The Master of Ballantrae is not technically a pirate movie, but I think Errol Flynn’s character is a pirate long enough for it to count, making this movie his fourth pirate film and him the indisputable king of swashbuckling piracy (his other pirate movies were Captain Blood (1935), The Sea Hawk (1940), and Against All Flags (1952)).
The movie was adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale, which I have not read, but understand to be a bit more grim than the film, about two feuding brothers during the Jacobite Rebellion. In the movie, the feuds more of a misunderstanding than anything else. Errol Flynn is Jamie Durie, the Master of Ballantrae. He is engaged to the love of his life, Lady Alison (Beatrice Campbell), but also visits local girl Jessie Brown (Yvonne Furneaux) on the side. His brother, Henry (Anthony Steele) is a much more phlegmatic, quiet and responsible man.
When Bonnie Prince Charlie arrives in Scotland (Charles, grandson of the deposed James II, of the House of Stuart), much of the country takes up arms with him in an attempt to invade England and put Charles on the throne. However, Jamie and Henry’s father decides that in order to ensure the survival of the estate, only one son should fight for the Stuarts and the other should stay home as a ‘loyal’ subject of King George II. Jamie wins the coin toss and sets out to fight the English.
It all goes very badly, however, and he is on the run and runs into fellow another fugitive, the flamboyant Colonel Francis Burke (Roger Livesey). They become bosom friends on the toss of a coin. If the coin had turned up the other way, they would have fought to the death for the roast chicken. But when the two of them return to Ballantrae, things really go south. The British are crawling over the countryside and Jamie is betrayed by Jessie Brown out of jealousy over his love for Lady Alison. Jamie, however, believes that Henry did it so he could be master and marry Alison himself.
After Jamie is shot and stabbed and such, the friends leave England, get shanghaied on a ship to the West Indies, meet up with the dandy pirate Captain Arnaud (Jacques Berthier), contrive to steal a Spanish Galleon, contend with piracy and betrayal, and finally return to Scotland to deal with brother Henry.
It’s not a terrible movie at all. In fact, it’s rather fun, if you can overlook the extremely annoying and intrusive narrator who breaks into the story every twenty minutes to explain things that are readily apparent even to the most casual viewer. Did we really need to be told Arnaud was a dandy? You can see the moment he first comes into view!
The Master of Ballantrae came later in Flynn’s career – he would only live another six years – and he doesn’t have the dash and energy of his youth (there appears to be a stunt double used often), but he still brings an enthusiasm and sense of fun to the role as only he can. He fights in castles and on pirate ships, makes love to several different women, joshes with Burke, schemes, escapes from a castle and broods on revenge. He also has a pretty rough movie, getting knocked out at least three times, shot, stabbed with a knife and run through with a sword several times… and almost hanged. I don’t recall Robin Hood having nearly this much trouble.
Roger Livesey (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and I Know Where I’m Going!) as Colonel Francis Burke, the “talkative Irishman,” is a hoot and he appears to be having nearly as much fun as is possible. He fights with elan, grins and makes comments, and is devoted to his friend Jamie. It’s almost a buddy picture, really. He’s also the only person who sounds faintly like he could be Scottish, even if he is playing an Irishman and is actually Welsh. Everyone else sounds either American or British (though technically Flynn is Australian).
The most entertaining part of the film involves the pirates, their time on the ships and at Tortugas Bay, where they meet another flamboyant pirate called Captain Mendoza (Charles Goldner) who has a red beard. I occasionally get a craving to see a swashbuckler or pirate movie, but am leery of beating the few I have to death by too much viewing, so it is fun to see something new and Master of Ballantrae fits the bill. Everyone seems to having a good time (according to the article on TCM, everyone was having a good time and it was an unusually happy and stress-free set), the action is exciting enough and the camaraderie between Flynn and Livesey is great.
Master of Ballantrae was the first movie Bob Anderson worked on and all the fights are choreographed by him, as in this fight between Jamie and the treacherous Captain Arnaud, with help from stunt double Flynn.