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The Master of Ballantrae

The Master of Ballantrae(1953)


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teaser The Master of Ballantrae (1953)

By 1953, Errol Flynn hadn't starred in a movie he enjoyed working on for years although all of his films still achieved some measure of success. He was happy with the success of Adventures of Don Juan (1948), That Forsyte Woman (1949) and Kim (1950) but hadn't much enjoyed the ride. Then, in early 1953, Warner Brothers cast him in The Master of Ballantrae, based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Flynn immediately loved the script by Herb Meadow and Harold Medford and was excited to be working with William Keighley again. Flynn had worked with the director three times before, including the Technicolor blockbuster, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which Keighley co-directed with Michael Curtiz.

Keighley had been around for years and had directed some of James Cagney's most popular vehicles, including Each Dawn I Die (1939) and The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941). Now, with The Master of Ballantrae he was heading into retirement and, like Flynn, wanted to enjoy the last one out. It would, indeed, be his last movie, after which he would enjoy over thirty years of retirement. And in this last effort he had a pair of leads that any director would be happy with: Flynn, of course, and the great Roger Livesey. The three worked together splendidly and the production was surprisingly trouble-free.

The story takes place in 1745 as Jamie Durie, the Master of Ballantrae (Errol Flynn), joins the Jacobite uprising to return the Stuarts to the throne of England. He makes a deal with his younger brother, Henry (Anthony Steel), that one of them will join the uprising while the other will remain loyal to the King, thus insuring that they keep their land and wealth no matter what the outcome. After a coin toss, Jamie joins the uprising. The revolt is defeated but Jamie joins forces with Irish adventurer Colonel Francis Burke (Roger Livesey) and the two set sail and eventually take to pirating before returning home. The story employs a few twists and turns of plot before settling on an ending that, admirably for an adventure movie starring Errol Flynn, sends our heroes off with a shadow of doubt hanging over their future.

During the filming, Keighley gave Flynn more latitude than usually afforded a lead actor, even if said actor was a Hollywood star. Flynn took part in almost no rehearsals and Keighley didn't bother telling him to show up. He had worked with Flynn before and knew all too well that once Flynn got before the camera, everything would go smoothly. His romantic lead, Beatrice Campbell, wasn't aware of this and spent many a rehearsal fretting over how their scenes would play together.

For one scene in The Master of Ballantrae, the two would dance a gavotte and, despite precise steps and blocking necessary to perform the dance, Errol wasn't present at a single rehearsal. Still, Keighley showed no sign of concern. When the day came to finally film the dance, Campbell was sure it would be a disaster. In fact, it seemed confirmed when Errol simply grabbed her and performed a few steps he improvised on the spot. Once completed, however, it looked great. Campbell said, "He had an amazing knack of making something look good on camera that he hadn't worked out at all."

Campbell also noted how Flynn put his character first, above all others in the film but that, somehow, it never came off as selfish. During one scene, again rehearsed without Flynn, both Campbell and Flynn would conclude their conversation by parting in separate directions with the camera following Campbell, his character's true love. The scene went well but Flynn thought the camera should follow him. Campbell said it worked and defended Flynn's choice by saying, "It wasn't selfishness... Everything in The Master of Ballantrae had to build up and support Flynn. He was clever enough to know that he mustn't give an inch, or he would lose that mile that made him a star."

Upon its release, The Master of Ballantrae was met with some of the finest notices of Flynn's career. The New York Times wrote, "Mr. Flynn is, in turn, bold, roguish and forgiveably [sic] self-satisfied in his best Swashbuckler since The Sea Hawk [1940], thirteen long years ago."

An interesting side note to the film: Bob Anderson, who would spend over fifty years training actors to swordfight on film, and perform the light-saber duels of Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), worked with Flynn and the other actors on the film for the swordplay to be filmed. At one point, Anderson accidentally plunged his saber point into Flynn's thigh but there was no indignant fuming from Flynn. In fact, he told everyone it was his fault and he and Anderson soon became friends.

Such was the legacy of Errol Flynn, a man of which it could truly be said, lived hard and died young. Barely making it to the half-century mark, Flynn was dead from heart failure a mere six years after the release of The Master of Ballantrae at the age of 50. But his legacy was that of a friend, a story-teller, an actor and an entertainer. Casts and crews enjoyed working with him and in The Master of Ballantrae, the friendly rapport between the star, Roger Livesey and Beatrice Campbell is evident on the screen in what would be Flynn's last great swashbuckler.

Director: William Keighley
Screenplay: Herb Meadow (screenplay); Harold Medford (additional dialogue); Robert Louis Stevenson (novel, uncredited)
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Art Direction: Ralph Brinton
Music: William Alwyn
Film Editing: Jack Harris
Cast: Errol Flynn (Jamie Durie), Roger Livesey (Col. Francis Burke), Anthony Steel (Henry Durie), Beatrice Campbell (Lady Alison), Yvonne Furneaux (Jessie Brown), Felix Aylmer (Lord Durrisdeer), Mervyn Johns (MacKellar), Charles Goldner (Mendoza), Ralph Truman (Maj. Clarendon), Francis de Wolff (Matthew Bull).

by Greg Ferrara

Errol Flynn: The Untold Story, Charles Wigham
The Complete Films of Errol Flynn, Tony Thomas, Rudy Behlmer, Clifford McCarty
The New York Times, "En Garde! The Master Who Puts the Swords in the Hands of the Stars," Richard Cohen, December 29, 2001

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