Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue

Original theatrical release poster for Walt Disney's Rob Roy

When Walt Disney turned to live-action film production in the early 1950s, he had a very good reason for focusing on costume dramas. He was an avid history buff but that was only part of it. Walt was a forward-thinking entrepreneur and knew that historical epics would have a longer shelf life than films set in contemporary times. Movies like Treasure Island and The Story Of Robin Hood could be re-released again and again, just like his animated features.

On paper, the decision to make a film based on the legend of Scottish folk hero Rob Roy MacGregor makes a lot of sense. But Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue turned out to be another disappointment and marked the end of Walt’s commitment to big-budget historical dramas.

Walt must have felt that the tale of Rob Roy MacGregor had the potential to be another Robin Hood. Both were outlaws fighting against a tyrannical oppressor. Even better, the Rob Roy story was much less familiar to American audiences, so there weren’t countless other versions to compare it to. There had only been one prior film version, a British silent picture from 1922 that most likely didn’t get much play in the US. Stateside, the Rob Roy cocktail was probably better known than MacGregor.

Producer Perce Pearce’s British production team remained mostly intact from The Story Of Robin Hood and The Sword And The Rose. Lawrence Edward Watkin again wrote the script. Guy Green, the director of photography on Robin Hood, returned to that role. The four stars of The Sword And The Rose, Richard Todd, Glynis Johns, James Robertson Justice and Michael Gough, were cast in roughly equivalent roles here.

Pearce and Disney had hoped to get Ken Annakin back to direct. But Annakin was under contract to the Rank Organisation, who refused to lend him out for a third time. (He will eventually return to this column.) In his place, Disney hired Harold French. Both French and Annakin had directed segments in the popular anthology films Quartet and Trio, based on the work of W. Somerset Maugham.

The story begins with events already in motion. Rob Roy (Todd) leads an attack of freedom-fighting Highlanders against the Redcoat forces of King George. The specific reasons behind all this remain murky, so I’d recommend doing some independent research on the Jacobite uprising of 1715 if you’re interested. The important thing is that Rob is arrested and we discover that the King’s Secretary of State, the Duke of Argyll (James Robertson Justice) is related to Rob Roy and sympathetic to his cause. The scheming Duke of Montrose (Michael Gough) is very much not.

Montrose wants Rob sent to London to stand trial. Argyll finally concedes to this arrangement but not before helping to hatch a plan to spring Rob on the road. Rob returns home to marry Helen Mary MacPherson (Glynis Johns), a bonnie lass who frankly has very little to do other than stand by her man and roll her eyes at her father’s rambling stories and bad bagpipe playing. The delightful Finlay Currie plays Hamish MacPherson and his presence lends some much-needed Scottish authenticity to the proceedings.

Rob and Helen are no sooner married than King George’s men show up, stripping Clan MacGregor of their very name and taking Rob back into custody. He escapes yet again, plummeting over a waterfall thanks to some visual effects that haven’t exactly withstood the test of time. Rob Roy leads his clansmen in an all-out revolt, taking over a fort and weakening George’s grip. This all ends with a bit of a whimper when Argyll intervenes on Rob Roy’s behalf, convincing him to lay down his arms and make peace with the King.

The best thing one could say about Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue is that it’s a lot more action-packed than an interminable slog like The Sword And The Rose. There are battles large and small, daring escapes and high-energy pursuits. But French isn’t quite as adept at filming the action sequences as Annakin or Byron Haskin. Rob Roy’s river escape is a prime example. It’s half thrilling and half silly, prompting at least a couple of unintentional laughs.

Rob Roy also suffers in comparison to Robin Hood. This may not be fair but Disney brought it on himself by casting Michael Todd in both roles. The Story Of Robin Hood is familiar enough that you can get away with glossing over some of the details. Everyone still knows the basic premise and why Robin does what he does. That isn’t the case with Rob Roy. It’s difficult to care about his fight when we don’t really understand what he’s fighting for, apart from his name. And why is that such a great loss? He’s an outlaw. He should have changed his name anyway.

Also, Robin Hood doesn’t have to carry his entire movie on his shoulders. He has his Merrie Men, colorful supporting characters like Little John, Friar Tuck and Will Scarlet. Rob Roy has a whole passel of anonymous and interchangeable MacGregors, most of whom are lucky to get a single line of dialogue. (One of those MacGregors is played by Ian MacNaughton, the future director of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.) Richard Todd isn’t a bad actor but he’s better when he has someone to play against. He also doesn’t have a lot of range. About the only things distinguishing Rob Roy from Robin Hood are his dyed red hair and indifferently executed Scottish accent.

The movie does make a handful of interesting choices. The action temporarily shifts to London where we see how Rob Roy has already become a folk hero. Londoners eagerly snatch up copies of Daniel Defoe’s fictionalized pamphlet The Highland Rogue. A copy even ends up in the hands of King George, who’s impressed by his adversary’s exploits. All of this is rooted in fact and it’s unusual to see a film like this explore how myths are created.

Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue had its gala premiere in London on October 26, 1953. It opened in the US the following February. Like The Sword And The Rose before it, Rob Roy was a box office disappointment. It had cost nearly two million dollars to produce but only did middling business. By this time, work was well underway on Disney’s first fully American-based live-action production, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. There was no longer a need to shoot films exclusively in the UK, so Walt decided it was time to give the costume dramas a rest.

No one was more affected by this decision than producer Perce Pearce. Pearce had joined the studio in 1935 as an inbetweener. Over the years, he distinguished himself with key contributions to Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia and Bambi. When the studio began to experiment with live-action on Song Of The South and So Dear To My Heart, Pearce moved up to associate producer. Walt had a lot of faith in Pearce, entrusting him to act as his surrogate on the British productions.

But after the failure of both The Sword And The Rose and Rob Roy, Pearce’s star faded. Consensus around the studio felt that Walt blamed Pearce for the films’ failures to catch on. So Pearce was taken off film production and became part of the team developing The Mickey Mouse Club for television. The new assignment was short-lived. Perce Pearce died of a massive heart attack in July of 1955. He was 55 years old.

This would also be the final Disney film for Richard Todd. Todd never quite became a major star, at least not in the US. He went on to star in Michael Anderson’s terrific World War II film The Dam Busters and reunited with director Ken Annakin as part of the massive ensemble in The Longest Day. His biggest brush with stardom came when Ian Fleming selected Todd as his first choice to play James Bond in Dr. No. But a scheduling conflict came between Todd and 007, allowing Sean Connery, another former Disney star, to catapult to international fame.

Apart from Treasure Island, Disney’s British productions are today remembered as a footnote in the studio’s history. The studio has not treated them with much care. Two aren’t even available to watch on Disney+. But they’re interesting to look at as experiments, training grounds for the demands of live-action production. They cultivated relationships with people like matte artist Peter Ellenshaw and actors Glynis Johns and Finlay Currie, all of whom will be back in this column. But they generally aren’t up to the standards of the animation department. They had to learn to walk before they could run. And rest assured, the live-action division would be off and running very soon.

VERDICT: Disney Minus.

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