The Master of Ballantrae (1984 film)

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The Master of Ballantrae
Based onThe Master of Ballantrae
1889 novel
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Written byWilliam Bast
Directed byDouglas Hickox
StarringMichael York
Richard Thomas
Music byBruce Broughton
Country of originUnited States
United Kingdom
Original language(s)English
Executive producer(s)Larry White
Patrick Dromgoole
Producer(s)Hugh Benson
Peter Graham Scott
Production location(s)England
CinematographyBob Edwards
Editor(s)Geoff Shepherd
Running time180 mins
Production company(s)Columbia Pictures Television
Hallmark Hall of Fame
Budget$5 million[1]
Original networkCBS
Original releaseJanuary 31, 1984

The Master of Ballantrae is a 1984 TV movie based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson.[2] It was a co production between the US and England for the Hallmark Hall of Fame.[1]


Michael York plays James Durie, the Master of Ballantrae (i.e. the eldest son who will inherit the state and also the title of Lord Durrisdeer). His younger brother, Henry Durie, is played by Richard Thomas, remembered largely because of his role as John Boy on "The Waltons". Their father, Lord Durrisdeer, is played by veteran action Sir John Gielgud, who earned an Emmy as Best Supporting Actor for the role. Ian Richardson (who starred as the evil Francis Urquhart in the TV series House of Cards) plays the faithful Mr MacKellar, who manages the estate and becomes Henry Durie's friend and confidant; Finola Hughes plays Alison Graeme; and a youthful Timothy Dalton, later James Bond, stars as Colonel (or Captain) Francis Burke, an Irish adventurer who befriends the Master.

The action starts in 1745, when Bonnie Prince Charlie lands in Scotland and the last Jacobite rebellion breaks out. James, the Master of Ballantrae, is a brave but foolish and hot-headed young man. He decides to join the uprising, against the advice of his father and younger brother. Eventually it is decided that one brother must join the Jacobites, but the other must remain loyal to the government so that, no matters who wins, the family's future will be safe. There is historical truth here, as many Irish and Scottish families did exactly this during the Jacobite years. In fact, exiled Jacobites living in France often received money from their relatives and friends in the United Kingdom.

For the sake of the family, it would be best that James, the Master of Ballantrae, as the eldest son, stays loyal to the government; and his younger brother joins the rebels. But The Master will not have it, as he craves adventure. He insists in tossing and coin and he wins ... that is, he wins the right to join the losing side. The Jacobites, as we know, are defeated in the Battle of Culloden, and James is reported dead. In fact, he survives the battle and flees to England, where he teams up with another survivor, Irishman Francis Burke. They make it to the coast, where they are captured by pirates ... but James' charm and cunning soon allow him to get the upper hand and he becomes their co-leader, alongside their skipper, Captain Teach (not to be confused with the real Blackbeard of that name).

Back home, brother Henry is held in contempt by his tenants and by James' sweetheart, their cousin Alison Graeme, who feel he should have joined the Jacobites. The family is covered in debt, but Alison would bring a dowry, and it is agreed that she should now marry Henry. She still loves James, but he has been reported dead, but Henry has always hopelessly loved her. She marries out of love for the family; he out of love for her. It is a "marriage of convenience" and Alison is distressed when she learns that James is alive.

Saying more would spoil the film. Suffice it to say that the Master or Ballantrae and Colonel Burke leave the pirate ship and end up first in North America, then in Paris and then in India. It has always been clear that James Durie is a scoundrel, but he has good looks and charm, and Michael York certainly fits the role. The Master seduces everyone he encounters, including those who watch the film, but as the action progresses the character becomes darker and increasingly evil. In the end, James Durie/Michael York reminds that the Devil is, after all, a gentleman.

The younger brother does his best to run the estate, but he is too dull to charm anyone, and only Mr MacKellar appreciates his qualities. James, the Master of Ballantrae, hates his brother for having taken his place, although it was his own (James') choice to join the Jacobites. The Master is always demanding money from poor Henry, not only because of the money, but because he wishes to exact revenge. Henry, initially kind and good, also becomes a darker person as the plot continues, because his brother drives him to despair.



It was filmed on location in England and Wales.[3]

Richard Thomas was cast as the good brother Henry:

When I began to read the novel I thought "the last thing I need to play is the good brother, Henry. I played John Boy [on The Waltons] for five years and once that happened casting people weren't sending me a lot of heavies. But as I read Ballantrae through, the character of Henry becomes darker and more sinister. By the end there is madness in him: good and evil are all mixed up.[1]

Thomas had fenced since he was 14 years old and still did it several times a week but this was the first time he'd been able to do it on film. For the duel with York, neither used doubles.[1]


The Christian Science Monitor called it "engrossing 20th century entertainment."[4]

The New York Times said it was "well acted, swiftly paced and eminently watchable."[5]

John Gielgud's performance earned him an Emmy nomination as Best Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Special.[6]


  1. ^ a b c d Robertson, Nan (29 Jan 1984). "Richard Thomas Savors a Chance to Play the Villain". New York Times. p. H21.
  2. ^ Margulies, Lee (18 Sep 1983). "UPDATE". Los Angeles Times. p. aa3.
  3. ^ "'MASTER OF BALLANTRAE' DUE ON 'HALLMARK HALL OF FAME'". Los Angeles Times. 24 Dec 1983. p. e9.
  4. ^ Master of Ballantrae' is the TV equivalent of a good read: Stevenson novel skillfully transformed into TV drama TELEVISION PREVIEW By Arthur Unger. The Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current file) [Boston, Mass] 26 Jan 1984: 28.
  5. ^ 'Ballantrae': Brothers Vie In Scotland By JANET MASLIN. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 31 Jan 1984: C18.
  6. ^ 'HILL STREET,' 'CHEERS' TOP EMMYS LIST: EMMYS: 'HILL STREET,' 'CHEERS' TOP LIST Margulies, Lee. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 03 Aug 1984: oc_d1.

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