Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The Master of Ballantrae (1953)

The Master of Ballentrae is a highly enjoyable example of the kind of old-fashioned swashbuckler film they simply do not make any more. It is also significant in that it is the penultimate swashbuckler of Errol Flynn's career, the man who made his name, as well as the success of the genre, with the classics like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood. Although starting to look a little long in the tooth, Flynn still crackles with plenty of the charisma, energy and sex appeal he had done twenty years previously.

The story is loosely based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novel of the same name. In 18th Century Scotland, the Jacobite Rebellion is underway, with Bonnie Prince Charlie and his forces trying to reclaim the British throne from George II. Two brothers decide to take opposite sides in the war, in order to preserve the family fortune, whatever the outcome. Jamie Durie (played by Flynn) a hellraising scoundrel, with a string of women (in addition to his fiancĂ©) and a string of gambling debts goes to fight for the rebellion, while his brother Henry, the pious, honest one, stays at home pretending to champion the English cause. When one of Jamie's spurned lovers betrays him to the Redcoats, he mistakenly thinks Henry is the culprit, and finds himself fleeing for his life, getting caught up in all manner of adventures involving slaves, pirates, an unscheduled trip to the West Indies, a Spanish Galleon full of gold, and a lovable rogue Irishman, Colonel Francis Burke (Roger Livesey). Will Jamie ever return to his homeland – and will he ever be convinced that it was not his brother who betrayed him?

Swashbuckling films are one of those genres where you expect certain tropes and The Master of Ballentrae does not disappoint, with sword fights a plenty, ships, colourful villains, treachery and betrayal. If there is a criticism to be made in terms of the genre, it is that this film provides little that we have not seen before. However, taken on its own merits, this is great entertainment, with Flynn belying his age and failing health to fling himself into the action scenes. The story rarely drags, with the goal of Jamie's quest to get back to Scotland constantly driving him on.

The Scotland in question is of course very much a Hollywood version of the country, with lush green hills, humble peasant folk, villainous Englishmen, and Scottish accents that sound like Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons. Wisely, Flynn does not attempt the Scots brogue, sticking instead to his familiar smooth tones. Livesey provides the perfect sidekick for him, giving his character as big a lust for life (and whiskey and women) as Jamie, and as much charm, but without ever overshadowing him. Anthony Steel as Henry is a little stiff and bland, but this is entirely in keeping with the character, a man the total opposite of Jamie.

The other big asset for the film is the rich and vivid cinematography by the legendary Jack Cardiff, who had previously shot the likes of The Red Shoes and The African Queen. The location filming, done around Cornwall, Scotland and Sicily, really brings the countryside to life, with the vivid colours as intoxicating and enjoyable as the star and the on-screen action.