Tales of derring-do for whole family

Fantasy and romance in 'Princess' and 'Empire'

Historical romance evokes the time long, long ago when things were ever so much more exciting, what with highwaymen roaming the roads of England and Robin and his Merry Men inhabiting the forests of Sherwood.

OK, those were two different eras, but both of them are represented this week in family films designed to swash the very bucklers of the imagination. "Lorna Doone," (A&E, March 11, 8-11 p.m.) is a prize for all those women raised on the Victorian romance by R.D. Blackmore, a saga of 17th -century Exmoor. The other, a fantasy based on a legend - "Princess of Thieves" (ABC, March 11, 7-9 p.m.) concerns Robin Hood and his merry daughter, Gwyn.

Both these stories present rather feistier heroines than the original stories would have conceived, but they still harken back to wonderful old movies of the 1930s and '40s in terms of high adventure, daring heroes, and the good fight against tyranny. Both are British productions and both will engage parents and their offspring (over 9) equally.

The better film is Lorna Doone, mainly because the writing stays fairly true to the spirit of the original, though Lorna has been removed from her pedestal and placed firmly on the ground. Adrian Hodges adapted the novel to suit modern sensibilities, more's the pity.

Yeoman farmer John Ridd grows up hating the outlaw aristocrat Doone clan because they killed his father. But one day he finds himself in a secret glen with the adorable granddaughter of Sir Ensor Doone and falls for little Lorna.

He finds her again as a young adult, and this time, despite her kinsmen and his, they fall in love. But Sir Ensor's plans for Lorna do not include marriage to a commoner. Lorna's history is more complex than any but Sir Ensor knows. It's up to John to save her from the dashing scalawag Carver Doone.

It's a grim world into which this romance blossoms, but what better for a heroine with a deep secret, a hero worthy of great deeds, and a villain who is hopelessly in love with the heroine? It's all so ... Victorian.

Beautifully photographed and nicely played by lovely Amelia Warner as Lorna and charismatic Richard Coyle as John, the film offers an elegant villain in Aidan Gillen, who fairly hisses as Carver, his air of menace genuinely unsettling.

What these fine old romances do, when they are well made, is tap into that same moral index as does legend and folk tale. Tyranny must be resisted (wisely and bravely), virtue is better and more interesting than vice, and lasting love is real and possible.

One terrific thing about "Lorna Doone" is that it does not come off as sentimental. For a family picture, that's a triumph.

The Wonderful World of Disney presents Princess of Thieves, a charming, elaborate dress-up game with a young girl (15-year-old Keira Knightly) playing the daring heroine.

Gywn of Locksley is a chip off the old Robin. She cuts her hair, dresses as a boy, and rides off after her father when Prince John threatens the realm again in Richard the Lionheart's absence.

Ms. Knightly, who has been acting since she was 7, spent two hours after school each night practicing archery, riding horses, and learning stage combat. What she liked best about the shoot was that "Gwyn is a great role model.

"But, also, the relationship with her father grows throughout the film. She absolutely adores him, but they don't know each other.... There's a real sense of community in it, and you feel that everyone pulls together to get through."

This is the kind of film that years ago I would have made my little brother watch with me - he would have played Gywn's sidekick, Froderick, when we challenged the Sheriff of Nottingham in the "woods" of our backyard the next day.

There just aren't enough pirates, highwaymen, and beastly aristocrats for kids to combat anymore. And that's one of the best things that can be said for the too-long, special effects-laden miniseries The Lost Empire (NBC, March 11 and 12, 9-10 p.m.). It offers a fine array of goofy villains for little boys and girls to defeat in play next day. Dragons, giants, and mad Merlin-esque super geniuses are no match for debonair Thomas Gibson of "Dharma and Greg") and assorted pigs, Asian-Barbie goddesses, and monkeygods.

Based on a Chinese fairy-tale, this hero's journey involves the goddess of mercy, Kwan Ying, enlisting the help of an American scholar in rescuing a precious manuscript from a mysterious underworld. The hero must learn courage along with his new magical powers.

The destruction of the manuscript, a work of art, by the forces of evil will spell the end of life on earth.

"What drew me to it is that as a parable, the themes were timely," said Mr. Gibson in a recent telephone interview. "This will never be shown in mainland China. I'm sure that one of the things that drew [playwright] David Henry Hwang to write it is the repressive atmosphere in China.

"The authoritarian state is robbing people of one of the elemental aspects of being human. One of the things Monkey inspires in [the other characters] is that spirit of speaking up. As the Emperor says, there is a happy medium between respect for authority and government's respect for freedom. It is a cry for democracy...."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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