Sunday, September 7, 2008

Mary of Scotland: a partial, imperfect and ignorant history

No, it's not another leg tribute (but it could be.) Frederich March as the James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, traditionally historic villain and hero of Mary of Scotland. Hepburn was an ancestor of actress Katharine Hepburn who starred in the film and as such the treatment of Bothwell in the film was softened so as to not offend her. Bothwell is always referred to as "Bothwell" in the movie, perhaps to avoid confusion with the actress and the Earl.

I watch a lot of costume dramas. You might say that everything I know about history has been at least supplemented or more likely warped by their influence. It's been more than a decade since my last proper class in history and I've never been much for reading it for fun. To paraphrase Jane Austen, I am a partial, prejudiced and ignorant historian. Such poor qualifications didn't stop Jane and they won't stop me from expounding on the topic. In her hilarious youthful satire, The History of England, Austen paid comically little attention to wars and most of her comments in the Tudor era are directed at praising Mary Queen of Scots and castigating Queen Elizabeth the Ist for her treatment of the Stuart queen. Jane came down firmly on the side of Mary of Scotland and so did the makers of the film by the same name, director John Ford, and writers John Dudley and Maxwell Anderson.

The film begins with Queen Elizabeth (Florence Eldridge) opining the return of Mary Stuart (Katharine Hepburn) from Scotland. Stuart was a rival to her throne and Elizabeth is warned by her advisers that she must not let Mary land safely in Scotland. Elizabeth's plan to intercept Mary fails and she is allowed to take her throne, in doing so she supplants her half brother the Earl of Moray who has been Regent in her absence. Mary quickly discovers that she can not trust Moray or the other Lords who've set themselves up as her counsel. They want her to renounce her religion and send her personal secretary, David Riccio, an ardent Catholic, back to France. Mary refuses and is backed up by the feisty Earl of Huntley (Donald Crisp, in a brave but wavering attempt at a Scottish accent). Huntley is out-numbered until the Earl of Bothwell shows up to keep the Lords in line.

In typical classic movie fashion their first meeting is flirtatious and full of innuendo. I said in a post earlier this week that Rossano Brazzi was the only man to look at Katharine Hepburn with naked lust on screen, but that was before I saw Frederick March as Bothwell. March is wonderful in love scenes as he has a very direct manner that is also tender and self-effacing without being studiously so.

Bothwell not only frightens the rebel Lords into submission he controls the border more effectively than it has been in years, an act which impresses both Mary and Queen Elizabeth who has been jealously hearing stories about Mary's court full of admirers. With suitors aplenty, Mary contends she will never marry again, though it is clear that she is in love with Bothwell. Riccio advises her to marry Lord Darnley who has the claim to the English throne as well as being Catholic. This leads to some unintentional comedy as Hepburn continually address Riccio as "David" in a voice and manner so similar to her pursuit of David Huxley (Cary Grant) in Bringing Up Baby that I couldn't help but make the occasional leopard joke.

Mary hesitates as long as possible but eventually consents to marry Darnley whom she loathes. In a great scene that could only happen in the movies, Bothwell kicks down Mary's door and demands to know whether she loves him and why she will marry Darnley. The film's portrayal of Darnley is a master stroke because Douglas Walton not only looks like pictures of the real-life lord, but he plays him with a combination of cowardly ambition and dissipation that is pretty close to the mark. The film substitutes alcoholism for Darnley's syphillis in a probable concession to the production code.

