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Monday, 4 June 2007

Mary of Scotland (1936) John Ford

Here's Katharine Hepburn, Fredric March and what must be the longest list of supporting credits I think I've ever seen at the beginning of a film: no less than forty of them running down in font size, in a film that I'm almost doomed to hate with a passion. It's the story of Mary Stuart, known as the Queen of Scots and the Mary of Scotland of the title, and Hollywood always took the side of the Scots or the Welsh or especially the Irish against the English, and guess what, I'm English. Elizabeth I was a stout hearted queen to we English and we don't give a monkey's about what the rest of Europe felt about her legitimacy.

Beyond the politics of it though, it's a John Ford film. Now Ford was already a major director and was rightly acclaimed for his work but when you look back at the body of it you see the history of America, through many different wars and even through the odd moment of peace. You don't see Scotland in the slightest. In fact you'd associate John Ford with Scotland in about the same breath you'd associate Katharine Hepburn with Scotland, and given that I remember her atrocious accent in The Little Minister two years earlier, that's not a good association.

Well the good news is that she didn't even attempt a Scots accent this time but the bad news is, well, that she didn't even attempt a Scots accent. The educated east coast American accent isn't any more appropriate. Hepburn is powerful on occasion here, let's be plain, but she's not Scots. It's scary when someone with the truest Mormon name of them all, Moroni Olsen, is a far better Scot than she is, as John Knox. Then again John Carradine is playing an Italian and what sounds like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir are playing Scots peasants, so we really shouldn't be looking for realism here in the slightest. Olsen and leading man Fredric March are about all you'll find.

To be fair, March's wife Florence Eldridge is far from a bad Elizabeth I, but she has a sensuality that seems out of place, far more Barbara Stanwyck than Bette Davis who was only three years away from stamping her authority on the role in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, for which she'd would have been Oscar nominated had she not been nominated instead for Jezebel, for which she won. Hepburn gives Mary, Queen of Scots a lot more humanity, all light and life, though with some guts underneath to back it all up. Only some, because next to March as her true love, the Earl of Bothwell, she's nothing but a silly woman.

Mary of Scotland is far better than I was expecting it to be. It turns out not to be a bad film, per se, just a colossal bore. There's a hamfisted love story, some sort of excuse for a political drama and the most underwhelming revolution on film. The costumes are great, the sets are terrible. Dudley Nichols, certainly no slouch in the writing department, can't do anything with the material and neither can anyone else, least of all John Ford who proves himself a long way off his territory. The only time the film shows any life is when Bothwell rides in with his triumphant pipers. Douglas Walton is supposed to be weak and unsure as Lord Darnley, but the rest of the cast don't have his justification. A good deal of them come across like they're rehearsing.

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