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David Niven considered The King's Thief (1955) a low point in his career. Not only was he third billed after Edmund Purdom and Ann Blyth but the film was not well received by most critics. In its review, the New York Times said, "the only heroic thing about it is the immensity of the botch. Despite a large cast of well-known actors, good costumes, scenery, color and CinemaScope, The King's Thief is one of the most thorough banalities of the year." In retrospect, the criticism seems a bit harsh for The King's Thief has several merits, from its lavish production to its spin on history, that make it worth a look.
The King's Thief was the final MGM film of director Robert Z. Leonard. The movie was originally put under the direction of Hugo Fregonese. But eleven days into filming, Fregonese was taken ill and production halted. According to a report in Daily Variety, disagreements between Fregonese and the film's producer, Edwin H. Knopf, kept Fregonese from returning to The King's Thief after he recovered. So Leonard, a career MGM man who had basically gone into retirement after 31 years at the studio, was called in to direct the picture. Leonard was unquestionably a prolific director who turned out popular and entertaining films, though he would later be cited by film critic Andrew Sarris as a case against auteurism (Sarris suggested that Leonard's success could be attributed more to his screenwriters, actors and other contributors rather than Leonard's directorial skills). Leonard's hits over the years included Pride and Prejudice (1940), several Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald confections such as Maytime (1937) and New Moon (1940), as well as the Judy Garland-Van Johnson musical In the Good Old Summertime (1949). Leonard would make just one more film after The King's Thief - Kelly and Me (1957), released by Universal-International and starring Van Johnson and Piper Laurie.
Also worth noting in The King's Thief is a young, pre-Bond Roger Moore who has a small role in the picture. Though Niven and Moore first met on the film, the star and the newcomer already had a curious connection. Niven's first novel Round the Rugged Rocks had been published in England and serialized in a woman's magazine. The magazine used models to illustrate the story and Moore had posed as the hero of Niven's story for the serial.
The real story that inspired The King's Thief is also an interesting tale. The movie centers around a plot to steal back the Crown Jewels on behalf of the King from an evil Duke. There was, in fact, an attempt to steal the Crown Jewels during Charles II's reign. The real thief's name was Thomas Blood and he made an infamous attempt to steal the Crown Jewels in 1671. Blood worked his way inside the Tower of London by befriending the jewel keeper and then convinced the unwitting guard to show the jewels to some friends. Blood and his crew then knocked out the jewel keeper and stole several pieces. But they were quickly captured, never even making it outside the walls of the Tower. For undocumented reasons, Charles II pardoned Blood. This has led historians to speculate that it was perhaps an inside job. The jewels, which were created for Charles II, may have been intended to be broken up and sold to replenish the Royal Treasury.
There's one final interesting point about the film - its casting of Charles II. The King's Thief marked George Sanders' second time playing the monarch. He first played Charles II in Forever Amber (1947). Talk about type casting!
Producer: Edwin H. Knopf
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Screenplay: Robert Hardy Andrews (story), Christopher Knopf
Cinematography: Robert Planck
Film Editing: John McSweeney, Jr.
Art Direction: Malcolm Brown, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Ann Blyth (Lady Mary), Edmund Purdom (Michael Dermott), David Niven (Duke of Brampton), George Sanders (Charles II), Roger Moore (Jack), John Dehner (Capt. Herrick).
C-79m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Stephanie Thames