Walt Disney’s Treasure Island launched the studio’s live-action division with a bang back in 1950. The movie raked in a small fortune, both domestically and overseas. So it was only a matter of time before Walt decided to return to his library’s Robert Louis Stevenson shelves to see what else might be worth adapting.
Stevenson was a popular and prolific writer of novels, short stories, poetry, essays and nonfiction. But as far as Hollywood is concerned, his entire life’s work can pretty much be boiled down to Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde and Kidnapped. Of those, Kidnapped is the most “obscure”. There have only been about a dozen different movie and TV versions of the novel over the years, compared to the countless official and unofficial adaptations of Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll.
Director Robert Stevenson (no relation to the author, although the Disney publicity department certainly wished he had been) was in production on Darby O’Gill And The Little People when Walt suggested Kidnapped as a follow-up. Stevenson thought that was a fine idea and wrote the screenplay himself. Stevenson had started his film career as a scriptwriter in England, gradually directing more and more and writing less and less. He hadn’t received a screenwriting credit since Jane Eyre in 1943. This would be the first and only time he’d be credited as a writer for Disney, despite his long and profitable association with the studio.
Stevenson had been obliged to shoot Darby O’Gill in California but Kidnapped would be filmed on location in Scotland, with studio work done in London at Pinewood Studios. The entire cast and crew hailed from the United Kingdom, with one notable exception. All-American contract player James MacArthur, star of The Light In The Forest and Third Man On The Mountain, starred as David Balfour, rightful heir to the dilapidated House of Shaws. MacArthur had definitely improved as an actor since his Disney debut but attempting a Scottish accent was punching above his weight.
David’s parents have recently died and, armed with a letter of introduction, he makes his way to his ancestral home and Uncle Ebenezer (John Laurie, who had appeared as Blind Pew in Treasure Island). When the eccentric and miserly Ebenezer discovers that the House of Shaws rightfully belongs to David, he tries to arrange a little accident for him. When that doesn’t work, he pays off an old sailing associate, Captain Hoseason, to shanghai the young man and sell him into indentured servitude. The great character actor Bernard Lee makes his one and only Disney appearance as Hoseason. He would soon begin a lengthy association with Darby O’Gill’s Sean Connery as M to Connery’s 007.
Hoseason’s ship has barely made it out to sea when it collides with a boat in the fog. The sole survivor of the accident turns out to be Alan Breck Stewart, the real-life Jacobite rebel played here by Peter Finch. Finch’s performance as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Disney’s The Story Of Robin Hood And His Merrie Men had given his career a nice little boost. Kidnapped would be Finch’s only other Disney project before moving on to such acclaimed films as Sunday Bloody Sunday and Network.
After David discovers that Hoseason is planning to rob and murder Stewart, the two men fight their way off the ship and are separated as they make their way back to shore. David makes his way to the town of Appin where he encounters Colin Campbell (Andrew Cruickshank), known far and wide as the Red Fox, an emissary sent to deal with the Jacobites. While the Red Fox is interrogating David, he’s shot dead by a hidden assassin. Pursued by Redcoats, David runs into Alan, who denies that he’s the killer.
Once again, the Appin Murder is an historical incident that is presumably fleshed out a lot more in R.L. Stevenson’s book. In R. Stevenson’s 97-minute movie, this entire middle section is more than a little tedious and confusing. There’s a lot of talk about politics, loyalty and taxation which will likely make your eyes glaze over unless you’re extremely well-versed in 18th century British history.
The highlight of this section is the first screen appearance of Peter O’Toole. Peter Finch had worked with O’Toole at the Old Vic and recommended him to Stevenson. O’Toole plays Robin MacGregor, son of Rob Roy MacGregor whose own struggles against the Redcoats had been indifferently dramatized in Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue. The second O’Toole enters the scene, you forget that poor James MacArthur is even there. You can’t take your eyes off him and he has an electricity with Finch that MacArthur can’t hope to replicate. Even the fact that the scene culminates in a bagpipe duel, a spectacle that’s even more ridiculous than it sounds, can’t dim O’Toole’s undeniable star quality.
O’Toole and Finch would remain good friends until Finch’s untimely death in 1977. There’s a great story that the two Peters were out drinking late one night in Ireland. When the landlord refused to serve them another drink, they bought the pub. The check bounced but hey, it’s the drunken impulse that counts. Unfortunately, Peter O’Toole will not be back in this column, unless I’ve decided to include Pixar movies by the time we get to Ratatouille. Just a couple years after Kidnapped, O’Toole would hang up his bagpipes for good as Lawrence Of Arabia catapulted him to a whole new level of stardom.
Eventually, David and Alan make their way back to the House of Shaws where they confront Ebenezer and get him to confess to his misdeeds within earshot of a lawyer. David gets his inheritance, Alan heads off presumably to further adventures and all’s well that ends well. Or something. At least it ends.
For its first twenty or so minutes, Kidnapped holds some promise. The Scottish countryside is lovely, the old ruins of the House of Shaws are creepy, John Laurie is an engagingly sinister presence and James MacArthur…well…he fulfills the terms and obligations of his contract. But the actual kidnapping part of Kidnapped is over much too quickly. Scotland is not a huge country, so it feels like David is really only on board that ship for less than a day before he and Alan escape. It seems about as perilous as missing your stop on a bus.
The rest of the film gets bogged down in endless dialogue scenes. Robert Stevenson the director gave too much control over to Robert Stevenson the screenwriter. You can tell that he wanted to remain as faithful to the book as possible but he does so by concentrating on incident and plot over character and emotion. And since the story is circular, ending up right back at the House of Shaws, everything in the middle feels a bit pointless.
Finch delivers an entertaining performance but Alan’s story remains vague and confusing for anyone not familiar with the novel or history. The emotional crux of the story should hinge on the developing bond between Alan and David but that never materializes. By the time they part ways, they still seem like relative strangers to each other.
Contemporary critics and audiences agreed that Kidnapped was no Treasure Island. Robert Stevenson recovered quickly, however. He’d continue to work for Disney into the 1970s, directing some of the most profitable and beloved movies in the studio’s history. He’ll be back in this column again. So will Robert Louis Stevenson for that matter, although not for a very long time.
VERDICT: Disney Minus