If I Were King is a 1938 American biographical and historical film starring Ronald Colman as medieval poet François Villon, and featuring Basil Rathbone and Frances Dee. It is based on the 1901 play and novel, both of the same name, by Justin Huntly McCarthy, and was directed by Frank Lloyd, with a screenplay adaptation by Preston Sturges.
In Paris, which is besieged by the Burgundians, François Villon (Ronald Colman) is the despair of Father Villon, the priest who took him in and raised him. Father Villon takes François to mass after his latest escapade (robbing a royal storehouse). There François spies a beautiful woman, Katherine DeVaucelles (Frances Dee). Entranced, he tries to strike up an acquaintance with her, reciting some of his poetry to her. On the surface, she is unmoved, but when soldiers come to take him into custody, she provides him with an alibi.
King Louis XI of France (Basil Rathbone) is in desperate straits. He suspects that there is a traitor in his court. He goes in disguise to a tavern to see who accepts an intercepted coded message from the enemy. While there, he is amused by the antics of poet François Villon. The rascal criticizes the king and brags about how much better he would do if he were in Louis’ place.
The traitor is revealed to be Grand Constable D’Aussigny (John Miljan), but before he can be arrested, the turncoat is killed in a brawl by Villon. The King is now of two minds about what to do, since the traitor has been revealed by Villon. As a jest, Louis rewards Villon by making him the new Constable, though the king secretly intends to have him executed after a week.
His low-born origin kept a secret, Villon falls in love with lady-in-waiting Katherine DeVaucelles and she with him, not recognizing him as Villon. Then Louis informs Villon about his grim fate. Soon François finds out how difficult it is to make the army attack the besieging forces, even after he has the king’s storehouses release the army’s last six months of food to the starving population of Paris– giving the army the same short schedule for attack as the people.
Villon finally escapes the palace, but when the Burgundians break down the city gates, he rallies the common people to rout them and lift the siege. He is then arrested again.
The king has had to put up with Villon’s impudence, but he and Villon now have some grudging respect for each other, with Villon admitting to the king that Louis’ job is harder than he had thought. The king on his side has been convinced by Katherine and Father Villon of François’s role in saving the city, and now feels obligated to reward him again. But wanting less aggravation in his life, Louis decides to pardon Villon, but exile him from Paris. Villon is supposed to see Katherine on his way out, but decides to bypass her. This does no good. François leaves on foot, headed for the south of France. Lady Katherine squeezes this information from Father Villon and follows with a guard in her carriage at a discreet distance on the road, waiting for François to tire out.