The El Escorial Conspiracy


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

This is a Spanish film which portrays some key events in Spanish history from the 1570s, when Spain was positioned to control the seas and the New World. The Spanish had just defeated the Turks at the naval battle of Lepanto, and were turning their attention to the only other remaining naval super power, England. The rival between the Spanish and English monarchs was particularly vituperative in that period, because Phillip of Spain had once been married to Mary, the half-sister of Elizabeth of England, back when Mary was actually the English queen. In theory, this union was to unite the two kingdoms, and Philip was even awarded the title of King of England by Parliament. Sort of. He was not a regnant king, but the husband of a regnant queen - the same position held today by Prince Phillip, but with a different title. When Mary died, Philip of Spain lost all claims to English titles, as per their marriage contract, but he was not one to give up easily. He soon offered to marry Elizabeth! That didn't work out for religious reasons (Elizabeth was Protestant), and the two of them continued to maneuver against one another for years. Elizabeth aligned herself with Protestant dissidents in The Netherlands, which was then under Spanish dominion, while Philip countered by aligning himself with Catholic dissidents in England and Ireland who hoped to overthrow Elizabeth and replace her with her Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart, "Queen of Scots." When Mary Stuart's execution in 1587 ended Philip's crusade for an internal conquest of England, he started scheming to prepare an outright invasion. You have probably read about the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, but that was by no means the end of Spain's ambitions in Britain. England and Spain remained at war for another fifteen years, until both of their famous sovereigns were dead. Philip II, who was certainly not lacking in ambition, also remained constantly at war with France and with patriotic Dutch factions in The Netherlands.

The El Escorial of the title is the glorious residential palace Philip built near Madrid, supposedly based on the floor plan of The Temple of Solomon, as described by Josephus Flavius, a famous Roman/Jewish historian who lived shortly after the time of Jesus. In the title of this film, the building metaphorically represents the court of Phillip, with all of its pomp and intrigues. The film is about one such intrigue involving two scheming nobles who conspired to prevent the Spanish army from properly defending Spanish interests in The Netherlands. They were motivated to do so because Dutch victories would have been good for their own personal fortunes.

The film is magnificent in appearance. Much of it was filmed at the spectacular Escorial itself, which is still in excellent condition. Indoor scenes picture elegantly costumed courtiers, gilded halls and chapels, and various luxurious quarters. The exterior camera shots picture lavish royal coaches parting the crowds, or linger in exquisitely manicured courtyards filled with ornate fountains. The action scenes feature the requisite flashing blades, with lithe swordsmen leaping through crowds and toppling fruit stands.

Usual stuff.

The film received several Goya nominations relating to visual splendor: Makeup and Hair, Cinematography, Art Direction, and Costume Design. Unfortunately, a beautiful appearance and a strong international cast are about the film's only strengths. The actual historical events, which could make for a great film on their own, often play second fiddle behind an unbelievable and trite May/December love story, which seems to serve no purpose other than to make work for the director's daughter.  When the film does get down to business, far too many scenes seem to consist of beady-eyed men stroking their facial hair menacingly and droning away ad infinitum with verbose and stilted dialogue which seems to have been written by Basil Exposition from those Austin Powers movies. Despite the near-narrative dialogue, the story can be difficult to follow at times because of some odd editing decisions.

There are two versions of the film, one in English, one in Spanish.

Awaiting DVD info


  No English reviews online


5.8 IMDB summary (of 10)


Box Office Mojo. It grossed $2.7 million in Spain. It opened in seventh place, with about $800,000 in 262 theaters. That was a disappointing performance for a film which required some $20m to create.



There are two nude scenes.

The first involves a brothel orgy which shows that the Spanish of that era were a lot more fun than anyone thinks. At least that's what I think it is supposed to show. If not, it is gratuitous, since it has absolutely no purpose in the plot or character development, and the dialogues in that locale could have taken place anywhere. Not that there's anything wrong with adding a gratuitous orgy.

The other scene features Julia Ormond as a proud noblewoman who is detained by the king's order and is forced by the conditions of her arrest to change her clothing in front of her captors. The actual nudity may (or may not, I can't tell) have been performed by a body double, but there is a preliminary view of a see-through blouse which is certainly worn by the actress herself.



Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


Not really a good script, but a film with rich production values, good actors, and many positives that may be of interest to period buffs.