FROM THE ARCHIVES: The Master of Ballantrae
Reviewed by Jonathan Murray
Directed by William Keighley; screenplay by Herb Meadow and Harold Medford, based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson; music by William Alwyn; cinematography by Jack Cardiff; edited by Jack Harris; art direction by Ralph Brinton; starring Errol Flynn, Roger Livesey, Anthony Steel, Beatrice Campbell, Felix Aylmer. DVD, Color, 89 min., 1953. A Warner Archive release, www.wbshop.com.
In the preface to his 1889 novel The Master of Ballantrae, Robert Louis Stevenson recalls a return visit to his native city of Edinburgh during which he found himself “amazed to be so little recollected.” You can easily imagine the great author feeling much the same way had he lived long enough to see his work transformed almost beyond recognition into an enjoyable, if hardly essential, swashbuckling star vehicle for a forty-something Errol Flynn. Stevenson went so far as to directly compare his titular antihero to the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost (1688); by contrast, Flynn and director William Keighley (reunited for the first time since 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood) turn their Master into a thoroughly decent cove: debonair rather than demonic, the man of one’s dreams rather than the stuff of one’s nightmares, just the sort of chap you’d be quite happy to take home to mother. If, as one suspects, the silver-screen version of The Master of Ballantrae was expressly designed to protect and prolong someone’s carefully cultivated public image, then it certainly wasn’t Stevenson’s.
For that reason, only the broadest strokes of the writer’s original plot survive the transition from page to projection, like scraps of flotsam washed up upon the rocky shore of the Master’s ancestral family seat. The 1745 Jacobite Rising sees several Scottish Highland clans support a military campaign to restore the Stuart dynasty to the British throne and drives a wedge into the familial heart of the Duries of Durrisdeer. Master Jamie (Flynn), the dashing, devil-may-care eldest son of the family, takes off to fight for Bonnie Prince Charlie, leaving behind a trio of long-suffering near-relations: elderly father Lord Durrisdeer (Felix Aylmer), fiancée Lady Alison (Beatrice Campbell), and dutiful younger brother Henry (Anthony Steel). Mistakenly believing Henry to have betrayed him to occupying English forces (the real culprit is in fact a spurned mistress), Jamie takes off for a life of adventure on the high seas, behaves with conspicuous style and decency throughout, and eventually returns home to Scotland to reclaim Alison, patch things up with his brother, and then ride off into the sunset.
So far, so cheerfully superficial: where Stevenson’s Master is a figure of fear, a man driven by an obsessive desire to, in his own words, “express my scorn of human reason,” Flynn and Keighley’s is a fellow devoted to fun, someone who entrusts major life decisions to the toss of a coin with perfect sanguinity because “it’s the only way to live.” Where Stevenson’s Master takes ruthless advantage of his offensive charm in order to manipulate others, Flynn and Keighley’s engages instead in an essentially harmless charm offensive—notions of style and fair play are at the forefront of his mind at all times. Where Stevenson’s pen drips with irony when he has one of his unreliable narrators, the self-servingly credulous Irish Jacobite Colonel Francis Burke, laud the Master as “a young nobleman of the rarest gallantry…equally designed by nature to adorn a Court and to reap laurels in the field,” Flynn and Keighley take that idealized description at face value.
But laying down the scholarly editions of late-nineteenth-century Scottish literature for just a second, it should also be conceded that the filmic Master of Ballantrae is, well, fun. This is so not least because the film reminds us of a bygone era when the idea of civility loomed as large as that of virility in the creation and consumption of many mainstream male movie stars and star personae. No accident in this regard that Flynn’s first line in The Master on Ballantrae sees the great matinee idol exhort an uncouth sort to “mind your manners.” His own are, naturally, nothing short of immaculate: a full forty-eight minutes elapse before our hero actually knocks an adversary out, and a further ten then go by before he is regretfully forced to run another through with his sword. Making love is the only activity that Flynn’s Master performs with full-blooded violence: in the final analysis, he’s much happier being a blade than wielding one.
In other words, The Master of Ballantrae is a movie far more concerned with the pursuit of physical style than that of psychological substance. Given that the film realizes such priorities with considerable success, it is not unreasonable to extend a degree of critical leniency towards it. But, at the same time, one can’t also help but see a missed opportunity in the nature of the one major overlap that exists between Flynn and Keighley’s version of the Master and that of Stevenson. In the latter’s novel, Mackellar, the Durie family’s long-suffering steward, complains that the Master (mis)understands literature as “a source of entertainment only.” In specific terms, these five short words sum up admirably the circumscribed nature of the filmic Master of Ballantrae’s relationship with its literary source text. More generally, however, they also remind us of Robert Louis Stevenson’s paradoxical position within cinema history: an author whose books have to date been much adapted, but perhaps little explored.
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Jonathan Murray teaches in the Centre for Visual and Cultural Studies at Edinburgh College of Art. He is currently completing a monograph on the career of Bill Forsyth.
Copyright © 2013 by Cineaste Magazine