#66 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
By all accounts, John Ford got bored of this historical costume drama while he made it. It has a professional stamp, but there’s nothing that seems to have engaged him. It’s an adaptation of a play by Maxwell Anderson of the same name, and it’s the kind of biopic that just rankles me. It tries to take on a large, complicated life, and bundle it down into a tight two hours. Instead of trying to focus on one aspect of this story, the film ends up shining an equal amount of light onto several different aspects, all of which helped form Mary Stuart as a person, but none of which is conceived or executed well enough to form Mary Stuart as a character.
Katharine Hepburn plays Mary Stuart, the Scottish daughter of Henry VII (an inaccuracy within the film, but it clarifies the situation quickly, so whatever), who arrives in Scotland by boat in the middle of the night from France after the death of her arranged husband Francis, the King of France. Immediately her vision of a united landing point for her potential reign over Scotland and perhaps even a move for the crown of England should Elizabeth (Florence Eldridge) die childless is shattered when she actually meets the Scottish nobles, led by her half-brother James (Ian Keith), who make it very clear that they will only follow her should she lead the way they wish. She also meets the Earl of Bothwell (Frederic March), quickly falling for him though she can’t exactly marry the first handsome, masculine man she meets. There’s politics to be had.
Elizabeth sends greetings to her cousin, offering Mary free reign of Scotland should the Scottish queen marry Leicester, an English noble. Mary sees it as a slight, an insult, and a political move, and she decides to react appropriately by marrying the Catholic Lord Darnley (Douglas Walton), a foppish young lord who offers none of Bothwell’s charms or masculine appeals. The marriage quickly turns sour, Darnley drunkenly chastising his own wife, angry at his own diminutive status as King Consort. They do conceive, and she delivers a son, James VI, which makes Mary even more of a threat to Elizabeth.
The Scottish nobles end up sick of taking orders from their French queen and rise up in revolt, charging the castle, killing Mary’s chief advisor, the Italian David Rizzio (John Carradine), and threatening to kill everyone if they aren’t granted a pardon for their crimes they just committed by Mary right then. Bothwell saves her, the nobles flee, and it seems as though Mary may be able to rule in peace. But, there are more plots, a bombing, and even a kidnapping staged by Bothwell to get her to marry him in a convincing manner before Mary must abandon Scotland, sneaking into England, trying to find sanctuary. Elizabeth has Mary arrested, quickly tried, and executed.
It’s a lot. I mean,…there’s a whole lot going on here. The conflict between Mary and Elizabeth complete with a manufactured meeting of the two in the end, the rebellion of the Scottish nobles, the marriage with Darnley, and eventually the romance with Bothwell. The movie has a solid two-hour runtime to play with all of this, but it’s honestly too much. This kind of material is more suited for an epic three-hour runtime. And, because nothing has any depth to it, moving from one subplot to another ends up feeling rather exhausting.
Ford, despite reports that he walked off the set at one point, allowing Hepburn to direct a love scene (I think I know which one), brought his practiced eye to the film. The influence of German Expressionism is still apparent in places, like a great shot of Elizabeth diminished underneath the overpowering judges, seating 10 feet above her. The final minutes of the film also embrace a purely cinematic feel that helps give the finale a certain bit of power that the movie as a whole honestly just doesn’t deserve.
I’m not the biggest fan of Hepburn, but I like her in screwball form like in Bringing Up Baby. I like her less in dramatic form, and I kept thinking of advice she gave a young Anthony Hopkins on the set of The Lion in Winter where she said, “Don’t think about the lines, just say them.” And that’s how her performance as Mary ends up feeling. It feels like Katharine Hepburn speaking the line and little else.
It’s handsome and fairly dull. Never digging deeply enough into characters or events to elicit much interest, led by a woman who seems to feel like acting is beneath her. This is far from John Ford’s finest work in the 30s, but it’s ultimately passable. Barely, though.