People like to romanticise the weirdest figures, and perhaps none weirder than 16th-century Scottish (and briefly French) monarch Mary, Queen of Scots. Case in point: this 1936 film adaptation of a 1933 play. I knew this bad boy was going to be trouble when, 30 seconds in, the overture stole a couple of lines from Loch Lomond. Hang on. I’m not going to be able to take all this tartanry without a little help from our friends north of the border.
Right. Let’s get to work.
Directed by John Ford, yet! Is this gonna be a searching tale of the violent passions that tear men apart?
The opening crawl describing the struggle between Mary and Elizabeth is like a medley of Scottish and English songs, including the aforementioned Loch Lomond and The British Grenadiers. That’s kind of clever but weird.
Full-on theatrical Elizabethan production; dudes in ruffs with halberds, ladies with big puffy shoulders. Elizabeth striding around barking at people. Mary has sailed from France for Scotland, an impeccably English Elizabethan tells us, and Queenie and co. are perturbed. I will say that stuff is happening like a minute into this film, which you cannot say for all the movies I watch.
Mary barks sulkily at people. Proper Englishmen are proper. “I should feyl in my dyooty to your mejesty if I did not state fects.” They do a lot of exposition for those in the audience who don’t know the background: because Mary is the product of a legitimate marriage and Elizabeth isn’t (to European eyes), Mary is seen as a threat to Elizabeth’s throne. Elizabeth, whose accent is super American compared to her advisors, sends some salty sea dogs to attack Mary’s ship, but, you know, with the black flag, so all deniable like.
Loch Lomond plays again as Mary climbs out of the boat, the salty sea dogs having apparently been unsuccessful. Mary is also American, and is clearly being set up as the goody-goody, largely by dint of Kate Hepburn gazing luminously at things. We cut to Holyrood where Loch Bloody Lomond is playing again. The locals have half-assed hoot awa’ accents, except for about half of them, who are also American.
At least there’s a lot of great pageantry in this movie; it’s definitely John Ford working for RKO, not one of these tuppeny-ha’penny Italian jobs.
Katharine Hepburn is now smiling luminously at people. She continues rocking the mid-Atlantic accent. She meets with some lords, or possibly lairds:
I think we’re supposed to prefer Mary to Elizabeth because of how well she e-nun-ci-ates. Her secretary is John Carradine! There is a lot of vapouring about unwavering loyalty and John Knox. The dispute between Protestants and Catholics in Scotland is seen as being between (good) Catholic Highlanders and (bad) Protestand lowlanders (I guess?) with the issue being religious liberty. “I’ll defend to the death your right to worship as you please!” some guy shouts, which I’m not sure is quite historically accurate. The lords are browbeating Mary into marrying Darnley. Haggis McKiltington continues to support the queen, addressing her as Lassie. Mary gives the various lords a tongue-lashing for being bitches.
“I’m going to live my own life; do as I say!” Mary says, glaring at the assembled cravens. Ah, here’s the Hollywood text. Again, it’s Katharine Hepburn, so it’s some high-quality glaring, but eesh. Believing in yourself: the only thing Hollywood can think of since 1936.
A delegation of singing Scottish yokels turn up, singing a stirring song about free Scotland which seems to be to the tune of Loch Lomond for parts of it. Perhaps I have been misreading this? Jesus Hell, there is a long solo with harp accompaniment. Kate gazes nobly at it. Basically, gazing is to this movie what marching is to Hannibal.
The musical interlude goes on for (I didn’t count, but I’m pretty sure) one million years.
John Knox shows up to castigate everyone for drinkin’ and so on, and accusing Mary of being a repressive Catholic like her mother. He has a big old floppy fake beard. John Carradine is looking at things but hasn’t said a word yet. John Knox is a pretty convincing loony.
Some soldiers turn up to drown Knox out with bagpipes. Mary tries to convince Knox that she’s all for freedom of religion, but he isn’t. Knox is Moroni Olsen, the guy who played the mirror in Snow White. Huh!
Fredric March turns up as the Earl of Bothwell, with a cod Scottish accent, acting all smoove at Mary. He quiets the bickering lords.
Elizabeth is back in Sneerington Castle, hanging out with Leicester, who has a wicked cape. Her various toadies and flatterers butter her up. Her accent is all over the place. Elizabeth is unhappy with how Lord Randolph talks up Mary, and appoints “cold fish” Throckmorton to be her ambassador. In case the movie hasn’t made it clear enough:
ELIZABETH I IS KIND OF A BITCH.
Elizabeth goes off about how terrible it is “to be born illegitimate,” which I really, really doubt is the attitude she took.
