BBC Time-Life’s 1979 rendition of As You Like It is a valiant effort to transfer one of Shakespeare’s great works to film-a much-attempted and oft-failed undertaking. While the casting, cinematography and direction are all generally above par for a to-film adaptation of a Shakespearian play, the movie has one serious flaw which very nearly ruins it: the portrayal of Orlando, especially in the play’s formative scenes.
The way in which he is portrayed is not only dangerous for the fact that it makes us dislike Orlando himself, it also reflects badly on Rosalind. If the play’s heroine falls in love with such a mean-spirited coward, how can we as an audience respect or relate to her? This severely damages our perception of the relationship between Orlando and Rosalind. When the audience is given such a shallow portrayal of Orlando, we can only gather that Rosalind’s attraction to him is purely physical/aesthetic-hardly as “deep” a basis for the play’s central romance as Shakespeare intended.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Shakespeare’s story alone-without the “benefit” of poor acting/directing choices-already runs the risk of making Rosalind out to be a manipulative, devious woman. If we end up disliking both Orlando and Rosalind, what’s the point of the play? Thankfully, Rosalind comes off very well in this film. But even her love cannot save our perception of Orlando.
Specifically, the way in which Orlando is portrayed in his wrestling match with Charles depicts the should-be hero as a belligerent coward. And poor casting can’t be blamed for the wrestling-scene debacle. First of all, we have Charles being played by David Prowse, the same actor who played Darth Vader in the original Star Wars trilogy. Anyone remembered as the most feared villain in science fiction history is obviously capable of portraying a cruel, intimidating wrestler.
But instead, Prowse comes off as noble and compassionate in his role. In the scene prior to the wrestling match, where he is speaking with Oliver (1.1.116-151), he seems to show genuine concern about grappling with the young, inexperienced Orlando. His mannerisms and his dress also do nothing to dissuade us from thinking that Charles is a fine, noble gentleman who just happens to be a wrestler as well. So already, we are left without a clear “villain” in a conflict whose only real function should be to endear Orlando to Rosalind and-perhaps more importantly-to the audience.
Similarly, Brian Stirner-the actor who was cast as Orlando-can’t be held completely responsible for his character’s downfall. His boyish-yet-strong looks fit well with the notion of Orlando we get from reading the text. And (in other scenes) he shows that he is, indeed, a capable actor. No, the blame for Orlando’s portrayal must fall squarely on the shoulders of the director who orchestrated the “fight” scene.
Shakespeare gives us only “Wrestle” (1.2.200) and “Shout” (1.2.203). How did this production go so wrong with only two simple words worth of stage direction given? Perhaps the director became drunk with power and wanted to do something out-of-the-ordinary as opposed to something accurate; perhaps Shakespeare ought to have given us more stage direction to prevent such abuses of freedom.
Whatever the case may be, we can break down the calamity that is the fight scene using a bit of professional wrestling terminology. In a typical pro wrestling match we see a “face” (good guy) fighting against a “heel” (villain). Regardless of who actually scores the win in the match, the face is the wrestler who walks away the hero (because he fought nobly and fairly); the face is the wrestler which the crowd should be cheering for. In three steps, we can examine how Orlando performs what is called a “heel turn” and ends up “putting over” Charles as the match’s face.
First off, Orlando looks lazy and weak from the get go. Stirner’s attempts at playing wrestler are almost embarrassing to watch. Orlando gets pushed around by his head and eventually taken down with a weak-looking bear hug. The audience can’t be expected to sympathize with Orlando at all here: he went into this match unprovoked, only wanting to “prove himself” and then, once in the ring, he looks like he’s not even trying and gets beat up in under a minute’s time.
At this point, the match should legally be over. Before the fighting, Duke Frederick announced, “You shall try but one fall” (1.2.192). And, post-bear-hug, Orlando has suffered this one fall. Here is where his heel turn goes into full swing. Orlando gets up from the ground, rushes at Charles from behind and tackles him by the legs. This is inexcusable. There is absolutely nothing in Shakespeare’s text which alludes to the fact that Orlando would ever act in such a rash, ignoble manner.
In fact, up to this point, the only real idea we have of Orlando’s character comes from his brother, Oliver: “Yet he’s gentle, never schooled and yet learned, full of noble device, of all sorts enchantingly beloved…” (1.1.155-156). (And Oliver doesn’t even like him!) This hardly sounds like the sort of young man who would use an immoral sneak attack after the legal end of a wrestling match.
