It is no secret that Bette Davis and Errol Flynn were at each other's throats throughout the filming of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Boiled down to essentials: Davis felt that Flynn was unprofessional, while Flynn thought that Davis took herself too damned seriously.
Besides, Davis had wanted Laurence Olivier to play the Earl of Essex opposite her Queen Elizabeth I. She was forced to compromise on this point, but refused to allow Flynn proxy top billing via his suggestion that the film be retitled The Knight and the Lady.
The finished product, a lavish Technicolor costumer allowing full scope to Davis' histrionics and Flynn's derring-do, betrays little of the backstage hostilities (though Flynn does seem uncomfortably hammy in his scenes with Davis).
Adapted by Norman Reilly Raine and Aeneas McKenzie from Maxwell Anderson's blank-verse play Elizabeth the Queen (which served as the film's reissue title), the story concerns the tempestuous relationship between the middle-aged Elizabeth and the ambitious Essex.
At one point, the Queen intends to marry Essex and relinquish her throne, until she realizes that his plans for advancement would ultimately prove disastrous for England. When afforded the opportunity to execute Essex for treason, she reluctantly signs his death warrant.
Minutes before his final walk to the chopping block, Elizabeth begs Essex to ask for a pardon. But Essex, fully aware that his warlike policies will only resurface if he is permitted to live, refuses to accept the Queen's mercy, and goes off to meet his doom. Olivia de Havilland is wasted in the role of a lady-in-waiting who carries a torch for Essex.
If the scenes of Essex' triumphant return to London after winning the battle of Cadiz seem familiar, it is because they were reused as stock footage in Warner Bros.' The Adventures of Don Juan (1949) and The Story of Mankind (1957).