My recent musings on the movie Black Magic cast my mind back to one of my favorite swashbuckling novels, The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) written in 1889.
Ballantrae is the story of two brothers, one good, the other bad, and the conflict between them that mars their lives. (Think of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde turned into a familial drama). This novel is a great, Gothic-flavored adventure featuring a fascinating villain, Jamie Durie, the Master of Ballantrae.
Jamie Durie is the most colorful character in the book; as is often the case in swashbuckling adventure tales, the villain gets all the best parts. Like the Cagliostro of Black Magic , Ballantrae features the villain as the main protagonist. The attainments of Jamie are formidable: master swordsman, soldier of fortune, athlete, dandy, scholar and possessor of a fatal charm. Jamie is aggressively charming – and his is a fatal charm. He treats people badly, but it doesn’t matter. He is more highly regarded than his decent (and publicly despised) brother Henry because Jamie’s charm is charged with color and vitality and energy. Life around him is an event, leaving even his bitterest enemies entranced.
Think of what the great charmers of the classic movie era would’ve done with him! John Barrymore may well have made the definitive Ballantrae. Or Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Or George Sanders or Basil Rathbone or even Louis Haywood. All, for different reasons, would’ve been great.
It is notable that the most memorable swashbuckling characters, and characters who define what it is to be a swashbuckler, are the villains. It is almost as if there is something in the makeup of the swashbuckling hero – the theatricality, the dandyism, the artifice, or some other quality (the freedom, perhaps?) – that reads more effectively outside the realm of angels. The best swashbuckling villains often embody the attributes of the best swashbuckling heroes – almost as if these qualities in abundance lead to villainy.
Like Cagliostro, Jamie is undone by his own overarching passions. Jamie lacks Cagliostro’s Gothic flourishes – he would never hypnotize a woman to make him love him, he’d move on to the next wench. But he has insouciance, a sense of fun, a delight in his own villainy that makes Master of Ballantrae, the book and the man, delicious.
There are two movie versions of Ballantrae. The first, starring Errol Flynn as Jamie, was released in 1953. It is a very disappointing affair. Flynn (1909-1959) famous as a screen hero, could not play an out-and-out villain, and the screenplay by Herb Meadow had a last-reel turnaround to clean up the character. The other, infinitely superior, adaptation was in 1984, a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation. That starred Richard Thomas as good-boy Henry, and a wonderful Michael York as Jamie. (York exuberantly portrayed D'Artagnan in the Richard Lester Musketeer films, again proving that the line between charming hero and beloved rogue is a thin one). Sadly, this version is not currently available on DVD, but it can sometimes be found on eBay. It is worth searching for.