‘The Vagabond King’ | Sunday Observer
Retro Reviews: Cinema of Yesteryear

‘The Vagabond King’

4 October, 2020

‘The Vagabond King’ is a musical film released by Paramount Pictures in 1956. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the movie delivers a classically captivating spirit of the ‘theatrical Hollywood musicals era’ that will not fail to entertain viewers who appreciate the olden style of Hollywood musicals lush with lively choreography that spins musical gaiety.

The story is set in Paris, during the reign of King Louis XI, where the Duke of Burgundy is amassing allies to march on Paris and dethrone the King, in what seems like a very successful enterprise gathering momentum attracting nobles and high officials in the King’s court. In the midst of this scenario of impending upheaval, the King becomes aware of a rebellious poet named François Villon who is supposed to command the hearts of the masses in Paris, and stirring antipathy towards the King.

Disguised as common folk, the King and one of his most trusted courtiers visit a tavern where Villon makes an appearance to the adulation of the crowd. Quite by chance the King and his courtier spot Thibault, the King’s provost marshal engaged in a secret meeting with a man named Rene who is a known agent of the Duke of Burgundy. Due to an old grudge between Thibault and Villon, the two men who cross paths by chance begin to cross swords and provide an engaging spectacle. The heated sword fight ends when the city guard arrives. At this point the King reveals himself to all and has Villon and his companions thrown in the dungeon. Thibault, however, quickly gets away, defecting to the Duke of Burgundy.

What follows is a sequence of events that bring to the fore, objectives of love and romance, treachery and betrayal, political scheming and patriotic fervour, elements of tact and guile crossing paths with sincerity and integrity as King Louis, coming to know of Villon’s romantic interests in one of the most enchanting ladies of the Royal court, Catherine de Vaucelles, manoeuvres Villon to gain advantage over the masses in Paris by way of gaining Villon’s open support to defeat Burgundy.

Finally, the Duke of Burgundy’s plan is foiled by a surprise attack by the people of Paris, inspired by Villon, when the ducal forces enter the city of Paris.

However, amid the exuberance of victory a grim veil is cast when the fact that Villon agreed that he would face the executioner for his previous rebelliousness against the King once the forces of the Duke of Burgundy have been defeated, is brought to account.

While the masses express their anger, Villon admits a bargain was reached at the outset and must now be honoured.

However the King tests the resolve of the protesting masses and declares that he will spare the life of Villon (who has voluntarily accepted his fate) if anyone will take his place at the hangman’s noose.

When the crowd fails to produce a volunteer, Catherine de Vaucelles who had rejected Villon’s overtures previously, steps forward to respond to the royal declaration.

In an amusing turn of royal tactics, the King declares the noble lady will not have to forfeit her life for Villon but will pay for his release with her estates, and sees the two of them embark on their journey as penniless lovers who have each other as their greatest wealth.

The colourfulness of the movie’s mise en scene and the liveliness of the songs are memorable.

And coupled with a good plot, appreciable acting, which includes performances by Walter Hampden as Louis XI, Kathryn Grayson as Catherine de Vaucelles and Oreste Kirkop as François Villon, ‘The Vagabond King’ is a classic Hollywood musical worthy of celebration.