Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rob Roy : The Highland Rogue ( 1953 )

" It’s so easy to set the heather on fire, so hard to put it out "

The dying words of Lady Margaret MacGregor are a warning for her beloved son, Rob Roy, to cease his warring ways and make peace with his enemies. Ay, Rob Roy MacGregor, leader of the rebellious MacGregor clan, learns the hard way the truth of his mother's words. 

The setting is Scotland in the early eighteenth century. England has just crowned King George, who is by birth a German. The Scottish people are bitterly disappointed that James Stuart, the son of the exiled King James II, was not crowned instead and they rise in rebellion. England's armies march into the Highlands crushing every uprising until only the small but stubborn band of MacGregor clansmen are still willing to keep the flicker of rebellion alive. 

The King's secretary of state for Scotland, the Duke of Argyll, is sympathetic to Rob and all his fighting men, being a Highlander himself. But when the villainous Duke of Montrose discovers this weakness, he uses it against the Duke of Argyll to usurp his position. He then sets out to capture Rob Roy in the hopes of gaining favor with the new king.

Rob Roy : The Highland Rogue was not the first film depicting the life of the Scottish clan chief. In 1922 a silent version starring David Hawthorne and Gladys Jennings was released in Great Britain. Walt Disney's version brings the pages of history, altered as they may be, to life and through its beautiful cinematography, filmed on location in Scotland, it transports audiences into the heart of the Highlands. What scenes could not be found in Scotland were amply provided for by the marvelous brushstrokes of matte artist Peter Ellenshaw.

Richard Todd is excellent as Rob and he makes it clear to see why this roguish chieftain inspired such loyalty from his clan. Todd gets plenty of support from such talented players as James Robertson Justice, Glynis Johns ( as his beloved Helen Mary MacPherson ), Finlay Currie, and Jean Taylor Smith. Michael Gough and Geoffrey Keen also star. Members of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who had just returned from service in the Korean War were recruited as the MacGregor clansmen. 

This was Walt Disney's fourth live-action film shot in Great Britain. After WWII the assets of American companies were not permitted to be taken out of that country due to the economic devastation England suffered. Since Walt had made great profits overseas from the release of his animated films, he decided to set up a production team in the United Kingdom and use these profits to create more films. Richard Todd and James Robertson Justice had previously teamed up for The Story of Robin Hood and The Sword and the Rose ( with Glynis Johns ), both directed by Ken Annakin. Disney had hoped this film to be directed by Annakin as well but due to contractual obligations Annakin was unable to direct and Harold French stepped in instead, doing an admirable job.

Leonard Maltin considered the film to be "an uncommonly heavy-handed production" with the story doing "little to inspire the audience", but Maltin must have seen Rob Roy with blinders on to give it such off-the-mark criticism. It is an engrossing and briskly paced adventure film filled with well-developed characters. Only the rather abrupt ending leaves more to be desired.

Rob Roy : The Highland Rogue was loosely based on the life of Rob Roy, a Scottish Robin Hood, who became a legend in his own times when a book about his daring rebellions was published in 1723. Even King George I was moved enough to grant him pardon for his crimes. In 1817 Walter Scott wrote a novel about the exploits of this man. This production was based on neither Scott's interpretation nor historical fact, but nevertheless screenwriter Lawrence Watkin wove a grrrrrand tale about the life of this bold renegade.