Saturday, April 4, 2015

MM Movie Review: Mary of Scotland

“Mary of Scotland” is a 1936 film, directed by, of all people, John Ford who is probably most remembered for his cavalry pictures of the American frontier west. Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures and produced by Pandro S. Berman it is a very favorably biopic of the tragic Stuart monarch Mary Queen of Scots based on a play by Maxwell Anderson of 1933. The screenplay was written by Dudley Nichols (probably best known for his work on “Stagecoach” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. It is a very well shot picture with cinematography by Joseph H. August and Jack MacKenzie. The starring role went to Katharine Hepburn, an iconic American actress who doesn’t attempt an accent, which is well enough as I’ve never heard any definitive argument as to what the famous queen would have actually sounded like, being Scottish but having spent her youth in France. The film opens with text to fill us in on the essential background info and to state from the outset that this film will be about a struggle between two women; Mary of Scotland and Elizabeth of England. And, make no mistake about it, Queen Mary is definitely the heroine while Queen Elizabeth is unmistakably the villainess of the piece.

Queen Elizabeth I
The film opens in England with the first appearance of Queen Elizabeth I played by Florence Eldridge (who the previous year had appeared with co-star Frederic March in “Les Miserables”). Her introduction is very significant, solemnly announced, her courtiers all drop to one knee as she barges down the hall, barking orders and scowling at the news that Mary Stuart has left France for Scotland and that the Scottish sovereign has refused to recognize her as the Queen of England. This opening scene is highly significant in contrasting Mary and Elizabeth. Elizabeth is haughty, vain and angry but is treated with loyal submission by all around her. It will be a very different story with Queen Mary. It is also made clear in this scene just whose “side” the film is on, Queen Mary is stated to be the “legitimate heir of King Henry VII” and that “all of Europe” considers Elizabeth I to be a usurper. In any event, the presence of Queen Mary in Scotland is considered a direct threat to Elizabeth who makes a rather Henry II-like statement about some English ships raising a black flag and using force to prevent Mary from landing in Scotland. However, it is no avail and at just after six minutes of screen time the star appears as Queen Mary lands in Scotland to a less than rapturous welcome from the lords.

The Queen arrives in Scotland
In contrast to our first view of Elizabeth, at first sight Queen Mary drops to her knees in prayer upon first stepping on Scottish soil, thanking God for bringing her safely to her homeland and asking divine guidance to rule well and wisely. Meanwhile, in Edinburgh, we see the nobles of Scotland who are not so loyal as the elites of England to their own monarch. They are a squabbling, scheming bunch of self-serving villains, perhaps none more so than James Stuart, Lord Moray, her regent and half-brother played by Ian Keith. The only exception is Lord Huntley played by Donald Crisp who is the Queen’s most loyal defender throughout the film (and one of the few who wears a kilt). From the outset, the nobles object to the presence of a foreigner, the Queen’s Italian private secretary David Rizzio played by John Carradine, and her Catholic faith. The Queen stands firmly loyal to her faith firmly states that in her kingdom all will be free to worship as their conscious dictates. They also immediately urge her to marry a “loyal Scot” and prefer Lord Darnley who they think they can control. However, she refuses to marry and vows to live as she pleases and not allow herself to be directed by others as had been the case throughout her life thus far.

Meeting John Knox
Thankfully, this ugly scene is relieved by a torchlight procession of her subjects singing a song of praise and loyalty to their Queen. This cheers her up and she makes up her mind to “find a way to win”. However, this happy sight cannot last long before a ranting John Knox shows up to denounce the new Queen and Catholicism. Knox is played by Moroni Olsen, the only member of the cast of the original play to portray his same character in the film. It is also during this confrontation that we see the arrival of Lord Bothwell played by Frederic March (who won an Oscar for starring in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, played princes in “Death Takes a Holiday” and “We Live Again” and who played Philip II of Macedonia in “Alexander the Great”. He also played Christopher Columbus in the 1949 film of that name -though Generalissimo Franco did not approve of it). While Knox raves his intolerant bigotry, Bothwell has him drowned out by his pipers. Queen Mary comes out to confront Knox. She tells him to preach his faith but asks him to be tolerant of her own faith and asks for his friendship in spite of his treasonous rhetoric. Knox, of course, refuses her offer and storms off determined as ever to oppose her. In the aftermath, the Queen meets Bothwell who is, from the start, portrayed as a rough, blunt but romantic hero who takes an instant liking to the Queen.

