top

Lionheart
(1987)

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner 
Cast:
Eric Stoltz, Gabriel Byrne, Nicola Cowper


Since it's pretty obvious from this web site that I love movies a whole bunch - and have done so for years and years, even before starting this web site - I think that there is a good chance that you have concluded that I have had dreams of making my own movie, something that would stand tall beside other movies. Well, you would be partially right with that conclusion. When I was much younger, I did dream of making my own movies. Back then, movies seemed so much fun that I concluded that making them would be just as much fun. But as the years went by, and I read plenty of reading material about movies, I soon concluded that I would be better off just watching and reviewing movies instead of making them. From what I learned, making a movie, whether it's a low budget B movie or a high budget movie supported by a major Hollywood studio, is very hard work. All roles on a movie are hard work, but the position of director may be the hardest of all. Even before filming actually starts, the director has to do a lot of pre-production work. Helping choose the actors for the movie, approving locations that your scouts have found for you, and going over the script with the input of the screenwriters are just some of the many, many tasks a director has to do. Even if the director manages to successfully handle all the pre-production tasks, there is still the actual filming of the movie. Unforeseen problems can come up and make the experience a gruelling one. Then there is the post-production process, where people from editors to studio heads can make changes to your baby that you just don't think are right.

But even if everything you did for your movie went the way that you wanted, there is one thing that can happen to your movie that can feel like a slam to your gut - the studio decides to barely release your movie to theaters, or even not release your movie to any theaters at all. Please keep in mind I am not talking about direct-to-DVD productions or independent films - the makers of those movies do have a good idea of the eventual fate of their movies long before they are completed. I'm talking about movies handled by major Hollywood studios. At first glance, it may seem odd that a major studio would barely release a big budget movie - don't they want to get their money back? But for the most part there are two main reasons why a major Hollywood studio would barely release (or not at all) one of their movies. The most obvious reason is that the movie in question turned out to be bad. Many bad movies do get released, but there are some that are so bad that no marketing campaign could attract an audience. The second reason can be studio politics. Studio executives come and go from major Hollywood studios all the time, and when there is a new regime at a studio, they are usually handed the ready to be released movies made by the previous regime. The new executives may be nervous that these completed movies may be successful and make their own subsequent efforts look shabby critically and financially. So they cancel any plans for a big release for these completed movies. In either the first case or the second case, the executives may not want to invest in the expense to barely release the movie at all to theaters but do so all the same, because even a tiny release to theaters makes the movie subsequently easier to sell to cable TV and video store owners.

Those are the main reasons why some major Hollywood studio movies don't get much of a release to theaters. But there are some barely released movies that puzzle me as to why they earned that fate. For example, a long time ago I saw the movie Equilibrium, which I enjoyed a lot, Lionheartbut had been shabbily distributed by its studio. Years later, I learned why: The studio had already made a profit on the movie by selling it around the world, and decided not to risk losing their profit with a risky and expensive release. Then there is the movie that I'm reviewing here, Lionheart. It had quite a pedigree - the director was Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton), the music composer was Jerry Goldsmith, Eric Stoltz was in the cast, and it was filmed with a hefty budget on actual locations in Europe. But its distributor (Orion Pictures) barely released it in North America. To add insult to injury, they declined to snatch up the video rights, and the producers had to get another distributor to release it on video. Years ago, I watched the movie for myself, and I thought at the time I knew why it was barely released. But since then, I've come across many positive reviews of it, so I decided to watch it again and give it another chance. Lionheart takes place at the end of the 12th century in France. While various parties in the north of France are fighting over land, King Richard II of England is in the southern end of the country gathering knights for a crusade into the Holy Land. A young knight by the name of Robert Nerra (Stoltz, Mask) has been groomed by his family to join King Richard. However, while his party is traveling south to join King Richard, they are ambushed by a rival party. During the battle, a terrified Robert flees from the scene. He is not only ashamed by his cowardness, he is now alone - but not for long. He soon encounters people who also are alone from the fighting in the country - specifically, children who have been orphaned. Just a short time later, he finds himself leading a whole band of orphaned children. Robert feels he has found his calling - to lead the orphans to the safety and care of King Richard. However, as Robert leads the children to King Richard, a grave threat rears its ugly head - a former knight known as the Black Prince (Byrne, End Of Days) learns of this Children's Crusade, and plans to capture the children and sell them into slavery.

