The highs and lows of an adventure classic
As a great adventure story—a proto-thriller, one might even say—Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped might seem like a natural for movie adaptation. And in fact both Hollywood and international productions have taken cracks at it—for both large and small screen.
But Stevenson's tale is more complex than may be expected. Few adaptations manage to capture the subtleties of Scottish Highland and Lowland politics and of British morality that are seamlessly woven into the novel.
Compressed but grand Dickens
It's officially called Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, but the 1948 Hollywood-made Kidnapped is far from the author's vision.
First, give aging child star Roddy McDowall a little credit. As an associate producer, the 20-year-old must have had some power in pulling together a rendition of the Stevenson classic. He's at the top end of the suitable age range for David Balfour and his accent is closer to British than Lowland Scottish, but his trademark sincerity comes close to making this production work.
But there is too much against him. The film is produced by Monogram Pictures, known as a low-budget action studio, specializing in westerns. And the cheapness shows. We never really get a sense we're in Scotland—and we're not. Outdoor scenes were shot on California's Catalina Island. The Highlands never looked more barren than in this movie's shades of grey.
Long shots of the ship onto which David is shanghaied are said to be of James Cagney's three-mast schooner, but the shipboard scenes are obviously shot in the studio, as are other indoor sets.
Irish actor Dan O'Herlihy, in one of his early heroic roles (see also in the later Robinson Crusoe), is well cast also as the Scottish rebel Alan Breck. But the film gives him little scope. His swashbuckling, reckless ways are reduced to a couple of sword fights and his mercurial, enigmatic character has all the rough edges knocked off. He functions in the film as little more than a father figure for David and Aileen.
Ah, yes Aileen. A love interest for David. Sue England is appropriately spunky and coquettish for the Highland lassie role as written—but do we really need a love story grafted onto Kidnapped? Pure Hollywood, but in this case it warps the second half of the tale. It is not helped much by the saccharine score either.
The exciting flight across Scotland with British soldiers at their heels, and with Scottish clan rivalries bounding them back and forth, is limited to barely ten minutes of screen time, making it a surprise to us when David tells the friendly lawyer near the end he's been on the run for two months.
Another major change to the Kidnapped story is the return of the supposedly drowned sea captain, not once but twice—in order to have both villains of the piece meet their deserved ends together.
The staging is also rather dull too, with actors usually standing around talking to each other. Director William Beaudine, who came up through silent films, seems to have lived up to his nickname of "One-Shot" by filming every scene as haphazardly as possible.
A strangely lifeless film of an adventure story by an action-oriented studio.