Lord Darnley
In England, Elizabeth continues to puzzle over how to defeat Mary. She dislikes the idea of Mary being wed to Bothwell or Darnley and fears that a war to conquer Scotland would unite the Scots in loyalty to Mary and against England. So, she decides to try to corrupt Moray and use him as her instrument -something we are led to believe will be very easy. In Scotland, Rizzio is also pushing the Queen to marry but prefers Darnley over Bothwell because Darnley is a Catholic but would prefer any Catholic royal from the continent over either one. The Queen accuses him of being as intolerant in his Catholicism as Knox is in his Protestantism but the two remain close friends and the Queen agrees that she must marry but it will not be a continental royal. At Rizzio’s urging then she decides that Darnley is the only viable option. It is clear though that she only has eyes for the dashing Bothwell. Darnley soon arrives, played by Douglas Walton (who viewers may remember from “The Bride of Frankenstein”, “Mutiny on the Bounty” and “The Count of Monte Cristo”). His is a totally reprehensible character, but Mary finally agrees to marry him when she is told that Elizabeth wants her to marry Leicester and does not wish her to marry Darnley. Bothwell confesses his love for her but Mary is steadfast that Darnley is the best choice for political reasons. When the Queen accepts Darnley’s proposal, the scene ends in a creepy way, after which we next see Darnley drunk and making a nuisance of himself while the nobles demand that the Queen send Rizzio away.

David Rizzio -looks like he knows what's coming
With the Queen standing firm, the nobles easily dupe Darnley into joining their conspiracy to murder Rizzio. Oddly enough, at that point, the Queen tells Rizzio, who is homesick for the sunshine of Italy, that she will send him home, though he is her only friend, to make him happy. Rizzio then asks why she doesn’t summon Bothwell back (who left in a huff over her marriage to Darnley) showing that their positions have basically switched from the beginning. The nobles bring in their troops, kill the palace guard and attack Rizzio in the Queen’s chamber with Darnley along but seemingly drunk or dazed, in any event the ignorant pawn of the nobles. The Queen vows never to forgive Darnley and tells him how stupid he has been, casting doubt on the paternity of his own son she is carrying (which is true as some later did try to spread the rumor that King James I was actually the son of Rizzio rather than Darnley). The nobles make it clear that she is to be a figurehead prisoner-queen under their control. The scandal will ruin her public support and Darnley was implicated so can take no action.

Dunbar Castle
At that moment, however, word arrives that Bothwell is returning and the rats make for their holes. There’s a fight in the courtyard but the Queen and Darnley escape while Bothwell is victorious. The little Prince James is born off-screen but the news upsets Queen Elizabeth immensely, especially with Bothwell triumphant beside the Queen and the Protestant nobles who had supported England having been banished for killing Rizzio. Darnley, with the fear of death removed, goes back to being a drunken nuisance immediately. He’s paranoid and is convinced that everyone is out to kill him. He blames the Queen for turning the nobles against him and vows to leave Scotland and disown his son. Lord Ruthven, one of the nobles who killed Rizzio, then sets the powder that blows Darnley into a million un-mourned pieces. Knox then tells the people from his pulpit that Bothwell was the murderer and it is made clear to the audience that the nobles (who really did it -in this film at least) gave him this information. Bothwell then captures the Queen and Lord Huntley and plans to marry her though Huntley tells him he is mad and the two of them have put themselves in Moray’s power by their actions and the charade of a “kidnapping” and plans for a “forced” marriage. He leaves in disgust but the Queen and Bothwell are wed, Mary telling him that he is the only one she ever loved.

Moray sets his terms
We are then told, by way of an ambassador’s report to Elizabeth (scenes with Elizabeth are often used to fill us in on things that happened off-screen) that Moray has taken the little prince and that Bothwell is trying to fight a war to restore the Queen to power but that Moray has the people behind him thanks to Knox convincing everyone that Bothwell killed Darnley when, we are told, it was really his own cronies who did the deed. The marriage seems to prove to all that Mary and Bothwell were guilty. At Edinburgh, Knox invokes revenge for a murdered king of Scotland (referring to Darnley) to rally the people against the Queen and Bothwell. Trapped and outmatched, Bothwell agrees to leave Scotland so long as the Queen is guaranteed on her throne, even if only as a figurehead. Of course, as soon as Bothwell is gone, Moray goes back on his word and betrays the Queen anyway. She is told to abdicate, see her son made king and Moray made regent to rule the country. She refuses, but Moray tells everyone she has abdicated and goes ahead. Queen Elizabeth sends word that she will oppose Moray publicly but support him privately while protesting friendship to Queen Mary and playing for time.

