Luchino Visconti / Italy, France, West Germany / 1973 / 257mins
Available on dual-format Blu-Ray/ DVD from Mon 27 March 2017
Back in the 1960’s and 70’s the magazine Films and Filming (the great rival to Sight and Sound) was, in those years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality (in England), a sort of mainstream gay magazine that could be bought without raising an eyebrow in any railway station kiosk. It famously ran stills of shirtless male stars from the current crop of releases – it had a gay time with the nude wrestling scene between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates (the latter was gay but no one knew it at the time) in Ken Russell’s 1969 movie Women in Love. And anyone reading its classified pages could be in no doubt about its core readership. The ‘coded’ lonely hearts ads – ‘bachelor seeks similar, can accommodate’ – were the Grindr of the day. Ads for Vince (the godfather of Carnaby Street) men’s shop featured the young model/actor Sean Connery posing in fetching blue jeans (42 shillings).
Films and Filming and its readers went into paroxysms over Ludwig (it was the September 1973 cover story). It was a huge budget co-production (the most expensive film ever made in Europe) with top acting and technical talent, sumptuous costumes and lavish interior and exterior locations. Visconti had a sweeping operatic vision and the male lead was the luscious German actor (and Visconti’s lover, though no one knew it at the time) Helmut Berger. The fact that the film was a shambolic mess didn’t matter a whit. That it lived long in the gay imagination is due perhaps mostly to Berger’s laser-sculpted good looks (shades of pop heartthrob Marc Bolan), outfits (damask sashes, riding boots and tight britches) and sullen performance as the spendthrift, effete, bisexual, petulant, romantic King of Bavaria. There’s some wonderful location work at Ludwig’s Bavarian fairytale castles including one with an underground grotto which garaged a swan-shaped boat. Romy Schneider plays his cousin Empress Elisabeth, the gorgeous but ill-fated Princess Diana of the 1860’s. Silvana Mangano is Princess Cosima and John Moulder-Brown – another gay icon forever losing his shirt in the glossy pages of F&F – is Prince Otto. Break out the Reisling and Ferraro Rocher and let’s binge!
It certainly helps to know a bit of the history as this is not entirely clear from the film’s plodding plot; although there a real sense of the gloomy decline of the royal dynasties of Europe – the Habsburgs, Romanovs and all – that swirls around the ormolu state rooms. Ludwig II – the so-called ‘mad king’ – ascended the throne at the age of 18. There were wars with Prussia and France. He built castles and opera houses and, cripplingly, bankrolled Wagner, here played by Trevor Howard. He never married.
The movie was horribly chopped about for distribution and at over four hours long it was seen as too lumbering. This beautifully restored Blu-ray from Arrow Academy features the TV version – the original movie cut down into more manageable chunks – as well as the cinema release. However, even Ludwig on TV can’t disguise this overindulgent and at times tiresomely leaden frolic through the Bavarian court; replete with horses and carriages, palaces, uniforms and genuine locations. All too often plot lines dangle, infuriatingly unresolved. Berger is at his wasp-chewing, peevish best as the young king forever eyeing the footmen and his performance shades into red-eyed dissolution as the king ages.
Where are they now – Visconti’s princesses and princelings? Well, Visconti made two more films before he died at the age of 70; the luscious Romy Schneider who started her career as an ugly duckling became a reliable star of European films and had an untimely death at the age of 44; Helmut Berger appears in an interview in the extras of Ludwig looking older and wiser, his beauty long faded; John Moulder-Brown has also long disappeared from view but like Berger is still recalled fondly by certain readers of Films and Filming, itself deceased in 1990. RIP.