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Mary Stuart returns to Scotland to rule as queen, to the chagrin of Elizabeth I of England who finds her a dangerous rival. There is much ado over whom Mary shall marry; to her later regret, she picks effete Lord Darnley over the strong but unpopular Earl of Bothwell. A palace coup leads to civil war and house arrest for Mary; she escapes and flees to England, where a worse fate awaits her. Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Opening credits: "Like two fateful stars, Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor appeared in the sixteenth century, to reign over two great nations in the making ... They were doomed to a life-and-death struggle for supremacy, a lurid struggle that still shines across the pages of history ... But today, after more than three centuries, they sleep side by side, at peace, in Westminster Abbey."
The Queen Who Was Too Contrary - And What Happened at Kirk'a'Field?
Brooks Atkinson was a first rate drama critic for the New York Times. He had blind spots. He over enthused on the career of Maxwell Anderson. Anderson wrote some good plays such as "Winterset", but Anderson was enthusiastic of Anderson's pompous attempts to do dramas in blank verse: "Mary Of Scotland", "Elizabeth The Queen", and "Anne Of The Thousand Days".
The problem with these plays is, even if they get the history right they are too stiff. Compare the conclusion of "Elizabeth The Queen" to "A Man For All Seasons". Yes, the loneliness of the elderly Elizabeth is shown as Essex goes to his doom - but in reality Elizabeth knew there were other young men to replace her dangerous, ambitious lover. In "All Seasons" the tragedy of a rotten system crushing the life of a decent, thoughtful man like Thomas More is far more powerful as it's stark tragedy is silently brought to us.
That said, the first of the three Tudor tragedies to be filmed was "Mary Of Scotland". It is above average because it is starring Katherine Hepburn (a distant relative of Mary's third husband the Earl of Bothwell) and Frederic March, and directed wholly or partially by John Ford. It suffers from being black and white, except for one moment of sheer unexpected terror: when Mary sees the Scots nobles who oppose her they are photographed in such light and darkness to look like ogres in a nightmare.
The film follows the reign of Mary from 1560 to her execution in 1587. Most Americans do not understand the great difficulties that Mary (and Elizabeth) both faced in their parallel reigns. While England and Scotland allowed for female monarchs, women were not considered good material for rulers. They were considered governed by their emotions more than by their brains. Those women who ruled well were usually married to capable partners (Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon of Spain). More frequently they were dismissed as misfits, like Isabella and Ferdinand's daughter Juana the Mad).
Mary had other problems. From 1400 to 1560 the nobles of Scotland got a great boon. Scotland had a series of minors who grew up to be king, married, and then died before they could cement their monarchic views on the government. The nobles cemented their local powers at the expense of a weak central authority.
Mary had been Queen of France, married to Francis II who ruled for a two year period (1559 - 1560). As Mary was the niece of the Duc De Guise, the king's power-hungry mother Catherine De Medici hated her. When Francis died suddenly, Catherine encouraged Mary to return to rule her own country. Surprised Mary did so, not realizing that she was unprepared to start ruling. She was a Catholic, and she really needed some time to understand the need to compromise and take advice from Protestants. She never did understand this.
Her foes hated her and were fully supported by Elizabeth, who never could see that an attempt to join forces with her cousin might pay back great dividends. But then Mary was ambitious - she wanted to be Queen of England as well as Scotland. Her Catholic supporters felt she was legitimate Queen of England (as Henry VIII had briefly disowned Elizabeth as a bastard when he executed her mother Anne). So the peaceful resolution of their differences was almost impossible.
Elizabeth had only to watch from the sidelines, with only an occasional move on her own part, to see Mary wreck her own position. She encouraged a marriage between another cousin/potential heir Lord Henry Darnley to Mary (Mary almost chose Elizabeth's lover Robert Dudley!). The marriage was a disaster, as Darnley was an ambitious fool and vicious scoundrel. But it cemented a Scottish succession to the British throne from two Tudor heirs instead of one.
Hepburn portrays Mary as a brave woman desperately seeking a way out of the difficult situation she has inherited, especially tied to Darnley by marriage and facing the ghouls who are John Knox (Moroni Olsen) and the Scottish nobles - led by her jealous half brother the Earl of Moray (Ian Keith). Her only allies are the independent Earl of Bothwell (March) and her secretary Rizzio (John Carridine). The murder of the latter (implicating Darnley) is the first step to her loss of the throne, and to the death of her husband. We know today that Kirk'a'Field house was blown up by Bothwell, but to this day we don't know if Mary was implicated. It remains one of the big mysteries of the 16th Century.
Historically Bothwell was no prince, but ambitious in his own right - he killed Darnley in order to marry Mary, and guide her to rule both Scotland and England. But March plays him as a man deeply in love with his Queen, and this enhances the story's tragedy - especially as Bothwell died in exile insane. The reason for this was his ship was captured by a Danish warship. Bothwell was guilty of a rape in Denmark, and was imprisoned. His punishment (which led to his madness) was to stand chained to a stone pillar that was half his height.
The last ten minutes glosses over the road that led Mary to the block in England - her support of a plot by one Anthony Babbington to kill Elizabeth and let Mary take the throne. Elizabeth's spy-master Sir Francis Walsingham sprung this trap - though Elizabeth did not reject the result. Elizabeth allowed a functionary to be blamed for falsely getting her to sign the death warrant - but all she did was briefly imprison the man. Unlike her movie representative (Florence Eldritch) she never met Mary.
A good film - but it is too gentle on Mary's failings, and not deep enough to explain what is going on in the background.
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