Queen Mary being judged
Queen Mary believes her and makes her escape to England where she thinks she will find a safe haven. She is quickly taken into custody and to her sorry discovers that her royal cousin has betrayed her (like most people in this movie) and she is a prisoner. Unknown to her, after an off-screen defeat, Bothwell dies raving in a Danish prison and Queen Mary is put on trial, though she refuses to recognize their authority or the authority of Queen Elizabeth. Nonetheless, she is charged with conspiracy to murder Elizabeth I while Queen Mary protests that she is guilty only of trying to escape from unjust imprisonment. She finally accepts her fate that the outcome of the trial is a foregone conclusion based on an invented plot by a paranoid Elizabeth. Her only hope is Bothwell and the English judges delight in revealing to her the news of his death. This leaves her a broken woman, accepting of her fate.

Two Queens face to face
But, of course, like all such films of this era, we cannot end without a secret meeting of the two queens, something for which there is no evidence at all but which few filmmakers have been able to resist. Elizabeth accuses Mary of being born too close to her throne, a threat she had to eliminate. Queen Mary claims to have had a happiness that Elizabeth will never know and that Elizabeth’s life has been “a magnificent failure”. Queen Mary tells her that Elizabeth has lived her whole life in fear of her. Yet, she refuses to renounce her claim to the English throne even though Elizabeth offers to spare her life if she does. Boldly, the Queen of Scots stands by her birthright and proclaims that she will win and Elizabeth will still lose because one day it will be her son, a Stuart, who sits on the throne of England. The Tudor queen leaves in a fury and Queen Mary prays, preparing for her death. She is led to her execution, saying a rosary in Latin amidst loud thunderclaps and the event happens off-screen as sad music plays. The film ends and the credits roll.

Mary & Bothwell publicity still
“Mary of Scotland” was not a big hit at the box office, yet, it is not a bad film and I think is sure to be very popular with a particular audience. Personally, I like it, I don’t love it but I like it. It’s sweet. It is certainly not historically accurate, though it is not really as inaccurate as some like to imply. Some things are completely made up for sure but what I think most people who complain about the historical inaccuracy are really upset about is just how partisan the film is. And boy howdy is it ever. One thing “Mary of Scotland” is not is ‘subtle’. It is a plain and simple story of good guys and bad guys and the audience is told, from the outset, in no uncertain terms, who is who. Personally, that doesn’t bother. After all, keeping this film in the context of others like it, there have been far, far more films that were just as blatantly partisan regarding Queen Elizabeth I. Almost every film to be about or to feature the ‘Virgin Queen’ have portrayed her in the most positive light possible. Certainly none of them were entirely historically accurate but it seems to me that if we can have so many films unapologetically positive of Elizabeth I (and I’m all for them), surely there is room for a film that is unapologetically positive of her rival Queen Mary.

I thought the two female leads both did an excellent job playing their parts, the rest of the cast was solid, it looked good and I think tended to get more things right than it is often given credit for. Queen Mary did claim the English throne, Queen Elizabeth did try to dominate Scotland through corrupt nobles and Queen Mary was an advocate of religious freedom rather than Catholic domination all as shown in the film. There are, on the other hand, plenty of things the film gets wrong but this is a movie closer to the romantic image of the Stuart queen rather than the historical one. It also shows Queen Mary as a devout Catholic woman who made some poor decisions in her life and that is perfectly true. Even the negative portrayal of Queen Elizabeth is not entirely inaccurate. Not everyone will like this movie but some will. In particular, I would say especially that if you are a Catholic monarchist interested in British history, you will probably love this movie.


  1. Hepburn - that was also the family name of a man called also ... Lord Bothwell.

  2. Since Darnley is also Lennox, the Eurythmics are another pop culture tribute to Mary Queen of Scots.

  3. This Movie Review! was actually fantastic. It is a very well shot picture with cinematography by Joseph H. August and Jack MacKenzie. Also, Hepburn did a pretty good job!


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