REVIEW: Lionheart (1987)

A young knight Robert Nerra (Eric Stoltz) and his brother defy their father and set out to join King Richard I’s crusade. When their quest is immediately struck by tragedy, Robert continues alone. He finds himself the unwilling leader of a growing army of children, all the while evading the cruel slave-trading Black Prince (Gabriel Byrne).

Lionheart is a medieval drama, peppered with scenes of action and humour, and comes with an unexpected level of behind-the-scenes prestige. The script originated with Oscar-nominee Menno Meyjes (The Color Purple), and was shepherded into production by actor Talia Shire. It was briefly set up as a directing project for Shire’s brother, Francis Ford Coppola, but the end was helmed by the acclaimed Franklin J. Schaffner. With a resume including Patton (which won him an Oscar), Planet of the Apes, and Papillon, and re-teamed with his regular composer Jerry Goldsmith, Schaffner seems a great fit for a truly entertaining film. Yet somehow Lionheart flounders.

A lack of historical accuracy does not help. No one should sensibly expect an accurate history lesson from a Hollywood action movie, but it does not help that Lionheart sees Robert try to follow Richard the Lionheart on crusade (1189-1192) while also leading the Children’s Crusade (1212, some two decades later) and facing against the diabolical Black Prince (the actual “Black Prince”, Edward of Woodstock, wouldn’t even be born until 1330). If the mad jumble of historical influences resulted in an enjoyable story it would easily be forgivable. What Meyjes (and co-writer Richard Outten) deliver is significantly less interesting than anything generated purely from one slice of medieval history.

The cast do their best with weak material. Stoltz was always a rock-solid talent, and he pulls a lot of angst out of his leading role. Likewise Dexter Fletcher makes an entertaining impact as fellow young crusader Michael. Gabriel Byrne is all sullen menace and pouting as the Black Prince. It is somewhat pleasing to see English actor Bruce Purchase playing Robert’s disapproving father – as a boisterous and theatricalised performer, Purchase never seemed to get the career he deserved because the world already had Brian Blessed.

Lionheart is at least graced with a wonderful orchestral score from Jerry Goldsmith. While it does not stop the film from being deeply underwhelming, it provides a nice musical backing while the audience gets bored.

This is a strange film because, screenplay issues aside, it simply presents itself as entirely disinterested. The pace is sluggish. The photography seems ordinary. There is very little tension. Even the climax feels more like satisfying an obligation than anything dramatic or exciting. The bottom line is that this is nobody’s best work, and if the makers of Lionheart do not seem to care about it then why should we?

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