private life

The Private Life of Henry VIII

The Private Life of Henry VIII is a 1933 film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. It was written by Lajos Biró and Arthur Wimperis, and directed by Sir Alexander Korda.

It was the first British film to be nominated for the Academy Award for best picture. Charles Laughton won the 1933 Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance as Henry.

Storyline and inspiration

The film began in May 1536, contrasting the impending execution of Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon), with his instant remarriage to her maid, the plain-looking Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie). The inspiration for this scene clearly came from the English historian, Agnes Strickland, who had vigorously criticised Henry and Jane for their treatment of the honorable Anne.

After Anne's execution, Henry (played by Charles Laughton), is married briefly to Queen Jane before her death in childbed eighteen months later. He is then remarried to a German princess, Anne of Cleves, played on-screen by Laughton's real-life wife Elsa Lanchester. This marriage ends in divorce when Anne deliberately makes herself unattractive so that she can be free to re-marry her sweetheart. After this divorce, Henry marries the beautiful and ambitious Lady Catherine Howard (Binnie Barnes). She has rejected love all her life in favour of ambition, but after her marriage she falls in love with Henry's handsome servant Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat). Their adultery is never mentioned by name in the film, since American censors objected to it. In any case, their liaison is discovered by Henry's advisers and the couple are executed. Henry's final marriage to Catherine Parr receives less than five minutes of screentime.

Historically, the film is wildly inaccurate - with the possible exception of the Anne Boleyn storyline at the beginning. Its presentation of the characters of Jane Seymour and Catherine Howard in particular are not true to fact. Nor does it portray Henry's first (and longest) marriage to the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon. It is famous for creating the public image of a jolly Henry VIII who gorged himself at public banquets and chased pretty women all day, which has tended to obscure the king's real-life brutality.


It was hugely successful as a commercial film and it advanced Alexander Korda and Charles Laughton's careers. It was Merle Oberon's first major film role and it began her rise to Hollywood stardom. Laughton would later reprise his role as Henry VIII in 1953 in the film Young Bess opposite Jean Simmons as a young Elizabeth I. No other feature-length film would deal with all of Henry's wives until Henry VIII and his Six Wives in 1973.




  • The Great British Films, Jerry Vermilye, 1978, Citadel Press, ISBN 080650661X

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