"…I Pleaded We Were Americans…But That Only Seemed To Make Matters Worse…"
It's 1866 - and crusty old Reverend Francis Ashby (a Fellow Of Oxford University in England) is 46, unmarried and about to depart on his annual holiday to the Swiss Alps to partake of the bracing air and spirit rejuvenating views. His man servant Haskell (a very witty turn by Bryan Pringle) has packed his guide book, boots and other manly things - and breathes a sign of relief because thankfully there'll be no 'dirty women' as he refers to them on this trip. Like Ashby - Haskell is British you see - and the very thought of such things is an anathema to him...
But once there - two American ladies Miss Caroline (40) and Miss Elinor Hartley (20) are out on the mountains - when through her binoculars - young Elinor (Trini Alvarado) sees a naked Ashby (Michael Palin) taking a dip in a mountain stream. Something is lit in her heart. And as time passes both in the UK and in Switzerland - his kindness towards her grows ("How else should one behave?") - and an unlikely but very real love blossoms between them.
A young Irish-born girl sent to the USA when she was 5 and adopted by Aunt Caroline - Elinor has been educated, clothed and raised a lady in the best company. But while she's pretty - Elinor is essentially pure and hugely innocent to the world. And her genuinely caring Aunt worries about the headstrong girl wanting a life and love of her own. And at times Aunt Caroline (a superb Connie Booth as a woman of a certain age in a time of uber restraint) even dares to dream of love too with the decent man of learning and classics - Ashby.
But despite his best dismissive efforts to repel the ladies and a party of British hikers who spot an opportunity to place their son in Oxford by buttering up the Fellow - soon Ashby is engaged in reluctant walks with the two women - then a dance one Summer evening - and even a brief but beautiful kiss with Elinor. He too it seems is taken by love and suddenly his eyes are opened to a life beyond the confines of dead books and dead languages. But old habits die hard - and conflicted - he heads back to the safety of Founder's Port, Latin Essays and the stuffy rules and regulations of Oxford - where the changing of a Soup Tureen requires a committee meeting.
But back home he finds that Rushden - the very elderly President of Oxford is on his last legs ("The Visigoths are at the gates!" he cries out) and a new President will be elected soon. But vying for the position with Ashby is the cunning and morally lecherous Oliver Syme who beds every girl he can in the cottage he owns by the river. Ashby is perceived by all at the famous college to have 'no known moral blemish' and is therefore a front-runner. But then the American ladies come calling to visit Ashby - and needing a place to lodge - Syme lets the cottage by the river to the unsuspecting duo. But as Aunt Caroline and Ashby become closer (walks, dinner and indepth conversation) - young Elinor becomes impatient with Ashby - and in a rash night with Syme involving wet clothes - her virtue is sullied. Ashby now knows he has to make a choice - go for the college prize - or save the girl's reputation...
Based on the journals of his real uncle Edward Palin who resigned as an Oxford Fellow in 1866 and raised 7 children with an American woman he met on holidays in Switzerland - Michael Palin's script is co-written with Director Tristram Powell - and is a slow boiler and an utter delight for it. I've always loved this small but perfect film and owned a Region 4 Australian DVD of it to have a copy I could watch. George Delerue's string score is beautifully complimentary too in so many scenes.
This November 2012 BBC DVD reissue (Barcode 5051561037252) is not without its problems though. It's defaulted to 16 x 9 Anamorphic so it fills the entire screen (no lines to or bottom) and the print from a distance is lovely throughout - it is. But there are times when shimmer and shocking grain and dirt flicks appear (Molina's character giving a lesson to students) - only momentarily though. Overall it's in great shape. It's just that I would have dearly loved to see this gorgeous little movie be given the full restoration makeover - but alas.
Subtitles are English for the Hard of Hearing and there are no Extras.
The core of the 4 actors - Palin, Alvarado, Booth and Molina are all superb in their parts - as are Alun Armstrong and Bryan Pringle (now sadly lost to us). But it's the gentility of the story that stays. "Her eyes catch mine...I adore her..." a young student tells Ashby who can't concentrate on his studies because he longs for an older woman in the choir he attends. 46-year old Ashby looks out his Oxford window at the courtyard below where the two American ladies are being ushered away by a stuffy college stickler for rules - and knows for the first time in a very long time - what his young student feels so deeply.
"American Friends" has always been a minor masterpiece to me - a lovely piece of British cinema.
And decent - like the country itself...