The film stars Richard Burton as King Henry VIII and Geneviève Bujold as Anne Boleyn. Irene Papas plays Catherine of Aragon. Others in the cast include Anthony Quayle, John Colicos, Michael Hordern, Katharine Blake, Peter Jeffrey, Joseph O'Conor, William Squire, Vernon Dobtcheff, Denis Quilley, Esmond Knight and T. P. McKenna, who would later go on to play Henry VIII in Monarch. Elizabeth Taylor makes a brief, uncredited appearance.
Despite receiving some negative reviews and a mixed, but complimentary review from the New York Times and one from Pauline Kael, the film was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won the award for best costumes. Geneviève Bujold's portrayal of Anne, her first in an English-speaking film, was, however, very highly praised, even by Time magazine, which otherwise skewered the movie. According to the Academy Awards exposé Inside Oscar, an expensive advertising campaign was mounted by Universal Studios that included serving champagne and filet mignon to members of the Academy following each screening.
The play Anne of the Thousand Days, the film's basis, was first enacted on Broadway in the Shubert Theatre on 8 December 1948; staged by H. C. Potter, with Rex Harrison and Joyce Redman as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn respectively, running 288 performances; Harrison won a Tony Award for his performance.
Cinematically, Anne of the Thousand Days took twenty years to reach the screen because its themes – adultery, illegitimacy, incest – were then unacceptable to the US motion picture production code. The film was made on such locations as Penshurst Place and Hever Castle, and at Pinewood and Shepperton Studios. Hever Castle was one of the main settings for the film; it was also the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. The stunning formal Tudor gardens provided the perfect setting for the film.
The film begins in 1536 when Henry VIII (Richard Burton) considers whether or not he should sign the warrant for the execution of his second wife, Anne Boleyn: then, in a long flashback which takes up virtually the entire film, the whole truth is revealed. Starting in 1527, Henry has a problem: he reveals his dissatisfaction with his wife, Catherine of Aragon (Irene Papas). He is currently enjoying a discreet affair with Mary Boleyn, a daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn who is one of his courtiers; but the King is bored with her too. At a court ball, he notices Mary's 18-year-old sister Anne (Geneviève Bujold), who has just returned from her education in France. She is engaged to the son of the Earl of Northumberland and they have received their parents' permission to marry. The King, however, is enraptured with Anne's beauty and orders his Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, to break up the engagement.
When news of this decision is carried to Anne, she reacts furiously. She blames the Cardinal and the King for ruining her happiness. When Henry makes a rather clumsy attempt to seduce her, Anne bluntly informs him how she finds him: "I've heard what your courtiers say and I've seen what you are. You're spoiled and vengeful and bloody. Your poetry is sour and your music is worse. You make love as you eat—with a good deal of noise and no subtlety."
Henry brings her back to Court with him, whilst she continues to resist his advances out of a mixture of repugnance for Henry and her lingering anger over her broken engagement. However, she becomes intoxicated with the power that the King's love gives her. "Power is as exciting as love," she tells her brother George Boleyn, "and who has more of it than the king?" Using this power, she continually undermines Cardinal Wolsey (Anthony Quayle), who at first sees Anne as just a passing love interest for the King.
When Henry again presses Anne to become his mistress, she repeats that she will never give birth to a child who is illegitimate. Desperate to have a son, Henry suddenly comes up with the idea of marrying Anne in Catherine's place. Anne is stunned, but she agrees. Wolsey begs the King to abandon the idea because of the political consequences of divorcing Catherine. Henry refuses to listen.
When Wolsey fails to persuade the Pope to give Henry his divorce, Anne points out this failing to an enraged Henry. Wolsey is dismissed from office and his magnificent palace in London is given as a present to Anne. In this splendour, Anne realises that she has finally fallen in love with Henry. They sleep together and, after discovering that she is pregnant, they are secretly married. Anne is given a splendid coronation, but the people jeer at her in disgust as "the King's whore".
Months later, Anne gives birth to a daughter: Princess Elizabeth. Henry is displeased since he was hoping for a boy, and their marital relationship begins to cool. His attentions are soon diverted to Lady Jane Seymour, one of Anne's maids. Once she discovers this liaison, Anne banishes Jane from court. "She has the face of a simpering sheep," she informs Henry, "and the manners, but not the morals. I don't want her near me."