After their marriage Darnley's weaknesses grow more pronounced: he stays away from home, seeming not to care about the health of his newborn son and he is continually jealous of the influence of David Riccio, a jealousy which Moray and his lords encourage. Darnley agrees to have Riccio killed and in an intense scene which is close to the real-life incident, Darnley has his soldiers drag Riccio from the queen's apartment, where they stab him, within view of the queen and her ladies. Though in real life Darnley wasn't present at the murder, the film version makes him so, perhaps to remind the audience of his guilt in the crime. Darnley quickly realizes his mistake when the Lords talk next of removing Mary from power. Without Mary, he will have nothing, so the pair are reunited by a need for survival. Bothwell arrives and is disgusted by Darnley's cowardice and both he and Mary wish they could be rid of her husband. Bothwell pledges, somewhat ominously to serve Mary forever. Now this is the point in the movie, where I wondered if they were going to imply that Bothwell was responsible for Darnley's death which is the most common historical view of Bothwell. But the scenes that lead up to the explosion at Kirk o Fields (by the way Darnley didn't die in the explosion , he was found strangled outside the castle in his nightshirt after the dust cleared from the blast) imply that it was Queen Elizabeth working with Moray and his cronies who were responsible for Darnley's death. Whether or not this is true, it is unlikely that Bothwell was responsible as was the finding of several several modern reassessments published in the 1930s, which probably influenced playwright Maxwell Anderson.

Bothwell saves Mary who is under attack from the rebel Lords who want to imprison her for Darnley's death and put her son on the throne, while making Moray regent again. Bothwell and Mary flee, getting married along the way. The film makes it clear that the supposed abduction of Mary by Bothwell, was a transparent ploy to distance Mary from Darnley's murder, since Bothwell was the chief suspect in the crime. Huntley refuses to go along with abduction scheme and thinks their marriage is foolish and he breaks with the couple. After three weeks of marriage, Bothwell decides to leave to raise an army to defend Mary and take back the throne. In real-life the Lords confronted Bothwell and Mary in battle at Carbury Hill. Hopelessly outnumbered, Mary agreed to surrender on the condition they let Bothwell go. Mary is imprisoned, escapes and is tricked again into being imprisoned in England. Meanwhile Bothwell is imprisoned in Denmark where he dies of a fever. This collapses a series of jailings, escapes, battles and betrayals that ended with Mary's imprisonment in Tutbury Castle in 1589 and Bothwell's internment in a notorious dungeon in Denmark.

Jane Austen contended that Elizabeth I was entirely responsible for the imprisonment and execution of Mary and that all her ministers and advisers who are often pointed to as being to blame for giving her bad advice on the matter are not as guilty as the sovereign. This is undeniably sound reasoning, couched in elegantly ironic terms which would seem at first glance to praise Elizabeth, but in reality amounts to an extended spleen venting. And that is exactly what Mary of Scotland contends as well, that the plot against Elizabeth's life supposedly emminating from Mary was a frame-up designed to give Elizabeth an excuse to kill her rival to the throne. The movie combines the inquiry into Darnley's death that was conducted years earlier and her trial for treason in that principal evidence against her are forged letters. Mary is tried, found guilty and executed with her last moments on the scaffold, imagining that she hears Bothwell's pipers riding to her rescue.

Mary of Scotland had as one of its taglines, the phrase "One of histories great love stories" which may or may not be true. Accounts of the relationship between Bothwell and Mary vary from the seriously anti-Bothwell version which contends that Bothwell abducted and raped Mary to the "realist" view that Mary allowed the abduction in order to distance herself from Bothwell, who was the chief suspect in her husband's murder and that she married him because he was her closest ally and supporter. In real life Bothwell was married during the period that he and Mary fall in love in the film. His first wife divorced him after he impregnanted one of their servants. Bothwell also had two common law wives in Scandanavia before he was married to his Scottish wife. Since common law marriages weren't recognized in Scotland, he could never be charged with bigamy, but it still wasn't a very nice way to operate. And his double dealing caught up with him when he was arrested in Norway after he fled Scotland, since one of his common law wives had risen to prominence and was an eager witness against him at his hearing. No mention of Bothwell's wives or paramours is made in the movie. Nor is there any mention of Mary's pregnancy with twins and miscarraige of Bothwell's children while in captivity. I actually like the romantic view that the film takes of the couple and think that it fits in with many of the facts of their lives. Afterall Mary surrendered her throne on the condition that Bothwell be allowed to go free--not exactly the actions of a woman who'd been raped or coerced into marriage. Other minor incidents support the view of a real affection between the pair. Before Darnley's death, just days after the birth of her son, James, she made a difficult journey to visit Bothwell who'd been quite seriously injured in a riding accident. Though she was there under the guise of state business, it seems plausible to me that there was a romantic pull for her. Bothwell and Mary first crossed paths in France when she was girl and he was responsible in part for her safe conduct from France to Scotland. He had served her mother dutifully and given his reputation as a handsome and charming ladies man, it's not hard to imagine that the young Queen would fall for a man who offered her political security as well as the romance clearly lacking in her first two political marriages. While Mary of Scotland fails to capture all the details of their relationship, it captures the spirit of it.

