TV Flashback: LES ROIS MAUDITS
LES ROIS MAUDITS is a six episode French miniseries that initially aired in December 1972 through January 1973. A sprawling yet notably intimate--and not a little brutal--medieval tapestry, the 616 minute LES ROIS MAUDITS was adapted from six of the seven novels that make up Maurice Druon’s bestselling ACCURSED KINGS series (which George R.R. Martin has called “the original GAME OF THRONES”). As adapted by Marcel Jullian and directed by the late Claude Barma (of 1965’s inimitable BELPHEGOR), the series is a highly faithful rendering of Druon’s texts, complete with off-screen voice-overs (by Jean Desailly) intoning the books’ prose (example: the narrator’s offhand observation that “Neither of these two noble personages could have guessed that the events they were to set in motion would make them the begetters of…a war which would last a hundred years,” a line taken nearly verbatim from Druon’s text).
What truly renders this miniseries unique is its overtly theatrical veneer. LES ROIS MAUDITS been called a “filmed play” due to its minimalistic set design, which utilized painted backgrounds and artificial lighting. The idea was to place paramount emphasis on the performances--which, it must be said, are magnificent. In keeping with the theatrical bent the actors were recruited largely from the stage (specifically the comédie française), and there’s nary a weak link in the bunch.
The program may initially seem difficult to watch, given the massive cast of characters and dialogue-heavy theatrical veneer, but grows quite compelling as it advances. The effect is similar to theatrically informed films like Peter Watkins’ LA COMMUNE and Lars von Trier’s DOGVILLE (which is said to have been inspired by LES ROIS MAUDITS), although neither can hope to match the ambition or impact of Claude Barma’s towering work here.
LES ROIS MAUDITS begins with one of the most famous openings in French television, in which the cast poses statue-like on a stage with the narrator explaining the particulars of each character. From there we’re ushered into early 14th century France, where King Philip the Fair (Georges Marchal) executes the last remaining members of the Order of the Knights Templar, who resisted his rule and paid the price by being systematically hunted down and killed in what was apparently the “most extensive persecution known to history.” Upon being burned at the stake the Templars’ grand master Jacques de Molay (Xavier Depraz) curses the king and his successors.
We witness the particulars of that curse played out over the remainder of the series, the first episode of which concludes with the murder of King Philip. He’s succeeded by his sons Louis, Philip and Charles, each of whom take the throne but don’t survive very long (providing something of a running joke at the beginning of each episode, which replicate the opening sequence described above but with successively fewer cast members), amid an overall atmosphere of unrelieved plague and desolation.
Other standout characters include the hot-blooded rogue Robert D’Artois (Jean Piat), the closest thing there is to a protagonist in this teeming fresco (he being one of the very few characters who survives to the end); Mahaut (Helene Duc), Robert’s equally wiley aunt, who helps seal the fate of King Philip when he elects to imprison Mahaut’s two daughters for adultery; and Beatrice (Catherine Rouvel), Mahaut’s seductive cousin, who uses witchcraft to carry out her elder’s vengeance.
The series concludes with the commencement of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. Before then we get an intricate succession of plotting and counter-plotting that ends more often than not with somebody being violently murdered. Of those murders poisoning is an especially popular method; we also get hangings, stabbings and, in the series’ most winsome scene, a sheathed knife stuck up a most unfortunate man’s rectum. Most of the mayhem, it should be added, takes place entirely offstage (as in a nondescript shot of a lake with a voice-over informing us that a mangled corpse was found therein).
It should also be pointed out that the series is not as historically accurate as it might seem. This is in keeping with the source novels of Maurice Druon, which were admittedly written to “make money very quickly,” and divert from written history in several particulars (such as their frank acceptance of supernatural phenomena). LES ROIS MAUDITS is all-but unknown in the US, although it did play on British television back in the late 1970s. In its native land it was quite iconic, and influential enough that it inspired several medieval-set TV knock-offs (such as 1978’s GASTON PHOEBUS). There was also a 2005 TV remake.
The latter production, helmed by Josee Dayan with a reported budget of 18 million euros, wisely refrains from attempting to directly replicate the style or design of the original LES ROIS MAUDITS. You’ll find no theatrical artifice here, but what Dayan provided in its place was far less interesting, despite lavish production values (with the opening round-up of the Knights Templar and subsequent large-scale battle scenes employing what look like thousands of extras), a reconfigured action-intensive narrative, notably frank sex and gore, arrestingly bizarre space-agey set design and a starry cast that includes Gerard Depardieu, Jeanne Moreau and Tcheky Karyo.
A striking curiosity at best, the ‘05 LES ROIS MAUDITS is, of course, much easier to find than its infinitely more resonant predecessor. Ditto the source novels of Maurice Druon, which in 2013 appeared in attractively packaged English language trade paperback editions courtesy of Harper. But regarding the subject of this article, the 1972 TV miniseries, its sole appearances on DVD have been via PAL formatted, subtitle-less versions (and a series of English subtitled YouTube uploads that have been taken down). That’s a situation that simply MUST change ASAP!