The Big Picture
- Tristan + Isolde wrongly portrays the Irish as colonizers in England, deviating from historical facts.
- Ridley Scott produced the film and is known for altering history in his movies.
- James Franco was miscast in the lead role, while Henry Cavill gave a standout performance as Melot, contributing to the film’s downfall.
It doesn’t take an expert on early medieval England to notice that a movie hinging on the Irish ruling over England is not sticking to historical facts. Well, that’s what the 2006 historical romance Tristan & Isolde would have you believe. When the long and bloody history of England colonizing Ireland is considered, this framing becomes less forgivable than the usual Hollywood diversions from fact. Pair that with a horribly miscast James Franco in the lead role (co-star Henry Cavill is right there!) and you end up with a movie that contributed to the downfall of its production company, Franchise Pictures.
Tristan & Isolde
An affair between the second in line to Britain’s throne and the princess of the feuding Irish spells doom for the young lovers.
- Release Date
- April 7, 2006
- Kevin Reynolds
- Main Genre
What Is the Story of Tristan and Iseult?
While not quite as famous as William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which shares the common thread of doomed lovers on opposing sides of a conflict, the story of Tristan and Isolde (also known as Tristan and Iseult) could date as far back as the 6th century. The basic story is fairly simple — in post-Roman England, Cornish knight Tristan is transporting the Irish princess Iseult to marry his uncle King Mark of Cornwall, but the pair ingest a love potion and begin an illicit affair that leads to banishment and death. As is often the case with legends of this kind, there are myriad versions with all manner of details rearranged and reinterpreted, but that basic framework is consistent in most retellings.
Henry Cavill Is Bearded and Burly in New ‘The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’ Images
A trailer is set to arrive tomorrow.
The earliest known versions of the story are the 12th-century romances of Thomas of Britain and Béroul, while the later prose Tristan is a more expansive telling of the tale that wraps it all into Arthurian legend. It’s all a very complicated tapestry that involves centuries of retellings, with different versions for the common people and the court. In more modern times, long before Kevin Reynolds brought his version to the screen in 2006, there was Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. The 1865 opera is a clear influence on Tristan & Isolde, with a number of deviations from the earlier works present in both, aside from the love potion that Wagner retains.
‘Tristan + Isolde’ Portrays the Irish as Colonizers
When Tristan & Isolde opens, it’s with an extremely unhelpful declaration of the time period for the story – The Dark Ages. Thankfully, an explanation that England is reeling from Rome abandoning them and the Irish have used this to their advantage narrows it down a bit. This whole opening being in the papyrus font would make Ryan Gosling lose his mind. With a tale such as this, you can hardly blame a modern director for taking some liberties and fudging the details in service of the story. Making the Irish a brutal colonizing force is, however, a step too far. One of the consistent details in all the retellings is that Ireland is at war with Cornwall and the marriage of Isolde to King Mark is a way of brokering peace. Increasing the stakes so that the unification of England under a single ruler to beat back the Irish can be the central theme is a wildly unnecessary deviation from the centuries of English subjugation of Ireland from the time of King Henry II. War between the two kingdoms would have worked perfectly well without this bizarre revision of history.
Ridley Scott Produced ‘Tristan + Isolde’
Serving as a producer on the film, Ridley Scott had wanted to make an adaptation of the legend since the mid-1970s, even before he began filming his debut feature The Duellists. While Reynolds doesn’t bring the same level of visual flair to the film as Scott would have, you can still feel his fingerprints on the tone of Tristan & Isolde. Scott also isn’t afraid to alter history in service of the story he wants to tell, whether it be ignoring that Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) reigned in tandem with his father Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) before his death in Gladiator, the completely fabricated personal history of the very real Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) in Kingdom of Heaven, or a very different version of the ‘Mogadishu Mile’ in Black Hawk Down. And of course, he certainly took some liberties with Napoleon as well. However, these all serve their stories thematically without undermining the histories of two nations.
In terms of taking creative liberties with the actual story, Tristan & Isolde is far less transformative than some other adaptations. For instance, Jean Cocteau transported the tale to Vichy France in L’Éternel Retour, surrealist master Luis Buñuel’s Tristana is a loose, gender-swapped adaptation, and Hrafn Gunnlaugsson took the legend to Iceland for the second entry in his Raven Trilogy, In the Shadow of the Raven. What Reynolds sought to do is to make a more grounded version of the story, hinging on the removal of the love potion and having Tristan (James Franco) and Isolde (Sophia Myles) fall in love without knowing each other’s true identities. Aside from this, much of the plot is very similar to Wagner’s opera, including the crucial character of Melot (Henry Cavill).
‘Tristan + Isolde’ Cast the Right Actor in the Wrong Role
James Franco is not an awful actor, but in Tristan & Isolde, he gives a wooden, lifeless performance. Aside from some anachronistic poetry recitals, it’s unclear why Isolde would be all that taken with him. Then again, anything is better than her previous suitor Morholt (Graham Mullins). Even Franco regrets taking the part, writing in Newsweek: “It was a big mistake. I was an overzealous young actor and wanted to make great movies. I read the script and wasn’t sure about it, but my acting teacher said it was a role that a young Brando or Olivier would do.” The production was so close to nailing the part, had they just thought to swap Cavill and Franco’s parts.
In the sorely underwritten role of Melot, King Mark’s (Rufus Sewell) nephew who is envious of Tristan’s place as Mark’s adopted son, Cavill is dynamic and imbues the role with a deep sense of pathos. As he showed much later in his career as The Witcher’s Geralt of Rivia, swordplay and a medieval physical presence are well within his wheelhouse. But there is a scene towards the end of the film, after Melot is tricked into betraying King Mark and then double-crossed, that steals the show. He lies on the floor dying and explains to Tristan why he helped attack his uncle with a heartbreaking line reading: “I thought someone believed in me.” It’s the best piece of acting in the entire movie and in that moment, you understand everything about Melot despite the script doing very little to flesh him out — and it’s all because of Cavill. Putting him in the role of Tristan would have vastly improved the film, even if losing him as Melot would invariably be a detriment. The importance of the lead role certainly makes the trade-off worth it.
‘Tristan + Isolde’ Was the Last Nail in the Coffin of Franchise Pictures
When Tristan & Isolde hit theaters, it was with a whimper, landing in eighth place on its opening weekend with a mere $6.5 million. Not a great result, but with a modest budget reported to be somewhere in the range of $31 million, it’s also not the kind of bomb that would usually sink a production company. Unlike movies such as Ben-Hur and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which are credited with saving their studios, Tristan & Isolde was merely unable to save Franchise Pictures from bankruptcy. The real culprit was one of the worst-reviewed movies ever – Battlefield Earth. More specifically, some dodgy accounting that inflated the budget and led to one of the investors suing the company caused its collapse. The case was finalized in 2004 and Franchise had to pay out in excess of $100 million. While a strong showing from Tristan & Isolde could have revived the company, when that never materialized, Franchise’s fate was sealed. Only one Franchise film followed up Tristan & Isolde, 2007’s The Wendell Baker Story. After that, the coffin had been nailed.
Tristan + Isolde is available to rent on Prime Video and Apple TV+ in the U.S.
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