During a row over Sir Thomas More's opposition to Anne's queenship, Anne refuses to sleep with her husband unless More is put to death. "It's his blood, or else it's my blood and Elizabeth's!" she cries hysterically. More is put to death, but Anne's subsequent pregnancy ends, resulting in a stillborn boy.
Henry demands that his new minister, Thomas Cromwell, find a way to get rid of Anne. Cromwell tortures a servant in her household into confessing to adultery with the Queen; he then arrests four other courtiers who are also accused of being Anne's lovers. Anne is taken to the Tower and placed under arrest. When she is told that she has been accused of adultery, she laughs. "I thought you were serious!" she says, before being informed that it is deadly serious. When she sees her brother being brought into the Tower, Anne asks why he has been arrested. "He too is accused of being your lover," mutters her embarrassed uncle. Anne's face shudders with horror before she whispers, "Incest?... Oh, God help me, the King is mad. I am doomed."
At Anne's trial, she manages to cross-question Mark Smeaton, the tortured servant who finally admits that the charges against Anne are lies. Henry makes an appearance, before visiting Anne in her chambers that night. He offers her freedom if she will agree to annul their marriage and make their daughter illegitimate. Anne refuses, saying that she would rather die than betray their daughter. Henry slaps her before telling her that her disobedience will mean her death.
Moving back to 1536, Henry decides to execute Anne. A few days later, Anne is taken to the scaffold and beheaded by a French swordsman. Henry rides off to marry Jane Seymour and the film's final shot is of their young daughter, Elizabeth (Amanda Jane Smythe), toddling alone in the garden as she hears the cannon firing to announce her mother's death. Before the credits roll in this scene, Anne's voice is heard reciting a prophecy she spoke to Henry in the Tower: "Elizabeth shall be a greater queen than any king of yours. She shall rule a greater England than you could ever have built. My Elizabeth shall be queen, and my blood will have been well spent."Historians dispute King Henry VIII's paternity of one or both of Mary Boleyn's children. Henry VIII: The King and His Court, by Alison Weir, questions the paternity of Henry Carey; Dr. G.W. Bernard (The King's Reformation) and Joanna Denny (Anne Boleyn: A New Life of England's Tragic Queen) argue that Henry VIII was their father.
Anne Boleyn might not have been eighteen years old in 1527; her birth date is unrecorded. Most historians today believe that she must have been about 25 in 1527.
There is no proof that Henry VIII ordered the breaking of Henry Percy and Anne Boleyn's engagement because he wanted Anne for himself at that point. Percy's family, the Northumberlands, were one of the leading families in the North of England and they had always wanted Henry Percy to marry Mary Talbot, a rich heiress from the same region, and not a girl from a comparatively lower status family. They might have asked the King and Cardinal Wolsey's intervention when the engagement was made to be known. In fact, in order to have no impediment for Henry VIII's and Anne's marriage, all parties always denied that any engagement had ever taken place.
Most histories of the period say nothing about Anne pressuring Henry to have More executed.
Catherine of Aragon's daughter Mary was not present at the time of Catherine's final illness and death; they were being kept apart forcibly.
Catherine of Aragon's depiction by Irene Papas was quite wrong in terms of appearance, as it is well documented that the Queen had auburn hair and a very pale complexion. Obviously Papas was chosen as she has stereotypical Mediterranean appearance matching false popular assumptions on how a 'Spanish' noble would look.
The meeting between Anne and Henry shortly before her execution is fictional, and even if such a meeting had taken place, some details of their discussion are implausible. Anne's marriage was annulled anyway, and she was never offered a deal which would have given her her freedom. Elizabeth and Mary were both declared illegitimate, but were nevertheless in the line of succession, but not until after Anne's death. Thus, at that point the chances of Elizabeth inheriting the crown probably seemed rather low.
Henry did not intervene in Anne's trial; she was disallowed the right to question the witnesses against her. She and the King met last at a joust the day before her arrest.
Anne of the Thousand Days depicts Anne as innocent of the charges; considered historically correct, per the biographies by Eric W. Ives, Retha Warnicke, Joanna Denny, and Tudor historian David Starkey which all state her innocence of adultery, incest, and witchcraft.
The film received mixed reviews from critics, most commonly the plot was considered dull and plodding. Beyond the story itself, the performances of Genevieve Bujold, Richard Burton and Irene Papas were met with universal acclaim, especially that of Bujold. Her Anne Boleyn has gone down in cinematic history, considered to be the finest portrayal of the Queen ever made. Bujold remains the only actress ever nominated for an Oscar in playing Anne Boleyn.