Errol Flynn loses a step, gains some gravity

No snide comment is implied by “Errol Flynn … gains some gravity,” though by the time this movie was made the older Flynn had put on a few pounds. Rather, his performance has a bit of weight that wasn’t there in the younger Flynn’s roles. You can see it in this movie, The Master of Ballantrae, though I don’t think anyone would rate the movie itself terribly high.

It’s not a great, Oscar-worthy performance either but Flynn is definitely a more mature performer in more ways than simply having more years under his belt. The zip may be diminished but it has been compensated by some better acting chops.

The Master of Ballantrae (1953)

Directed by William Keighley

While not quite the swashbuckling adventure of earlier Errol Flynn movies, there is still enough to make 1953’s The Master of Ballantrae an entertaining hour and a half. But not very much so.

This has an older Errol Flynn and so, like an athlete, a step or two has been lost. Also faded is the exuberant enthusiasm of 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. On the other hand, there is a maturity gained in the performance – not in the action scenes, of course, but in the dialogue and silent moments.

The Master of Ballantrae is a story by Robert Louis Stevenson done in an old style Hollywood narrative form. In other words, it not only tries to be faithful to the novel (well, to some extent), it tries to tell the story as a novel, rather than using a cinematic language.

Errol Flynn as Jamie Durie in The Master of Ballantrae.

For instance, the first half of the movie is continually interrupted by a narrator who sounds like an old school newsreel announcer. Not only is the voice out of place, but the narration itself interrupts the cinematic flow of the story.

As if trying to replicate the novel, it uses the book’s narrative voice/viewpoint to bridge scenes. But this disrupts the film and slows it down. It verbalizes rather than using images to communicate information.

It is similar to what is done in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, though the narrator isn’t nearly as pretentious. It is, however, just as intrusive and boring.

This seems to be a problem of the period the film was made. Basing its story on the novel, it uses literary devices rather than cinematic ones. (For example, a collage of images bridging scenes might have worked better than a voice over. It at least wouldn’t disrupt the flow quite so much.)

Errol Flynn in a scene from The Master of Ballantrae.

The end result is the first half of the movie seems to stop and start over and over, something like a car with engine problems.

About halfway through, however, the narrator disappears and the film finally gets some movement and flows nicely, albeit in an old Hollywood way.

Fortunately, it is a short movie (about 90 minutes) and this works for the film since, to be honest, it ain’t no award winner.

It is however entertaining in a small way, especially with its West Indies scenes and pirate adventures (though a little corny). The ending, too, with its return to Scotland also works with its drama, romance and sword fights.

So while not a great movie, it’s worth a look as it has its moments. It also boasts some nice cinematography from Jack Cardiff, and that is always rewarding.

(Written roughly August, 2003.)

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