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Dangerous Exile (1957) is an enjoyable example of the smoothly produced, shamelessly nostalgic fare that audiences enjoyed as historical drama in the romantic 1950s. Shot in high-resolution VistaVision and eye-pleasing Eastmancolor, it offers an array of stately rooms and atmospheric landscapes as the backdrop for what a reviewer called "one of history's most beguiling legends," the adventures of young Louis XVII, the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution, when terror at home drove him into exile abroad before he had reached his teens. The real Louis XVII died in a secret French prison at the tender age of ten, but the movie presents the wishful fantasy that many royalists clung to, giving him an extended life and a new set of friends who care very much about his welfare.
Based on a novel by Vaughan Wilkins called A King Reluctant, the story begins in 1795, when the citizens of an island town in Wales see a bedraggled balloon flying overhead, with a young boy clinging to its basket. He escapes without injury when the balloon drifts down to earth, and a visiting American named Virginia Traill whisks him to safety at the castle of Lady Lydia Fell, her wealthy, quirky aunt. Who is the mysterious lad? This is a mystery at first, since he refuses to say a word about his identity or background, but his royal lineage is revealed when other outsiders come into the picture. Spies pass word about him to French revolutionaries, who put on their cloaks and draw out their daggers. The handsome Duc Philippe de Beauvais, a loyalist from Paris, arrives to protect him and seek a way for him to take his rightful throne. Meanwhile, the duke's own little boy in France is risking his life by masquerading as Louis, trying to deceive the revolutionaries and throw them off the true king's trail. Now the young monarch is safe for the moment, but enemies continue to plot against him, hoping they can get him back across the Channel and kill him in the revolution's name.
Brian Desmond Hurst directed twenty-five movies between 1934 and 1962, including the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol (also known as Scrooge), which is far and away the best screen adaptation of Charles Dickens's novel, thanks mainly to Alastair Sim's brilliant acting in a role he was born to play. Dangerous Exile is less sparkling, but it has some strikingly vivid moments, most notably in the flashbacks showing the horrible ordeals little Louis went through before his allies helped him escape in the balloon. Filmed with stylized sets, off-kilter camera angles, and expressionistic lighting, these scenes have the grim intensity of nightmares, increasing our sympathy for the young hero and giving the film a strong charge of emotional energy. The key contributors here are production designer Ferdinand Bellan, art director Jack Maxsted, and the gifted cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, whose credits include such visually rich pictures as Stanley Kubrick's classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Roman Polanski's epic Tess (1979). Music by the important French composer Georges Auric also adds to the effect, although generally his score is more serviceable than inspired.
The rest of the story is more simply told, gaining its mild charm from the appealing performances. Louis Jourdan was a well-established film and television heartthrob by the 1950s, usually typecast as a suave European gent, and his famously handsome face suits the Duc de Beauvais to perfection, especially when he and Virginia start aiming amorous looks at each other. She is played by the similarly enticing Belinda Lee, who later appeared mostly in Italian movies before her untimely death in 1961 at age twenty-six. In an interesting touch, her English accent remains intact, reminding us that in the late eighteenth century many Americans still sounded like the Brits they had recently been. The most good-humored performance comes from the great character actress Martita Hunt, who gives the bedridden Aunt Fell a feisty eccentricity quite different from the scary craziness she gave the mad Miss Havisham in David Lean's version of Great Expectations (1946), probably her most celebrated role. Keith Michell is sturdy as a strapping French colonel. And although he's three years older than the character he plays, Richard O'Sullivan is reasonably convincing as Louis, displaying the talent that would make him a major British sitcom star in the 1970s.
All in all, it's hard to disagree with New York Times critic Howard Thompson's opinion that despite the film's dramatic subject, action that should be "crawling with...sustained suspense" simply lacks it most of the time. Thompson praises other aspects of the production, though "the lavish, meticulous castle interiors, the sweeping, azure-tinted coastal landscapes, and the murkiness of the Paris dungeons" and he's right about these too. Dangerous Exile looks intriguing even when the drama sags.
Director: Brian Desmond Hurst
Producer: George H. Brown
Screenplay: Robin Estridge; additional dialogue by Patrick Kirwan; from the novel A King Reluctant" by Vaughan Wilkins
Cinematographer: Geoffrey Unsworth
Film Editing: Peter Bezencenet
Production Design: Ferdinand Bellan Art Direction: Jack Maxsted
Music: Georges Auric
With: Louis Jourdan (Duc de Beauvais), Belinda Lee (Virginia Traill), Keith Michell (Colonel St. Gerard), Richard O'Sullivan (Louis XVII), Martita Hunt (Aunt Fell), Finlay Currie (Mr. Patient), Anne Heywood (Glynis), Jean Mercure (Chief of Police), Raymond Gerome (The Director), Jean Claudio (De Castres), Terence Longdon (Sir Frederick Venner), Brian Rawlinson (Dylan), Frederick Leister (Captain Ogden), Laurence Payne (Lautrec), Derek Oldham (William), Austin Trevor (Petitval).
by David Sterritt