Our story opens in Renaissance Italy. Tyrone Power stars as Captain Orsini, an unlikely hero who starts out as an envoy of the power-hungry Cesare Borgia. Climbing the ladder of success by any means necessary in order to bury his humble beginnings, Orsini believes that he has found the true fulfillment of his life. What could be better than living as a nobleman in a society of learning and culture, respected for shrewdness and cunning, in which every man is his own master and can compete as equals according to their skills?
But the glamour of the world and the thirst of raw ambition do not satisfy him, but only warp his soul. Orsini’s pious widowed mother, Mona Constanza Zoppo, had tried to teach him this long ago, but he had refused to listen, and she had prayed he would be converted, even if it meant he would lose all his earthly powers. Orsini experiences this prayed-for enlightenment in the most unexpected of ways, while he is on a mission of intrigue and seduction to weaken the fortifications of a small province so Cerseare Borgia can overrun it and seize control.
When the duke refuses to submit to Borgia’s threats and prepares to defend his tiny domain from aggression, Andrea finally repudiates his power-hungry former master and experiences a change of heart, dedicating his wits as “Prince of Foxes” to aid the duke’s defense. It is the couple’s own stalwart sense of nobility that taps into Orsini’s better nature and brings him to the realization that Borgia’s philosophy of life is profoundly perverse, even though the trappings are appealing enough. The ultimate reality he must face up to, in the midst of both external and internal conflict, is that it is far better to die in a good cause than prosper in a bad one.
Prince of Foxes stands out as an all-time classic swashbuckler gem with an atypical in its plot twists and moral potency. This is a story about what’s really important in life, told with both vigor and subtlety, mirroring the many moods of the tale. The acting in this film is excellent, led by Tyrone Power and Orson Welles. The plot is full of intricacies and unexpected twists and turns. There is also some wonderful sword-play and battle sequences. I will say that I felt the ending wrapped up rather abruptly with a few lose ends left dangling, due to budget cuts, but that’s just the fan-girl in me crying out for more.
For once, we have a romance based on true nobility! Indeed, it is quite evident that Lady Camilla is quite smitten with Orsini, but still she will not betray her husband. The reason is that she truly loves the latter for his goodness and wisdom, and whole-heartedly supports the cause which he champions. In effect, she is a nobler version of Queen Guinevere. After the count is mortally wounded, he joins the hands of Orsini and his wife, thanking them for their faithfulness and entrusting Orsini with her safety and that of the city. Orsini uses his wits to out-fox Borgia for as long as he can, then gallantly agrees to turn himself over to the enemy so Camilla and the inhabitants will be spared from slaughter.
The power and beauty of art is an important motif in Prince of Foxes, which is no surprise, considering the setting is Renaissance Italy. Orsini first wins the respect and affection of Dona Camilla when he meets her at an art dealer’s shop and makes her a gift of a painting he was going to sell. Later, at the castle, Camilla asks him to pain her portrait. Since he is talented with the brush and has an eye for beauty, he accepts the commission, thinking this will be a means of seducing her. But instead, his heart is open to true love and honor through the project, as he learns that that the deepest sort of beauty is found in the intangible things, which he must embrace before he can fulfill his destiny and deepest desires.
I do have several questions which the plot left unanswered: what made the assassin Belli spare Orsini’s life at Borgia’s court? It’s left pretty much a mystery as to whether it was a matter of the better angels of his character soaring into the heavens…or that someone paid him off to speed up the conversion process! But either, I must say that Everett Sloane made a wonderfully ferret-like villain. Another question is how did the rebels manage to toss Borgia out of the province at the end? All the odds were against them, and the idea that they could just storm the place with farming tools doesn’t really hold up to logic. It seems as if Orsini would have come up with a more mentally stimulating plan. Lastly, why wasn’t the Lady Borgia, who Orsini once courted, more vengeful after he ditched for another woman? I mean, she’s a woman, she’s Italian, and she’s a Borgia!! No further explanation necessary.
Speaking of Italian women, one of the most important women in this movie was Orsini’s mother. The providential way in which her son’s life plays out seems rooted in her own prayers for his conversion, even if that meant he would be stripped of all his worldly gains. After he has been tortured by Borgia, she is ordered to come to the castle and care for him. Seeing him brought forth from the dungeon to be mocked by Borgia’s guests at a feast, she is devastated by his condition and her realization that her own prayers for him to be “stripped” have come to pass.