The film also captures the spirit of the rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary, which was definitely one of history's great cat fights. In a wonderful scene before Mary's execution, Elizabeth comes to visit, offering Mary a chance to recant her claim to her throne in return for her life. Eldridge plays Elizabeth like an old school vamp, full of scorn, vanity and a falsely sweet varnish that fools no one. She is driven by fear, ambition, unnamed herat break, righteous anger and a tough intelligence. Interestingly she looks quite a bit like Bette Davis, and I think her performance here creates the "Elizabeth Template" that would be used up to the present day in Cate Blanchett's excellent performances. And indeed Betty Davis was cast to star in another adaptation of a Maxwell Anderson play The Private Lives of Elizabeth of Essex (1939). Mary is at first taken in by Elizabeth's softness and says that the sad thing is that they have so much in common and that they should have been friends. This may be a bit far-fetched or an an attempt to make Mary Queen of Scots into a saint, but in essence it is correct. Elizabeth and Mary were alike in that they were both Queens whose grasp on power was always slippery and who were forever under pressure to marry and produce an heir. They were compelled to be enemies and the film implies that at least part of Elizabeth's enmity is fueled by personal jealousy of her younger, more popular cousin. Elizabeth chose to remain single and consolidate her power through constant maneuvering. Mary chose to marry for her throne, and perhaps, for love. In the end Mary says she doesn't regret the decision she made a bit and she predicts that history will condemn Elizabeth for her treatment of her and that her son, James will one day become King. Both of these predictions came true and yet certainly, Elizabeth could not have regretted the decisions she made either, for they allowed her to rule half a century, save England from Spanish invasion and raise the country to a position of power in the world. Her reign gave us Shakespeare and an English presence in the New World. England and America would not be the countries they are today without her vision. Mary Queen of Scots is a rather sad, romantic sideshow in all other histories but those penned by Jane Austen and Maxwell Anderson.


kda0121 said...

From an historical point of view, it is rather amazing that in the time of Elizabeth I, England was still facing internal instability. If anything, the reign of Elizabeth once and for all consolidated power and England became a superpower, surpassing the influence of Spain, who held the title of numero uno until Brittainia usurped that position.

Mary of Scotland seems to highly thought of in critical circles, yet neither director John Ford nor Katharine Hepburn thought much of it. It did bring those two potent forces together for a time. Depending on which source to believe, the pair had a rousing affair for a couple of years. Other biographers indicate that although both Ford and Hepburn developed a strong love for one another, that the relationship remained platonic. Either way, I think Hepburn's magnetic portrayal of Mary was at least partly influenced by the Ford/Hepburn relationship.

Fredric March was well suited in his role, although he took an uncharacteristic back seat to the leading lady. Florence Eldridge, who plays Elizabeth I, was Fredric March's real life wife and they performed together occasionally throughout the years on stage and screen.

All in all, not a bad movie, but it must be noted that this not a rousing swashbuckler, but a costume drama by a noted playwright. Some may find it talky and overlong, but it does have its rewards for those who sit through it.

Jennythenipper said...

I didn't know March and Eldridge were married. Interesting.

I liked it a lot because I love costume drama and I have a particular interest in this era. Yes, it is talky and you can tell it's based on a play, but I'm a fan of Maxwell's other stuff, and this fits along side..

I had to keep reminding myself it was a John Ford movie. I think the recurrence of the piper theme was the closest thing. It's a cast of thousands, the credits run on and on and yet no battles or anything--just lots of guys in kilts.