Meanwhile, back in Scotland, Carradine is going off about how Mary’s destiny is in Europe. He has a big list of proposals, but Mary makes fun of them all for snoring, having big ears, etc. He busts out his excitable-Italian bit. In the end, she decides to marry Darnley, but then Bothwell turns up at the head of a column of troops with pipers and it’s time for another romantic interlude. She gazes for a bit. I swear to God.
Darnley turns up and is a preening popinjay with an earring and tights and so on, a prissy character compared to manly manly Bothwell. There’s some good badinage.
DARNLEY (to Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting): Ah, the four pretty wenches!
LADY-IN-WAITING: Five, now that you’re here.
Bothwell dries his nutsack in front of the fire, or possibly his sporran, but it looks really inappropriate.
Mary prates on at Throckmorton, in a scene enlivened only by the fact that Katharine Hepburn’s bitchface is fantastic. Feeling threatened, she angrily decides to marry Darnley because of his almost-as-good claim to the English throne.
Bothwell goes all manly-man on Mary, but she rejects him because she has to marry Darnley for reasons of state.
This movie has 76 minutes left to go and, what, like 20 years to cover? She married Darnley in 1565 and she died in 1587, so …
Anyhow, Bothwell storms out. Darnley is ushered in and proves to be an insufferable little git. This image is actually pretty closely based on contemporary paintings of Henry Stuart, which show him as exactly the kind of dandified prettyboy Elizabethan nobleman tended to look like. But Bothwell didn’t exactly look like the Heilans he-man he appears as in the film:
Darnley turns up to a council meeting drunk and acting like a d-bag. I have no idea what his accent is. He overacts being drunk like whoah. These long boring scenes do allow me to discover that Florence Eldridge (Elizabeth) and Fredric March (Boswell) were married. Rizzio (John Carradine) sings a song while playing a lute or something. I think even if you didn’t know the history, you’d know he was about to get murdered up something fierce. He promptly gets stabbed by a gang of Darnley’s allies.
This is all very confused and doesn’t follow the sequence of events very well, completely omitting the fact that the rebel lords were initially opposed to Darnley because he was also a Catholic. But then the whole story is very confusing and involves a lot of twists and turns, more TV series than feature film. Bothwell’s guys turn up and start clanging swords to more interminable piping.
Meanwhile, back in England, I’m 1300 words into this waking nightmare and seemingly no closer to the end. Wait, I mean Elizabeth is swanning around with Lord Randolph when Throckmorton shows up with the news. Elizabeth is upset. Back in Scotland, we skip forward a wee bit: James VI is a little baby. Bothwell gives him a claymore as abirthday present. Darnley is still a bitchy drunk.
Darnley is acting paranoid, but he’s right to do so: he gets sploded in his own house. Knoxy tries to hang it on Bothwell. Mary and Bothwell moon around a castle looking longingly at each other.
Huntly is portrayed as a loyal follower of Mary’s, when he actually led a rebellion against her got crushed; Mary allied with leading Protestants to take him out even though they were both Catholics.
Mary gives a long monologue about her childhood in France. Oh, I spoke too soon. Huntly is unhappy. “The lords” are marching on Edinburgh, with Knoxy in tow. Mary stands up to them. I amot even sure what’s happening any more, but Fredric March and Katharine Hepburn are standing very close to each other again.
I kind of drifted off for a bit. I guess Moray and Knox are hijacking the government. They’re forcing Mary to abdicate in favour of James, with Moray as regent. Bothwell is off to Denmark. Mary skips out. She hides with some common folk and has a cute conversation with a little boy. 25 minutes to go in this movie — oh, and like 18 years. Elizabeth sends Throckmorton to
kidnap rescue Mary.
Mary realises belatedly that she’s a prisoner and goes around Hepburn-scorning at people. This movie does look pretty, although they don’t much care about anachronisms. Bothwell is going mad in jail with the kind of insanity that makes you overact a bunch. Then he up and dies. There is a big storm for some reason.
Mary is tried by some kind of English court, we apparently having jumped forward nearly 20 years. Mary denies that she planned to assassinate Elizabeth along with Babbington (which she probably did). But the whole thing is set up to make the Babbington plot seem like a stitch-up.
The court sentences Mary to death. She gazes at them.
Finally we get a big confrontation between the two queens. There is some acting going on up in this piece. Mary gloats that James will eventually rule England: “still, still, I win!” Yeah, and a real charmer he was.
Five minutes to go and I’m rooting for the axeman here. Katharine Hepburn gazes nobly up to heaven. Damn, that woman could look at stuff. The bit where they march her to the scaffold is really well-done, actually, with the camera in the position of the executioner for a bit. And it’s over, and just when you were remembering that John Ford could make movies and Katharine Hepburn’s teeth could act, that damn song comes on again.
Seriously, why is Mary this romantic figure? I don’t get it. I don’t get why she rather than anyone else has gone into history as a tragic whatever. Is it just that she got executed and that’s rare? It is a mystery. Like this film.