Flynn Doesn't Master Ballantrae
If you've ever read Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Master of Ballantrae" you will know it is about all consuming rivalry and hatred brought on through one brother believing his younger brother has betrayed him. Unfortunately when it comes to the 1953 big screen adaptation of Stevenson's "The Master of Ballantrae" that sense of compelling need for revenge never truly manifests itself. Instead this movie under the direction of William Keighley becomes purely a swashbuckler about the adventures of Jamie Durie as he seeks to return home and get his revenge on brother Henry. And again unfortunately when it comes to swashbuckler's it's not the most brilliant, suffering because a 44 year old Errol Flynn was no longer the energetic and youthful performer he once was. It is still entertaining, and if you live in the UK "The Master of Ballantrae" appears on the schedule often enough that you can easily watch it but unlike swashbucklers from a decade or so earlier it feels mundane.
With Bonnie Prince Charlie calling for the clans to rise up to support him in his fight against King George II, the Durie brothers tactically choose sides in order to preserve their title as Laird of Durrisdeer. But after the clans are defeated and the few remaining rebels are forced to go on the run from the Redcoats Jamie Durie (Errol Flynn - Santa Fe Trail) believes his brother Henry (Anthony Steel - The Black Tent) betrayed him leading to Jamie heading off to sea and becoming a pirate. But whilst away from his home in Scotland revenge is never far from Jamie's mind as he vows to return and deal with his brother.
Ironically what ends up the most interesting part of "The Master of Ballantrae" is the semi history lesson opening all about Bonnie Prince Charles calling for the clans to unite and help him try to reclaim the throne from King George II. It is nicely worked with the pleasant moment of cleverness as the Durie brothers agreeing to split allegiances with Jamie going to fight for the Stewarts whilst Henry remains loyal to King George II in order to safeguard their title as the Laird of Durrisdeer no matter what side wins.
But after this opening which ends with the Clans being defeated and the survivors becoming rebels on the run from the Redcoats it becomes little more than a series of action scenes. Okay so there is the initial perceived betrayal as having sneaked into try and get money from Henry, Jamie finds himself almost caught by the Redcoats and believes it was his brother trying to get rid of him. But then we get the first real sword fight between Jamie and Henry which ends up with Jamie stabbed, perceived dead until his body disappears. This is followed by various action scenes as Jamie and new friend Col. Francis Burke travel the high seas with pirates, which yes leads to some swashbuckling in the rigging. Before Jamie eventually returns back to Scotland looking for revenge and more sword fights.
Now there are two things wrong with this and the emphasis of the book, the hatred which Jamie has and his need for revenge is pushed to the back in favour of stereotypical sword fights. Now swashbuckling sword fights are not a bad thing but then it brings the second problem and that is at 44 Errol Flynn was not the athlete he once was and it means the sword fights end up feeling too staged with no flow. It also doesn't help that at also at 44 Flynn was not the dashing young man he was and whilst cinematographer Jack Cardiff works wonders with the camera he can't always disguise Flynn's age. Of course if all you want is Errol Flynn waving a sword about then all of this will be entertaining but it feels almost pedestrian to the swashbucklers being made a decade or so earlier.
And to be honest because "The Master of Ballantrae" becomes little more than a selection of adventure scenes every single character is a flat stereotype. And so whilst Roger Livesey manages to bring some humorous life to his role as Col. Francis Burker the rest of the cast are as flat and uninteresting as their characters. Although there are moments of over the top melodramatics from Yvonne Furneaux and Beatrice Campbell who play the women in Jamie's life.
What this all boils down to is that "The Master of Ballantrae" is not so much a disappointment but a very ordinary swashbuckler which fails to capture the might of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel. In fact the only thing which ends up being memorable for the right reason is Jack Cardiff's brilliant cinematography.