Here’s the thing with old movies (I hate that term, ‘old’ movies, but I guess we’re stuck with it): they are like time machines; indicators of past social-political viewpoints and behaviour. People smoke too much and in social places, people drink too much, men display disparaging views and treatment of women, women occupy demeaning roles… Mind you, in these current times every movie seems to display reckless abandon of social-distancing measures with almost heartbreaking displays of people shaking hands, hugging, fraternising in public spaces… movies even not-so old proving to be sobering time machines.
Old movies also exist like moments of space-time sealed in celluloid amber; actors and places frozen forever. I think that’s the most haunting thing of old movies, totally seperate from their narrative worth. In movies, Kirk Douglas is forever Spartacus, Christopher Reeve Clark Kent…Part of the ‘magic’ of movies, and part of the horror, too, if I’m honest. Films stand there heedless of change, while we can’t help but carry on.
The Scarlet Blade dates back to 1963 and was a fresh discovery for me, one of the films in Indicator’s most recent Hammer collection on Blu-ray. The film is a period action yarn set during the English Civil War, when Roundhead forces led by Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries in an usually serious and dark role) and Captain Tom Sylvester (Oliver Reed) terrorise Royalist locals while hunting down the Scarlet Blade (Jack Hedley) a weird amalgamation of Zorro and Robin Hood. After King Charles I is captured by Judd’s forces the Scarlet Blade is abetted by Judd’s own daughter, Claire, who is secretly a Royalist herself and who puts herself in danger to help the cause.
The film is a standard adventure yarn that is benefited by great performances and a strangely downbeat finale that lends the whole thing a suddenly unexpected pathos, almost. What struck me most about the film, however, was the performance of June Thorburn as Judd’s daughter, Claire, who abets the Royalist resistance and secretly betrays her father, thwarting his attempts to trap the Scarlet Blade. Its a great part and despite an unflattering wig, is brilliantly played by Thorburn, striking me as a curious forerunner of Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia over a decade later. Quite a few times whilst watching The Scarlet Blade I remarked that I could imagine a Star Wars movie featuring Leia in something like this; dedicated, fiery and rebellious in secret before revealing herself as a resistance fighter when receiving the Death Star plans. Maybe Disney will spin a ‘young Princess Leia prequel’ someday, it wouldn’t be their worst idea. Which is obviously digressing somewhat, but Thorburns performance was so good, and seemed so ‘modern’, it really left an impression on me. Maybe I was expecting so little in a Hammer romp that it caught me off-guard.
June Thorburn was, as one would expect, a very attractive woman, with features that reminded me of a young Natalie Wood, and I was sure I’d seen her in some film before- actually, I hadn’t, it was likely just her similarity with Wood that put me wrong- and her performance was so good the first thing I headed for in the special features after watching the film was the featurette about her. Which is where the darkside of these old movies takes hold- because its so brutally easy, in just fifteen/twenty minutes, to summarise a whole life and career, affording an almost Godlike perspective that seems especially cruel when that life-story is as harrowingly cut short as Thorburn’s was.
By the time Thorburn lit up the screen in The Scarlet Blade, her middling film career (highlight: playing the Forest Queen in Tom Thumb in 1958) was largely already over, with The Scarlet Blade proving to be her penultimate film, reducing her to occasional television roles on British television until her sudden death in 1967- five months pregnant with her third child, she was returning to London from Spain when her Iberia Airlines flight crashed at Blackdown, Sussex killing all 37 people on board. She was just 36.
So within minutes, really, of being so enamoured by her part in this Hammer film and looking forward to seeing what else she’d done in film, I’m being crushed at the unfairness of her terrible demise in such tragic circumstances. Such is the power of perspective; a chatty talking heads piece and a subsequent search of the Internet. To be sure, the Internet is the dark power in all this watching of old movies. A simple search can result in a filmography spanning an entire career and a simple two-paragraph bio sum up a life in bullet-points of ‘born/married/died’. It can be depressing enough when a lengthy and rewarding career is involved, only more so in the case of someone like Thorburn. My cursory internet search resulted in ghastly commentary by police officers involved in searching the air crash wreckage for body parts: a sobering return to reality after enjoying the Hammer film’s gentle romp.
Part of the sadness of course is that Thorburn’s film career never really took off in the way it might have, and possibly should have done (on the strength of The Scarlet Blade, anyway). I think its true to say she was a better actress than perhaps The Scarlet Blade deserved. Her bio strikes me as that of a confident and talented, independent woman; she apparently had a reputation for being something of a tomboy growing up (again, how very Princess Leia) and it does seem that the role of Claire perfectly suited her. Maybe she got the right role, at last, but stuck in a Hammer b-movie it was hardly going to light up the film industry.
So anyway, strike this up as another of those sobering experiences of watching old movies. I did enjoy the film very much and will no doubt re-watch it before long (Indicator’s Blu-ray edition is typically excellent) but I’m sure that experience will be laboured somewhat with the knowledge of who June Thorburn was and what became of her just a few years later.