History is more than just a collection of dates and events. It’s a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Hollywood’s version of history is usually where they storytellers think they’re telling us something about ourselves when they’re really revealing something about their selves. Historical films have been propaganda, sensationalist tripe, high-minded civics lessons, and love letters to the past but they almost always tells us more about the times in which they were made than days gone by.
This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will take a look at a tragic tale from over 450 years ago told in motion pictures over 80 years apart. The facts remain the same but the way they’re presented is changed to protect the images both filmmakers and viewers had of themselves at the time. It’s “Mary of Scotland” (1936) vs. “Mary Queen of Scots” (2018) in a battle between black-and-white make believe and full-color fantasy that’s just as hard to take seriously.
"What do you mean you've always hated plaid?"
Mary Stuart was heir to the throne of Scotland in the mid-1500s AD. Just six days old when her father, King James V, died, Mary was shipped off to France while regents ruled her kingdom. After a teenage marriage to the heir to the French throne ended when he died at 16, Mary returned to Scotland and assumed both her throne and the status of threat to her cousin, Queen Elizabeth of England. Mary was seen as the legitimate monarch by many English Catholics, living as they did in the not-awfully-tolerant society of officially Protestant England created by Elizabeth’s father, King Henry VIII.
Mary, by all accounts, embraced the idea that she could be queen of both Scotland and England, though the threat to Elizabeth was pretty much that Mary or her children would be around to assume the throne if Elizabeth died without producing an heir of her own. Which is exactly what wound up happening after an awful lot of rather pointless machinations and misery.
"Okay, maybe it is a draw on the hat buttons but I've still got the bigger brooch."
Her time as Scotland’s queen was tumultuous, to say the least. Mary had to deal with the plotting of her Scottish nobles and repeated rebellions (some led by her own half-brother James), a Protestant population turned against her by churchmen like John Knox, and a troublesome marriage to Henry Darnley, a Catholic English lord with his own claim to the English throne as cousin to both Mary and Elizabeth. So, next time you hear a joke about Appalachian inbreeding, remember they’re just following the finest European traditions.
Anyway…Mary was eventually forced to abdicate her throne in favor of her one-year-old son James and fled to England for protection, where she wound up imprisoned for many years until finally had her head cut off for alleged involvement in a Catholic plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth. Ever notice how many tales of British history end with someone getting their head cut off and how it’s often NOT the worst person in the story getting executed?
"Do you think I'm sexy?"
When they brought Mary Stuart to the big screen in 1936, they entrusted the job to director John Ford and cast the glorious Katherine Hepburn to be the star. Both deliver in spades and it’s quite marvelous to see the young and radiant Hepburn get the full movie star treatment here, in contrast to the craggy-voiced bobblehead memory most likely retain of her. Based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, “Mary of Scotland” presents itself as a star crossed romance between Mary and the Earl of Bothwell (Fredric March), a loyal Scottish lord and her chief defender against her enemies. The film portrays marriage to a drunken and dissolute Darnley as a purely political move and gives us only glimpses of Elizabeth and her machinations to undermine Mary.
The 1936 version makes Mary a champion of religious tolerance and downplays elements of misogyny. Yes, Mary is largely presented as dependent on men but you also get the sense her ambitious Scottish nobles would have been just as unhappy to have a king return to interfere with their plans. The opposition of John Knox (Moroni Olsen) is almost entirely religious and has little to do with Mary’s sex. The theme of tolerance comes through most strongly when Mary, who not only has to deal with Protestant opposition, also has to argue with her devoutly Catholic secretary (John Carradine) who wishes to advance the interests of the Church and not the Scottish people.
With all our advances in filmmaking technology, why do we see less of this kind of memorable image-making?
“Mary of Scotland” doesn’t commit a lot of egregious historical errors but it is undeniably the product of people who saw realism and historical accuracy as secondary goals at best. They were trying to wrap a traditional Hollywood romance epic around a flagpole of religious liberty with the aim to entertain first and any education or enlightenment as a happy accident.
