happen on this earth? Breath-taking!!”
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!