Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Master of Ballantrae (Warner Bros., 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a quite interesting Warner Bros. feature from 1953: The Master of Ballantrae, which was Errol Flynn’s last film as a Warners contract player (five years he would return to the studio as a free-lancer to play John Barrymore in Too Much, Too Soon — the memoir of Diana Barrymore, John’s daughter and Drew’s mother — mainly because Jack Warner, who had worked with both Barrymore and Flynn, found them equally talented and equally self-destructive, though as one of Flynn’s biographers acidly pointed out it took Barrymore 62 years to drink, drug and screw himself to death and Flynn accomplished it in just 50) and the last film directed by veteran Warners hack William Keighley (his name is pronounced “Keeley,” something I would never have known if I hadn’t heard one of the Lux Radio Theatre broadcasts from after he replaced Cecil B. DeMille as the series’ host because as a matter of Right-wing principle DeMille refused to join the American Federation of Radio Artists) — though he would live until 1984. It was based on an adventure novel by Robert Louis Stevenson (one commentator ranked it and the unfinished The Weir of Hermiston as “generally conceded today [to be] Robert Louis Stevenson’s two greatest works” — huh? Better than Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Treasure Island or Kidnapped?) set during the 1740’s in Scotland, during the last-ditch attempt of clan lords loyal to the Stuart family to dethrone the House of Hanover as the ruling family of Great Britain and restore the Stuarts to the throne in the persons of Bonny Prince Charlie and his father. Ballantrae is a Scottish village ruled by the Durie family: father Lord Durrisdeer (Felix Aylmer), oldest son Jamie Durie (Errol Flynn) and his younger brother Henry (Anthony Steel). Never having read Stevenson’s novel I can’t vouch for how close the adaptation is ­— though in at least one particular writers Herb Meadow (screenplay) and Harold Medford (additional dialogue) — I guess your initials had to be “H.M.” to get the job working on writing this movie! — softened the tale. Stevenson apparently meant the work as a critique of family feuding and the egomaniacal quest for “glory” in fighting for hopeless causes, and to make that point he dispatched both younger Duries to their graves at the end, while Meadow and Medford left both of them alive.

It was Warners’ last-ditch attempt to return Flynn to the costume-drama milieu in which he’d made his greatest successes and most legendary films — Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940) — though he was older and considerably stouter than he’d been in his prime, and whereas he’d faked his way through the fencing duels in those previous movies (much to the discomfiture of Basil Rathbone, who was an accomplished fencer and rued that the scripts of Captain Blood and Robin Hood called for him to lose his on-screen duels to Flynn, who faked it all), this time around he had a fencing double, Bob Anderson. Anderson, who died just a month or two ago, was best known for a film he worked on 24 years after this one — the first Star Wars, in which he was the on-screen body under the Darth Vader costume (though James Earl Jones dubbed the character’s voice) and was picked because of his skill in fighting on-screen duels; in The Master of Ballantrae he doubled for both Flynn and one of his on-screen opponents and thereby “killed” himself. As presented on screen, the plot of The Master of Ballantrae (incidentally the last syllable is pronounced “-tray,” not “-try”) actually tracks pretty closely to Flynn’s first starring vehicle, Captain Blood: he ends up on the wrong side of a civil war (Warners showed the aftermath of the Battle of Culloden, where the British redcoats mopped up the Scottish clans and the Stuart cause was defeated once and for all, but they weren’t about to give this film enough of a budget to stage any of the actual battle), has to flee the oppressive British occupation of Scotland (they are executing anyone with any connection with the rebellion), meets up with a comic-relief sidekick named Col. Francis Burke (Roger Livesey, one of Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s favorite actors) — an Irish officer who fought with the Stuarts — and the two of them flee and eventually end up on a pirate ship captained by a supercilious Frenchman, Captain Arnaud (Jacques Berthier).

They make an uneasy alliance with him until the crew mutinies; they take over the ship from Arnaud but Jamie takes it back and takes over as captain, and eventually they sail back to Scotland with a treasure with which Jamie hopes to re-establish himself as the master of Ballantrae and finally marry his high-born fiancée Lady Alison (Beatrice Campbell). Earlier in the story Jamie had been shown having an affair on the side with tavern wench Jessie Brown (Yvonne Furneaux), and when Alison showed up at Jessie’s tavern on the night Jamie and Burke were supposed to take a small boat to a smugglers’ vessel and flee for France, Alison kissed Jamie in Jessie’s presence and Jamie had a hissy-fit of jealousy and got revenge by reporting Jamie’s planned escape to the British, who intercepted them on the beach and nearly captured them. Jamie had assumed his brother Henry (ya remember Henry?) had turned him in to get the Ballantrae estate and Alison’s hand for himself — and his suspicions are only strengthened when he comes home and finds Henry living as the master of Ballantrae (even though their father is still alive!) and engaged to Alison, who justified her actions on the assumption that her real lover, Jamie, was dead. (It seems to me there’s another Warner Bros. movie, a much more prestigious one, that used this particular plot gimmick. Oh, right — Casablanca!) In the end Henry gets to keep the Ballantrae estate and Jamie even gives him the treasure so he’ll have the funds he needs to maintain it, but Alison runs off with Jamie and Burke, fleeing to heaven knows where.

Not that this is a movie where one really cares about the plot: it’s basically action porn, but at least it’s good action porn, and it’s also utterly gorgeous, not only because it’s in three-strip Technicolor just as it was about to be replaced by Eastmancolor but because the cinematographer is Jack Cardiff. The Cardiff touch shows throughout this movie: the interiors burnished with a painterly glow, the exteriors also looking like landscapes of the period and not like soundstages with a nature painting as a backdrop — and I suspect Cardiff may have directed some of the film because there’s a visual imagination and a sense of excitement far beyond the norm for a film by William Keighley. (Keighley’s and Flynn’s paths had crossed during the glory years: Keighley started The Adventures of Robin Hood but was fired because Jack Warner and Hal Wallis didn’t think his footage was exciting enough, and Michael Curtiz was brought in to replace him while B. Reaves “Breezy” Eason shot a lot of the action footage.) Flynn had actually taken Cardiff under his wing and engaged him to make his directorial debut in a 1955 epic shot in Continental Europe; it was supposed to be the story of William Tell, but after about half an hour of the film was shot Flynn’s producers pulled their financial backing, he was unable to find replacement money, and he lost what little money he had left over from his glory years at Warners and was bailed out by Herbert Wilcox, British producer-director who gave Flynn two fat parts in the musical spectacles he produced for his wife, actress Anna Neagle, to star in. The Master of Ballantrae isn’t a great movie but it is a reasonably fun one, and while a number of commentators regretted Flynn hadn’t been able to make it a decade earlier (though in the meantime Flynn’s acting chops had actually improved — in the 1940’s he turned in finely honed performances in Escape Me Never and That Forsyte Woman that would have been inconceivable for the Flynn of the 1930’s), it’s still one of his best late films and a nice hour-and-a-half of entertainment.