Mary, Queen of Scots

By Kearsten Clark

In the 1971 Universal production of historical drama Mary, Queen of Scots which chronicles the life and reign of Mary Stuart from when she was queen in France to her death takes the stance that Mary was a victim of religious and political enemies out to get her: there was no way she could succeed. The tag line for the movie states “the only things more powerful than her claim to the throne were the enemies out to destroy her.” Throughout the film the director wants the audience to have great sympathy for Mary, bringing to mind a line from Steel Magnolias: “When it comes to pain and suffering she’s right up there with Elizabeth Taylor.”

The film opens up to the lavish court of France and a young happy Mary Stuart running and playing with her husband, Francis II. This sequence sets the stage for the rest of Mary’s life: the happiest moments followed by tragedy. The death of her husband quickly comes and she has to return to Scotland from her beloved France. Mary Stuart is a Catholic returning to a Protestant country. She has good intentions but as the saying goes, “Hell is paved with good intentions.” For example, Mary tries to have a better relationship with her cousin Elizabeth I at the same time declaring herself rightful heir because Elizabeth is illegitimate and a heretic.

When Mary arrives in Scotland, her dreams of independence are doused with the realization that her half brother, who had been acting as regent after the death of Mary of Guise, plans to continue to rule in fact while Mary, Queen of Scots, is to rule only in name. Mary decides, along with her Priest Father Ballard and the Pope’s secret agent Riccio, that marriage was the key to freedom. The news reaches the English court which declares that “any foreign prince that marries the Scottish Queen will be seen as an act of war against England.” With that Elizabeth plots to send Robert Dudley along with the Deed of Succession, and a pretty youth by name of Henry, Lord Darnley, who is a Catholic and a cousin to both Mary and Elizabeth.

Mary of Scotland refuses the cast-off lover of Elizabeth and the Act of Succession, marries Lord Darnley believing that she will be happy in all facets of her life. Again the rug is pulled out from under the “monarch who is first a woman” after Darnley declares that he is king, ruling over Mary and the country. Tempers rage in the Scottish court. The nobles are angered by the fact that they are ruled by a woman and a Catholic. Darnley is increasing enraged by the relationship between his wife and Riccio. Mary is pregnant with the future James VI of Scotland and I of England, when a plot is hatched by the nobles and Lord Darnley that will give him the Crown Matrimonial and the death of Riccio.

Riccio was dragged from the queen and was stabbed between fifty to sixty times before his body was thrown down the main stairs. Mary fakes labor to try to escape from the conspirators and get word to Lord Bothwell that she was in need of help. In order to have her plan work Darnley was to become a double traitor and flea to the safety of Bothwell’s castle and it is here Mary of Scotland gives birth to a healthy son. The happiness over the birth of her only child and the defeat of the conspirators is short lived. Lord Darnley, who is now hated by the Scottish Lords and his wife become the center of a death plot. James Stuart, half brother of Mary, and Bothwell along with other nobles use gun powder to blow up Darnley at his house. However, Darnley happens to look out a window and escapes before the house explodes, but he was not safe: the Scottish Lords finished the job by strangling him to death.

As news spread that the king had been murdered and that Bothwell was the chief suspect, there comes a marriage between Bothwell and the queen outraging everyone. James Stuart leads an army against Mary and Bothwell, whereupon Mary forces Bothwell to secretly escape and she surrenders. The married couple see each other for a brief and last meeting, with Bothwell convincing Mary that she should abdicate in order to live; he would gather an army in Denmark.

Mary, Queen of Scot does what is asked of her and flees to England where she meets with Elizabeth I. She hopes for support and for an army so that she can reclaim the throne. The meeting goes from bad to worse when Mary tries to hit Elizabeth with a riding crop. Queen Elizabeth imprisons Mary to the dismay of Catholics, who throughout the imprisonment will continue to plot to release and put her on the Elizabethan throne. After the Babington plot, Mary is put on trial, found guilty and is sentenced to death. Elizabeth I again meets with Mary to endeavor to save her life to stop her “from running wildly to her destruction.” The last scene shot in the film is the execution of Mary as a martyr for the Catholic faith.

Hal Wallis, the producer of this movie, certainly put his old-line Hollywood trademark of showcasing dynamic stars within a period milieu; his Tudor series of films included Anne of the Thousand Days and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. This film was nominated for five Oscars in the following categories: Best Actress in a Leading Role: Vanessa Redgrave; Best Art Direction-Set Decoration: Terence Marsh, Robert Cartwright and Peter Howitt; Best Costume Design: Margaret Furse; Best Music, Original Dramatic Score: John Barry; Best Sound: Bob Jones and John Aldred. Also, Glenda Jackson was nominated for Best Screenplay.