Step three of Orlando’s heel turn comes in the move he uses to win the illegally-resumed match. He employs an unorthodox throw/kick sort of move to toss Charles into a wooden fence. To go back to our pro wrestling terminology, this is something that would be considered a “hardcore” maneuver. Only a heel character would ever dream of using a hardcore tactic (throwing an opponent into a fence) in a non-hardcore match.
As if this three-point-turn wasn’t enough to confuse and upset the audience sufficiently, Stirner delivers his post-match taunt-“Yes, I beseech your grace; I am not yet well breathed” (1.2.205-206)-in the most belligerent, humorless way possible.
So why were all of these choices made? One possibility is that the director wanted to portray Orlando as a feisty, vivacious young man who refuses to be pushed around by anyone, refuses to accept defeat. But if that was the intention, this is most unnecessary. In the very first scene, Orlando shows more than enough attitude and tenacity when he has his villainous brother locked into a ferocious-looking choke hold (1.1.52-70).
But the most probable reason for Orlando’s employment of underhanded tactics is the fact that logic calls for the actor who plays Charles to be much, much larger and stronger than whoever is cast in the role of Orlando. Maybe because of this size/strength difference, we are supposed to somehow feel that it is “fair” for Orlando to be so dirty in his fighting style. However, this is not a valid excuse for two reasons.
First of all, anybody watching a film (especially a film based on a play) is already operating under some level of “willing suspension of disbelief.” There’s no need for everything (a fight scene especially) to be completely “realistic.” Secondly, a realistic portrayal of a little man beating a big man without cheating is actually anything but impossible anyway.
We don’t even need to look for successful productions of As You Like It to prove this point. This “David versus Goliath” motif has been played out hundreds of times over on television, in films and in professional wrestling rings. A notable example can be found in the archives of the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling league.
In the early months of 1999, WCW fan-favorite Rey Mysterio Jr. was given a new gimmick: “The Giant Killer.” Mysterio weighs in at 5’3″ and 163 lbs. During his “Giant Killer” period he fought and defeated many larger wrestlers. Most noteworthy among these opponents were Kevin Nash and Bam-Bam Bigelow (6’11”, 317 lbs. and 6’3″, 325 lbs., respectively.)
Mysterio didn’t employ post-match sneak attacks or throw these big men into fences; he beat them fair and square, in the center of the ring. So how was it made to look realistic? First of all, the big guys had to make subtle alterations to their wrestling style: they became slower and less durable. In this way, they were still very intimidating in-ring presences, but they allowed Mysterio to play up his speed and agility.
Because of the way the matches were “directed”, they still seemed like near-impossible mismatches at first. But after Mysterio had used his quickness to daze and wear-down his opponents, his victories seemed very believable. Why couldn’t we have seen this-even on some smaller scale-in Orlando’s battle versus Charles? It certainly seems more logical than painting such a juvenile, callous picture of Orlando just for the sake of a “believable” fight.
The wrestling scene would be almost forgivable-if not forgettable-were it the only example of a bungled portrayal of Orlando. However, it is only the first and largest of several mistakes. Orlando’s belligerent, joyless tone comes back to torture us more than once. The most vivid example of post-wrestling rudeness can be found in act III, scene 2 where Orlando and Jacques are talking in the woods. When reading the text, it seems that both characters are more or less bantering back and forth in good fun.
In the film version, however, Jacques seems to be the only one enjoying their discourse; Orlando’s retorts come off as whiny and even hostile. Lines such as “I do desire we may be better strangers” (3.2.253) and “I am weary of you” (3.2.278) are delivered with an oddly venomous tone that I simply can’t abstract from Shakespeare’s text. By the time the encounter wraps up, our sympathies somehow lie with Jacques. Jacques comes off as a victim, a lonely old man who has been unjustly berated by a hot-tempered kid.
The director is the only one who can be blamed for these dilemmas. Even if we try to pin some of the fault onto “actor choices”, we must then-in turn-blame the director for approving of such weird choices. This is most sad because if Orlando had been played as a more sympathetic character we would have an above-adequate film here.
It wouldn’t have taken much for Stirner’s Orlando to live up to Oliver’s early description of him, but the portrayal is blown by odd, petulant behavior in several key points. Without this quirky depiction of Orlando, we would be left with a very solid, very accurate “middle-of-the-road” interpretation of the text caught on film. Instead, we are left wondering “why?”