Your RDA of Irony

Alfred the Groovy

Someone in Hollywood thought that this film would be irresistible to an audience in 1969.  A young man wants to drop out of society, forsaking the demands of the material world, and find his spiritual fulfillment.  Unfortunately, he get drafted and is forced to contend with a brutal military-industrial complex.  In keeping with its counter-culture theme, the film could have been called “Hair Shirt.” However, since the hippie in question happened to be a ninth century king of England, the film had the more deferential title of “Alfred the Great.” 

The notion that Alfred was a medieval flower-child is based on the fact that he actually was literate.  In 9th century England, where life was brutal and short, it took a remarkable mind and effort to find books and invest hours in mastering them.  Alfred could read and write in two languages, making him one of the greatest scholars of Western Europe–or the equivalent of a Byzantine teenager.  Alfred’s imagination obviously extended beyond his next meal, so he could be regarded as “spiritual.”

Cast as the guru king was David Hemmings, whose previous roles had established his persona as an iconoclast and rebel but with a mischievous cuteness appealing to teenie-boppers.  The film and Alfred’s spiritual quest begin with his entering the priesthood.  Apparently, there were no ashrams so a monastery had to suffice.  However, the world won’t let him escape.  Nobles interrupt his investiture to announce that England is being overrun by Vikings and that he must lead the battered defenders. 

Of course, Alfred loathes the idea of fighting but, thanks to his reading, he happens to be a military genius.  Furthermore, the Vikings are just so uncool.  They are aggressive, greedy and well-groomed: but for the fact that they are yelling Odin rather than “Nixon’s the One” they are indistinguishable from the Young Republicans.  Nonetheless, Alfred tries to commune with the invaders.  He offers the Viking leader both gold (it is only material) and the English queen (she is only material, too; and in any case Mrs. Alfred isn’t too thrilled being married to an aspiring priest).  The Viking king, played by Michael York, is happy to take the tribute and the groupie but then proceeds to grab the rest of England, too.  So Alfred has to defeat the Vikings and earn the epithet of “Great”.

No one, however, has described this film as “great.”  “Hair”, “Going My Way” and “Lawrence of Arabia” made a dismal concoction.  And the film looks even worse today.  The funky and groovy Alfred now seems like a self-righteous, humorless prig.  By contrast, Michael York’s character is much more appealing.  When the proto-Nixon seems charming and sexy, Alfred must be an unbelievable drip.

And to think that I had wanted to see this film….




  1. The assistant Viking warlord is played by a British actor named Julian Chagrin. Mr. Chagrin looks a little incongruous among a Nordic horde; however, his presence might explain why the Vikings had better tailoring.

  2. Rene says:

    Michael York was much more than appealing, sigh…

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