Lionheart is a family movie made by a prestigious Hollywood family. The executive producers were made up of Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) and his brother-in-law Jack Schwartzman (Hyper Sapien: People From Another Star), and Coppola's sister Talia Shire was also a producer. With all this power behind the scenes, it explains why the project was able to attract talent ranging from composer Jerry Goldsmith to director Franklin J. Schaffner. However, the talent often seems misused or calculated incorrectly. Let me start off by one of the first elements to strike the viewer when watching the movie, Jerry Goldsmith's musical score. Some Goldsmith fans claim that this is one of his best efforts, and I can see why. The music is indeed great, rousing and triumphant, by itself sounding appropriate for a medieval-set movie. (Click here to listen to a sample of the music.) However, the way it's used as a backdrop in the movie itself doesn't always work. Often it comes across as if Goldsmith composed the music without actually seeing any of the unscored movie first. The music sounds great, but it often doesn't seem to exactly fit with what's going on the screen at the same time. I don't know if this was due to director Schaffner, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt to this question. I can, however, judge Schaffner's work elsewhere in the movie. As an old pro, Schaffner does manage to build some effective atmosphere in the movie. You can feel the cold and misery the characters are feeling as they travel in the uninviting wilderness. Indoor scenes are dimly lit and cramped, and this often tight direction feels very inappropriate for a time in history where conditions were more often than not without much comfort.

Schaffner also manages to generate some excitement in several of the movie's action sequences, ranging from mass battles to one-on-one fights. His direction of these scenes is interesting, giving the fights a matter-of-fact feeling, avoiding rapid edits as well as swift movements of the participants. There is a strong realistic feeling in these scenes. However, there is also a downside to Schaffner's direction, though not all of it is his fault. Certainly, he could have scuffed up the actors' costumes; everyone looks too clean and neat in this uninviting environment. Schaffner's additional handling of the actors, by the way, does often leave something desired. For the most part he doesn't seem able to get his cast to make really memorable performances. Though the fault of this seems to lie with the script. As the Black Prince, Gabriel Byrne does manage to generate a little creepiness whenever he's onscreen. The problem is that this character isn't on the screen for a great deal of time. In fact, there are several lengthy instances where he's pretty much forgotten about. As a result, it's hard to feel that the protagonists are in real danger, and it's harder to get involved in their plight. Making it even harder to care about the protagonists is that they are pretty thinly written as well. Eric Stoltz's Robert Nerra character may be the hero of the movie, but surprisingly he doesn't get much of a chance to act heroic. The character is given very little dialogue, so little that we have no idea what is going on in his head. When his character suddenly finds himself saddled with the responsibility of taking care of more than a dozen children, how does he react? He simply asks God for help, and seconds later is triumphantly leading his new responsibilities on the path to King Richard. There must have been more that influenced this formerly fear-filled youth to put aside his fears and take on the responsibility, but we never get to see any of this.

There is another problem with this character, and the blame falls on actor Eric Stoltz. Some other reviewers of Lionheart have said that Stoltz in this movie comes across as effeminate. While I wouldn't say it becomes that extreme, I must admit that Stoltz's haircut, thin voice, and other unmasculine attributes did become distracting at times and removed a lot of heroic feeling to his character. Still, Stoltz all the same comes across a lot better than his youthful co-stars. There is some initial promise with the warrior wannabe character actress Deborah Barrymore (Bullseye!) plays, but after she's introduced she hardly does a thing for the rest of the running time. Nicola Cowper (Journey To The Center Of The Earth) provides the love interest for Eric Stoltz's character, but absolutely no chemistry is generated because the two character hardly say a word to each other up to the time Stoltz out of the blue gives Cowper a kiss and declares his love. Up to this point I have certainly given a lot of proof as to why Lionheart does not work, but I have not listed the main reason why it fails - the big reason why I did not like the movie as a youth as well as now. The reason why kids as well as adults will find it tough to sit through the movie is that it is both too long and too slow. By the time the movie reached the halfway point in its one hundred and five minute long length, it had reached a point in the story that a more lean and efficient movie would have reached in half that time. The second half of the movie wasn't paced much better than the first half. This is a movie that desperately needed its screenplay to be taken back to the writers for a few more rewrites before shooting actually started. It would have fixed many of the movie's problems, and we might have had something here. But as it is, the only way you should invest time and money when it comes to Lionheart is with tracking down the rare CD edition of its soundtrack.

(Posted December 20, 2016)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check for availability on Amazon (Download)

See also: The Brothers Lionheart, Hearts And Armour, Star Knight

homeindexgenree-mail