Hooray: the #Swashathon, Movies Silently’s “blogathon of swashbuckling adventure“, is back! Four days of cloaks and daggers, swords and sails, fops (or not) and farthingales, derring-do and damsels not-quite-in-distress… Does it get more fun than that?
Let’s get dancing, then – and discuss my favourite swashbuckler of all times: Stevenson’s Alan Breck Stewart. Alan is a wonderful character – the most perfect one in English literature, according to Henry James, no less – but how has he fared on the screen? Ah now, this is a tricky question – so be warned: it’s going to be a long, long post.
I’d better say at once that, in my (possibly biased) opinion, when it comes to adapting Kidnapped for the screen or the stage, much depends on what is made of Alan. Because, really, David Balfour may be the eponymous hero, but Alan, the nominal sidekick with “a dancing madness in his eyes”, a king’s name and the silver buttons, the long sword and the impromptu ballads, runs away with the book, and never gives it back. Poor, nice, dull David is there to tell the story, and for Alan to help, save, occasionally land in hot water, and ultimately turn into a man.
Not necessarily easy to translate to film, I’ll admit – and requiring an actor who can swash his buckles, ooze charm and charisma, without ever laying it too thick. Through the last century, according to IMdB, no less than eleven actors have worn Alan’s blue coat – beginning with Robert Cain, back in 1917. Now, all I know about the silent version comes from Fritzi Kramer, who generously shared her research with me. Which is how I can tell you that Cain, according to Motion Picture News,”couldn’t much improve his characterization” of Alan. He “does fine work in the part”, according to Motography’s H.D. Fretz, but I have to wonder at Motion Picture World’s Margaret MacDonald, praising Cain’s “splendid portrayal of the Laird of Shaw” (sic!)…Then again, judging by the plot as told in a different review* in The Movie Picture World, Alan’s side of the story seems to have been curtailed quite a bit: no mention is made of the Red Fox and the flight through the heather, of Cluny MacPherson or Robin Oig… Alan seems to be mostly there to assist David with his inheritance, so Cain may not have had all that much to do, after all…
Ah well, this is all speculation – because I haven’t seen the film – but it is interesting as a first instance of how screenwriters addressed the matter of Alan: in this case, by pruning him down, back to sidekickhood or, at least, back on equal terms with poor Davie.
Some twenty years later, in 1938, it took no less than seven writers to butcher Stevenson’s tale almost past recognition. Were it not for the names, one’d have trouble recognising the characters at all: Davie is turned into a brattish eleven-year-old, and there is a random Scottish lass thrown in for Alan to romance… Was Warner Baxter’s Alan sparkling enough to make up for the loss of Stevenson? Alas, no. I only saw this (many years ago) in an Italian dubbed version, so I can only complain of the American accent by hearsay – but even without that, I fear that Baxter does little more than run about in a most generic and slightly dazed manner… quite un-Alanlike.
Fast-forward ten years, and we find that Scott Darling stuck rather closer to Stevenson, but still felt he had to throw in a love interest – this time for a David of the right age – but, for mysterious reasons, not Catriona. If you ask me, adding a girl to Kidnapped achieves nothing, except to skew the whole story away from Stevenson’s very central Alan-David dynamic… And sure enough, Dan O’Herlihy’s Alan is discreetly pushed a little in the background, and turned into a very polished, rather grave sidekick. One is reminded of Athos, more than Alan Breck…
If we are after dancing madness, we’ve had little luck, so far, haven’t we? When I first heard of the 1960 Disney version, and mistakenly assumed that, if he was in the cast, Peter O’Toole must be Alan, my first thought was that surely he would be mad enough, right? Imagine my disappointed when I found that Peter O’Toole was playing Robin Oig to Peter Finch’s Alan… It’s not that I don’t like Peter Finch, mind – but I thought him too staid (and too old) for Alan… and was I wrong! A little old he may have been**, but otherwise, here was at last something approaching the right swagger, the touchiness, the combination of down-to-earth and slightly mad… Alan, at last – or if not quite, then close enough…
You must understand that Alan was – and is – a literary crush of mine*** so I always come to adaptations with expectations high enough to be possibly unreasonable. I’m afraid it will be hard to match the Alan I imagined for the first time years ago, in Edinburgh… And this is perhaps why Michael Caine’s 1971 Alan was the biggest disappointment. I like Michael Caine very much, but he himself seems terribly unconvinced in the role. He sorely underplays to the point of glumness – and is it a trace of Cockney that I hear in his speech now and then? But I have to admit anyone would likely be glum and unconvinced if forced to wear the costumes, wig and mustaches that were foisted on the poor man. All else apart, why all the tartans, when Stevenson makes so much of Alan’s near-obsession with his elegant French clothes? And, while we are there, why end with Alan captured and marched away – likely to the gallows – which is true to neither novel nor history? Goes to show that screenwriter Jack Pulman’s Alan is not Stevenson’s Alan – so it’s perhaps no surprise that Michael Caine’s isn’t either.
