“I have my own style,” says Errol Flynn during a climactic fight with rapiers in The Master of Ballantrae. It’s a lightly self-conscious moment reminding us that in 1953, this was already a nostalgic project for the aging matinee idol. Audiences might have left the theatre sighing “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”
With radical modification and Hollywood-ization, Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale finds an impetuous, dallying, none too bright heir to Scotland’s Ballantrae estate going off to support Bonnie Prince Charlie’s ill-fated 1745 attempt to dethrone King George and return England from the Tudor family to the Stuarts. This event happens in two minutes of screen time, and then it’s all about a series of circumstances that land him among pirates in Tortuga. This festival of double-crosses amid vivid characters who spout rich jargon feels like an influence on Pirates of the Caribbean, which is a postmodern construction where this movie was merely a throwback.
Director William Keighley, whose final film this is, had helmed previous Flynn vehicles, including The Prince and the Pauper and The Adventures of Robin Hood. He directs action in a clear, lively manner and handles the rest of the hokum straightforwardly. Jack Cardiff’s Technicolor photography is, of course, beautiful; the picture was shot in England and Scotland, with Italy’s dazzling Palermo doubling for Tortuga. After this project, Flynn parted ways with his longtime studio, Warner Brothers, and remained in Europe for a while to make more films there.
The film has been on DVD (actually still in print) and now the same contents are available on demand from Warner Archive. These contents include several Flynn trailers, including the one for this film promising Stevenson’s book “as he wrote it” (don’t you believe it!) and the options of English, Spanish, and French subtitles, the better to appreciate Herb Meadow and Harold Medford’s dialogue.