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teaser Kidnapped (1960)

In 1958, director Robert Stevenson was on location in England shooting Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959) for Walt Disney. Disney himself was there, too, and one day he suggested to Stevenson that they next make an adaptation of the Scottish historical adventure novel Kidnapped. "I told him I hadn't read the story in more than 20 years," Stevenson recounted. "So I got a paperback edition, re-read it and decided this was for me." After Darby O'Gill wrapped, Stevenson took a vacation in the Scottish Highlands and wrote a treatment; within a few months, he had turned it into a screenplay.

The novel by Robert Louis Stevenson (no relation to the director) had been turned into two movies already: a 1938 Fox version starring Freddie Bartholomew as the 17-year-old hero, David Balfour, and a 1948 Monogram picture starring Roddy McDowall. For this new version, Disney cast 22-year-old American actor James MacArthur--he'd later play Danny Williams in 259 episodes of Hawaii Five-O--among an appealing roster of British players. Peter Finch got the role of Scottish rebel Alan Breck Stewart, and Bernard Lee, Niall MacGinnis, Miles Malleson, John Laurie, Finlay Currie, and Duncan Macrae rounded out the supporting roles. (The latter three actually were Scotsmen.)

There was also a bit player in the cast who would go on to become a bigger star than any of the others. As Peter Finch recounted, when he read the script, he was struck by one scene in which his character is challenged to a "bagpipe duel" by Rob Roy MacGregor's son, Robin. Finch immediately exclaimed, "There's only one actor I know who could play that part AND the bagpipes!" He was thinking of his friend Peter O'Toole, who at the time had done some television work but never a feature film. O'Toole got the part, which comprised two days of work, and impressed the director Robert Stevenson, who said at the time, "I predict he will make a very important mark within five years." Just two years later, O'Toole shot to stardom with Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

O'Toole's flatmate in 1959, actor Kenneth Griffith, later told a story about O'Toole's first day on Kidnapped. The studio called the flat, wanting to know where O'Toole was, as he had not shown up to work. Griffith answered the phone, found O'Toole still asleep, and informed him that he was 45 minutes late to the set. "Has my car come?" asked O'Toole. "No," said Griffith. "No car, no me," said O'Toole, and he drifted back to sleep. Griffith joked that from then on, "there has been a Rolls waiting for him," adding that this attitude is why Griffith himself never became a star. "I'd have been there on the dot!" he said.

Director Robert Stevenson was British-born but had become an American citizen in 1940. He started his career as a writer in 1930, later directing films for Germany's UFA studio and England's Gainsborough Pictures, before signing with David O. Selznick in 1939 and moving to Hollywood. For the last 20 years of his career, he was under exclusive contract to Walt Disney, making live-action family films from Old Yeller (1957) and Mary Poppins (1964) to The Shaggy D.A. (1976). His Disney films were extremely successful commercially, and he was a perfect fit for the studio. Stevenson later said, "Walt was the best executive I ever met in my life. With all those things he was running, Disneyland and so forth, he never had 'no time' for things. Great ease. He was never flustered.... He would be tremendously involved in the script.... He had this very interesting gift. When the story was beginning to jell, it was almost as if he went into a trance and spoke in tongues. He began to actually do the dialogue. That was the secret of good writing around here: never interrupt Walt when he was in full cry."

Production of Kidnapped began in Scotland in early 1959, with interiors shot at Pinewood Studios near London. Many scenes were filmed in their actual locations, or as close as possible. "I wanted to film the slaying of Colin Roy Campbell--the hated 'Red Fox'--in the actual locale," said Stevenson, "at a place a few miles from beautiful, scenic Ballachulish. I found the original spot, but a whole forest of Norwegian pines had grown up around it! So we shot the sequence on the slopes of Ardguar, some 12 miles away."

Peter Finch, who had become one of the biggest stars in England in the 1950s, greatly enjoyed playing Alan Breck Stewart. It was "a role of tremendous power and by far the most exciting thing I've ever done," he said. He spent weeks developing a Scottish Highland accent for the part. Author Trader Faulkner later wrote that in the sequence where Finch goads John Laurie's character into admitting his part in the kidnapping, "Peter's technique as a theatre and radio actor shows in the...vocal range [he employs for] a long speech on the screen."

The Disney publicity department had some fun with the coincidence of the novelist and film director bearing the same name. "Kidnapped Author and Its Director Have More In Common Than Name," said one press release. "The two Stevensons share the same young-in-heart approach to all facets of life..., and the same stimulating and lively imagination which colors their creative work."

Kidnapped was released in the U.S. on May 18, 1960 to rather tepid reviews. Though faithful to the novel and boasting bright Technicolor location scenery, the film was found lacking in excitement. The New York Times concluded that "either Mr. Disney, who made a vigorous Treasure Island ten years ago, has lost his touch in the intervening decade, or the kids have been spoiled by 'Gunsmoke' and 'Peter Gunn.'"

In the 1977 BBC documentary Hollywood Dream-Maker, Robert Stevenson explained his approach to moviemaking: "When I'm directing a picture, what I have in mind is a happy audience, enjoying it in a movie house. My friends sometimes criticize me for this attitude, but it isn't mercenary, because every dollar a picture takes in represents somebody's enjoyment and pleasure."

By Jeremy Arnold

Douglas Brode and Shea T. Brode, It's the Disney Version! Popular Cinema and Literary Classics
Trader Faulkner, Peter Finch: A Biography
Michael Freedland, Peter O'Toole
Patrick McGilligan, Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends
Robert Sellers, Peter O'Toole: The Definitive Biography
Stephen Watts, "'Kidnapped' in the Heart of the Highlands," The New York Times June 14, 1959

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