The screen writer and the director deal with a number of “what if” moments in history, a strategy used in Hollywood pictures about historical events and people, such as using two meetings with Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. The filmmaker felt required to impose narrative drama onto the life Mary Stuart, taking great creative license with facts. One could overlook the errors of correctness and enjoy the movie as just entertainment only if one is knowledgeable about Tudor history. It was just Mary Stuart’s misfortune to have for a rival Queen Elizabeth I; as the opening from Braveheart states, “history is written by the winners” and Elizabeth was one of History’s great winners. It is never a good idea to compare the two reigns of Elizabeth and Mary because screen writers compensate for the “fatally misguided woman who, at every single point in her life, took the wrong decision.” A historian with sympathy will excuse all of the individual’s unpleasant actions or decisions by shifting responsibility to others or to events; they leave us with a passive and blameless protagonist, while characterizing Elizabeth as an unfeminine, cold calculating Protestant, hell bent on seeing the passionate Mary fail.

Even the title of the film is misleading because after an establishing shot of Mary in France the film cuts to Elizabeth I. If one wanted to see the life and times of Mary, Queen of Scots one would not find it in this film, which is basically a movie about rival queens. The cuts between Mary and Elizabeth certainly strongly influence the audience to recognize the fact that the two queens were linked and see the “one can not live while the other does” theme in the film. To reinforce that the film is not entirely about Mary Stuart is the fact that the film omits many events that could not be juxtaposed to Elizabeth, such as her imprisonment in Scotland and dramatic escape from Loch Leven Castle; her kidnapping and rape at the hands of Bothwell; the years of imprisonment in England followed by her involvement in the Babington Plot or her defense at her trial. Sadly, this film is not the only one that does not accurately portray Mary Stuart; the 1936 Mary of Scotland directed by Ford takes the same historical liberties.

The best asset of the movie is the acting: Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson in the two female leads. Vanessa Redgrave, who recently appeared in Atonement, portrays the Queen of Scots, capturing perfectly the character as written by John Hales, bringing to life the frivolity, passion for life, religious devotion, and emotion-stirring conscience. Glenda Jackson, as always, is an absolutely brilliant Queen Elizabeth. This is the second time for Jackson to play the Virgin Queen, the first being Elizabeth R. Jackson’s performance is unparalleled , and she walks way with the show. Others in the star studded cast include Patrick McGoohan as James Stuart, Timothy Dalton as Lord Darnley, and Nigel Davenport as Bothwell. Two of Elizabeth’s ministers are portrayed by Trevor Howard as Sir William Cecil which seem to be a combination of Cecil and Walsingham, and Daniel Massey as the queen’s devoted Dudley.

In terms of costuming it can easily compared with those from other similar productions of the 1960s and 70s costume dramas; some of the costumes in Mary, Queen of Scots can also be seen in the BBC miniseries called Elizabeth R. Throughout the film the costumes are very nice and historically accurate in detail but they fall short in adding to the individual characters. The film compares the two monarchies but when it comes down to costumes there is little distinction. Considering the differences between the English and Scottish courts and in the personalities of the two queens themselves the contrast is just not there: both wore blues and blacks in the same style. If one looks closely enough, one sees that the background actors such as the ladies at both courts have the same costumes. Of course there is an obvious distinction made between the two women during their final meeting: the opulent yet defeated Elizabeth versus. the shabby but triumphant Mary.

On the DVD version of the movie that are some great little details about the making of the film and an interesting commentary about the film’s music and its composer John Barry. The DVD is a double feature having Anne of the Thousand Days to accompany Mary, Queen of Scots since Hal Wallis produced both. One finds it intriguing because both queens were beheaded, one by Henry VIII while the other by Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I. The special feature tells of Vanessa Redgrave having to learn the opening song “Vivre et Mourir” phonetically because she could not speak French. Also, in the commentary there is one scene discussed: the set up of the hunting scene, with Redgrave in costume the entire time, as dog handlers and hawk handlers rehearsed their cues. It was late afternoon, with the light beginning to fail and drizzle falling when the first “action” was called and the cameras rolled. The shot was perfect with everyone moved on cue including the dog handlers. Unfortunately, one dog handler, dressed in a bright green shiny plastic raincoat ruined the take and the entire day’s location shoot was wasted.

Historically speaking this movie is way off the mark: the major flaws are the meetings between Elizabeth I and Mary. Not only did these never happen but the movie assumes that they met twice: first when Mary arrives from Scotland on 19th August 1561 Queen Elizabeth I of England travels to the north of England to meet Queen Mary of Scotland, and then the other at Fotheringhay Castle in 1587 just prior to her trial. Also, there is the license taken by the film to change the birth place of James VI of Scotland and I of England from Linlithgow Palace to that of Bothwell’s estate. Another annoying habits made by the screen writer is the mentioning of James VI/I as the future King of England. Of course, that would be the hope of Mary Stuart and she might have said that on many occasions but Elizabeth I would not have said that he was to be her successor. Elizabeth I was too wary of claimants to her throne.

The battle between Mary, Queen of Scots and that of her cousin Elizabeth of England is shown in an epic drama that provides a passing glance at the life of one of Scotland’s most interesting monarchies. The movie paints a unique picture of two of the world’s fascinating women in Tudor times whose lives were twisted together and who changed the course of British History.