The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a pretty cool play. BUT...what if you wanted to see a similiar story, only set in 1930s Nationalist China and featuring lots of guns and horses? Have I got a movie for you!
Check out A Spray of Plum Blossoms, which I can pretty much guarantee is Shakespeare like you've never seen it before!
This 1931 silent film, originally released with both English and Chinese caption cards to narrate the silent action, is set in the contemporary, militaristic Chinese culture of that time. Thus, we meet a Valentine and Proteus in uniform, two best friends just graduating from a military academy. Whereas Valentine is an ambitious cadet, Proteus pays more attention to girls, earning this rebuke from his friend:
Pretty much says it all, right? Valentine, unfortunately, makes the mistake of introducing Proteus to his sister (!) Julia, who is captivated by Proteus' ability to make funny animal imitations, such as quacking ducks, with his hands. So when Valentine takes off for Canton to become a Captain under General Sze, Proteus' uncle, he thinks Proteus will take good care of Julia. But Proteus himself has to go to Canton to fulfil his military obligations. When he spends much of his time trying to get the fair Silvia, General Sze's daughter, to laugh at his funny quacking duck imitations, we know trouble is not far behind!
Although trouble does come with a vengeange, there are a lot of sweet moments - we see the development of tenderness between Valentine and Silvia, with a plum blossom becoming the motif of their relationship. When Valentine is banished - court-martialed after Proteus accuses him of treason - he becomes an outlaw known as "The Plum Blossom Bandit," a freedom fighter who embodies all the best elements of Robin Hood and The Scarlet Pimpernel rolled into one! Do not laugh - Valentine is one cool outlaw.
Immediately we can tell that a lot of the cultural concerns that this movie is dealing with - family and blood obligations and ties, the duties and political concerns that a military society calls for - are not really the same as in Shakespeare's play. Yet, though the story ranges far afield from the source play in many details, it is in many ways a very charming film. Visually it's great, with awesome sets and costuming varying from the height of 1930s Western fashion to Chinese traditional for the outlaws; everyone, including the women, also appears in military uniform at one time or another. Much of the appeal of the movie comes from the fine acting performances of all four of the main leads -- Jin Yan as Valentine stands out as a very dashing leading man.
So, if you enjoy the silent movie genre (like me!), this might be a great film for you. There's a sweet clip from the movie you can check out on Bardfilm (no guns or horses, alas). There are some issues with the print on the "Cinema Epoch" dvd that we watched; some words in the captions are cut off, and we were only able to keep a watchable image that was not either too dark or to light by constant adjustment of the brightness and contrast.
All told, aside from being a poignant glimpse of a long-vanished China, this film is totally worth watching as a wild adaptation of The Two Gentlemen of Verona! But even though there are changes to the story all the way through, Valentine's words to Proteus at the end still say it all: "I want you to understand that I'm always your pal." Some things never change.