And it may be a tad unfair to compare a single film to a series – if only because several episodes give both the writer and the actor much more scope to explore a character and story… And the 1978 Franco-British-German miniseries does just that, and manages to stick reasonably close to both Kidnapped and its sequel Catriona. As Alan we have David McCallum – perhaps a tad pretty for the role, but quite good: swaggering, irritable, boyish, touchy, shrewd and naïve in turn, with a real Scottish accent, and the general attitude of a fighting cockerel. And he does very, very well in my favourite scene: when, after the battle in the roundhouse, Alan embraces a rather upset David, and then pulls away to ask whether he isn’t a bonny fighter, McCallum’s is perfect: still running on adrenaline, so very pleased with himself, and a little mad… here, at last, goes the dancing madness… both engaging and alarming! I also like how the writers take the trouble to flesh up Alan’s character in directions that Stevenson actually suggests or implies. They show him fighting at Culloden, reading books for his amusement, and quite impatient of the political games at Bonnie Prince Charlie’s French court-in-exile. It may very well be that here’s Alan for my money.
Certainly not Armand Assante, in the 1995 film. It didn’t help that, when I borrowed the DVD from a friend, she warned me that I’d find Alan transmogrified into Jack Sparrow’s Scottish cousin. Oh dear. So I began watching with the worst misgivings, and then found that it takes almost an hour of largely unStevensonian stuff, before we get the first glimpse of Alan – and when we do… Now I know I’ve been whining about dancing madness for some 1300 words – but Assante overdoes it into a manic, boorish, garish, unwashed-looking fellow who, once again, is not Alan Breck. Oh, there’s a chance that the historical Alan (quite a nasty piece of work, in his own adopted father’s description) may have been like this – but that’s hardly what we’re here for, right? We want Stevenson’s charming swashbuckler, and Assante is not that.
There is another Alan – or there would be, if the Italian Mail hadn’t lost/misplaced/taken hostage my copy of the 2005 BBC miniseries, with Iain Glen wearing the blue coat with the silver buttons… Therefore I must write very tentatively about this one, based on a couple of clips on YouTube and other people’s reviews. So I found out that the whole thing was shot in parts of New Zealand that don’t much resemble Scotland, and Catriona becomes Alan’s feisty, musket-wielding cousin (or is it adopted sister?), and unspecified black-clad baddies (enter three murderers? Scottish ninjas? Left-over Nazgûls?) stalk our heroes through the heather, and the writers left no scrap of dialogue unturned… Oh dear. A pity, really, because from the little I saw, Glen’s Alan shows promise, with the right twinkle in his eyes, the slightest shade of melancholy over his doomed cause, and an engaging mix of the gentlemanly and the off-kilter.
If and when my DVD turns up, I’ll let you know. And I guess I’ll find out how much I can swallow for the sake of a good Alan, but I very much fear the screenplay will have me grinding my teeth. It would seem that, a century after the first attempt, we’ve grown worse at trusting Stevenson to tell his tale. One would think it obvious – and it can be no coincidence that the most faithful versions also produced the best Alans, Finch’s and McCallum’s – and yet. Whether through a reluctance to have the thunder stolen from the eponymous hero, a perceived need for a love interest, or an urge to make things “more modern”, a lot of mischief has been done to the novel, and to Alan in particular – as though there were any need to up the appeal of such a remarkable, vivid and charming character!
There – now be sure to visit the #Swashathon page, where links to new great contributions will keep cropping up until Monday. Have fun with a small host of swashbucklers, and don’t forget to say hello to Fritzi, our wonderful hostess.
* The film was variously released in four and five reels, and each version had its reviews. I don’t quite know what to make of Motion Picture News describing its length as “six reels”…
** Stevenson makes Alan a little younger than his historical counterpart, by describing him as being in his mid thirties.
*** I’m not alone in this: when I proposed my topic for the Swashathon, our hostess Fritzi admitted to a similar crush too – her first, in fact. I think, though, that she first met Alan at a younger age than I did.