Just the Facts, M'Lord

By David Morrison

Cromwell Productions' 1996 Alfred the Great , (an installment of its History Makers series of historical video biographies), is a solid educational film. It accurately conveys the standard interpretation of Alfred's reign and accomplishments. Though a bit too wordy and low-budget for television, it would make an excellent classroom resource for high school or junior college history teachers, with the qualification that it leans towards hagiography.  

The film hews closely to Asser's Life of King Alfred. Though chiefly held together by voice-over narration, actors playing Alfred and Asser occasionally address the camera directly. Asser reads from his Life and Alfred himself delivers brief sections from his introductions to the laws he collated and his translation of Pope Gregory's Pastoral Care. The only deviation from a strictly chronological recount of Alfred's career is in the pre-title sequence, which attempts to create some dramatic tension by showing Alfred hastily fleeing Guthram's surprise Christmas attack at Chippenham in 878.

Leaving the outcome of the devastating Viking ambush in suspense, the narrator begins his tale with a broad description of life in England during the reign of the West Saxton king Aethelwulf, Alfred's father. As brief tableaux by the actors, (occasionally intercut with period artwork), flesh out the narrator's descriptions, we learn of Alfred's boyhood on the move with the royal court, his early trip to Rome, the usurpation of the Wessex kingship by Alfred's brother Aethelbald, etc.  

The first half of the film is heavily weighted toward battle reenactments and descriptions which are frankly a bit tiring.   Also, betraying perhaps the bias of its chief source, much more attention is given to battles in which Alfred triumphed than to Viking victories, which are only rather cursorily mentioned, the only exception being the Chippenham rout. Asser, staring dolefully into the camera, notes that it was the unholy result of a degree of treachery hitherto unknown to mankind.

Despite the setup of the introductory sequence, the portrayal of Alfred's desperate wilderness years in the marshes of Somerset is rather anticlimactic. (Oddly, the length of his stay in Athelney is given as five months; both a shorter and more specific duration than is generally cited.) The folk tales of Alfred burning the cakes and entering the Viking camp disguised as a minstrel are given more cinematic weight than his heroic rallying of the fyrds at Egbert's stone.  

After Alfred defeats and makes peace with Guthram, the narrative moves toward a consideration of Alfred's administrative and cultural accomplishments. The burh system, the rotation of the fyrds, the learned men brought to court, the collection and administration of laws, the push for literacy, the foundation of the navy, the establishment and repair of monasteries and nunneries; all these are methodically extrapolated by the narrator as actors mill about in costume, looking vaguely as if they're about some important business. The script is logical and expository, not unlike a well-written textbook.

At the end of the film, the previous pretense of historical objectivity is abandoned. The narrator unabashedly extols Alfred's greatness and concludes with a laudatory passage from "a chronicler, descended from his brother," whose rhapsodic cadence is, "Redeemer Christ, save his soul!" The effect of the film is clearly not as rousing as it was meant to be - the word "hokey" comes to mind.   But it's a flaw history buffs are likely to forgive; given that in less than an hour a great deal of accurate information and a comprehensible portrait have been clearly conveyed.

Obviously, the production budget was modest. No shot looks as though more than one camera was employed. Simon Kirk is credited as both the writer and the actor who portrayed Alfred. There are other dually billed participants, as well: the team appears to have been quite small. It would be unfair to expect dazzling battle scenes from what appears to be a modest effort probably pitched at educational markets.

Still, the acting is short of the mark. Both Alfred and Asser, (the only speaking roles), are unforgivably wooden. Asser obviously has a modern haircut, insufficiently hidden beneath a woolen cowl. Whatever a 10 th century Welsh tonsure may have looked like, it didn't look like that. Both actors tend to end their monologues by looking glumly downward, perhaps in an effort to appear pensive.

The only character given sufficient depth to analyze is, of course, Alfred. He is portrayed as a man of rare judgment, character, bravery and resourcefulness. This is, of course, how he is widely perceived. Unless everything generally attributed to him is wrong, he was an absolutely remarkable man. He appears to have had a rare balance of interests and capabilities, from the ability to skillfully prosecute war to a deep sense of the practical value of establishing a cultural canon. The film conveys these qualities well, though better through words than images.

Numerous Vikings are mentioned by name in connection with their campaigns. Guthram is given the most attention, intertwined as his affairs were with Alfred's. There are accurate descriptions of several Viking armies and their major campaigns, as well as footage of their ships and descriptions of their ways of war. Maps illustrate the growth of Danish land holdings in England, up to the delineation of the Danelaw, in the establishment of which Alfred's role is explained.

The scholars Alfred brought to his court are named and there is specific mention of several books he translated or had translated. Quite a few nobles of Wessex and other of the heptarchic states are named and there is some mention of relation with Wales. In fact, there's little in Asser's Life that isn't mentioned in the film, at least briefly. Asser even gives his exposition on the king's health, though he neglects the entertaining paragraph in chapter 74 wherein is explained how God mercifully gave Alfred the piles in order to deliver him from an excess of youthful lustiness.  

All in all, despite its limitations, King Alfred is not a bad historical documentary. It conveys more accurate information than a television program probably would and, unlike most popular media, it conveys no misinformation or distortion. One is left with a picture of a remarkable leader of a besieged people. The decimation of the Church and learning, the savage assaults of the Vikings, the disorder and strife between warlords: in short, the dire state of England in the late 10th century - all come through clearly. And thus the remarkable achievements of King Alfred are placed in their context.


Recommended Reading:

Asser, J., Keynes, S. & Lapidge, M. (1984).   Alfred the Great, Asser's Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources.   New York: Penguin.

Stenton, F. (1943).   Anglo-Saxon England.   Oxford: Oxford University Press.