“Mary Queen of Scots” is exactly the opposite. Well made and well performed for the most part, any entertainment you receive from watching this film is purely coincidental. This is a movie with a message and it is hilariously unsubtle about it. To start with, there are a bunch of minority actors portraying everything from Scottish villagers to nobility and members of the royal court. I’m not entirely indifferent to concerns for diversity and freely admit that yes, there was no real reason that black or Asian or Latino actors shouldn’t have been cast in “The Lord of the Rings.” That was a fantasy. In 16th century England and Scotland there simply weren’t any black people around. Black men certainly wouldn’t have served as Mary’s personal secretary or Elizabeth’s ambassador to Scotland. Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting wouldn’t have included a half-Asian chick. That just didn’t happen.
Why does it matter? Because pretending that 16th century Britain looked like a multi-cultural McDonald’s makes it harder to understand and deal with issues of race in history and today. The Atlantic slave trade was well underway by the time of Mary and Elizabeth and would continue for centuries after. Showing the past as more racially enlightened than what it was doesn’t help anything.
When you're making a movie about 16th century Scotland and you've got two black actors in the same scene, you're doing it wrong.
The 2018 version also, unsurprisingly, has to bring an element of homosexuality into the story. It presents Mary’s secretary as not merely an almost openly gay man but has him have a sexual liaison with Mary’s new husband, Darnley (Jack Lowden). And Mary forgives him for it and welcomes him back as a friend and confidant. Now, 15th century Catholics may not have been as dour and puritanical as their Protestant brethren and while a Catholic woman might have forgiven her husband for such a dalliance, the idea that Mary would have forgiven her secretary for “being true to who you are” is ludicrous. It’s science fiction. She might have well have started yammering on about midichlorians. Again, it is one thing to encourage tolerance but it is another to present it as reality where it didn’t exist.
The other thing hindering “Mary Queen of Scots” is that, unlike its predecessor, it is very concerned with getting as many of the dates and events of Mary’s history on screen as possible. The problem is that means shifts in alliance or motivation that happened over months or years take place in this movie at the drop of a hat. Good guys become bad guys and bad guys become good guys become bad guys again with no time for any of it to be believable. “Mary of Scotland” may have taken historical liberties in presenting Mary and Bothwell’s relationship as the most important one in her story but it gave the movie a focus and forward movement that kept things from bogging down. The 2018 version aspires to be more accurate but winds up floundering in the details.
So THAT'S where 'Babylon 5' got the idea for the male Centauri hairdos!
“Mary of Scotland” just barely wins this Throwdown by being more concerned with engaging its audience and less with lecturing them. It’s no masterpiece but it’s clear on who its heroes and villains are and allows the viewer to root appropriately, even while it takes pains at the end to rehabilitate Elizabeth in the audience’s eyes. “Mary Queen of Scots” is never content to let anyone just be a hero or just be a villain, besides John Knox (David Tennant) as the most woman-hatingest preacher who ever preached. A movie that focused more on him and put forth Mary as an avatar of female empowerment and liberation might have been a bit dogmatic but at least it wouldn’t have been boring.
Mary of Scotland (1936)
Written by Dudley Nichols.
Directed by John Ford.
Starring Katherine Hepburn, Fredric March, Florence Eldridge, Douglas Walton, John Carradine, Robert Barrat, Gavin Muir, Ian Keith, Moroni Olsen, Ralph Forbes, Alan Mobray, Frieda Inescort, and Donald Crisp.
Mary Queen of Scots (2018)
Written by Beau Willimon.
Directed by Josie Rourke.
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Martin Compston, James McArdle, Joe Alwyn, Jack Lowden, Guy Pierce, Ismael Cruz Cordova, Ian Hart, and David Tennant.
President and CEO of the He-Man Woman-Haters Club.