“Born to Be King,” a comedy starring Ewan McGregor and Kate Hudson, will be included in the slate of six films that Lionsgate UK is bringing to Cannes. Bonnie Prince Charlie, who launched the abortive 1745 Jacobite Rebellion to restore the Stuarts on the British throne, will thus return to the screen… sort of.
Years in gestation, writer-director Peter Capaldi’s mistaken-identity comedy is inspired by the filming of 1948’s “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” in which David Niven was hopelessly miscast as the eponymous Young Pretender.
According to Scotland’s The Herald, “McGregor will play an extra who happens to look like Niven, who suddenly finds himself in the limelight when the drunken star goes missing.” Hudson “plays a Hollywood actress increasingly at odds with her co-star but attracted to the extra who looks like him.” Early accounts said that the film is set in 1938 and that the Niven character is called Leslie Grangely.
There was no Hollywood actress in “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” The film’s English leading lady, Margaret Leighton, capable as the Highland heroine Flora MacDonald, was one of few beneficiaries of the troubled production.
Niven, fresh over from Hollywood sans moustache, was cast as the prince because he alleged he was Scottish. His paternal grandfather was Scottish, but Niven was born in London. Not that any of that would have mattered. Born in Rome, Prince Charles Edward himself was the son of James Stuart, the Anglo-Italian Old Pretender, and his Polish noblewoman wife; even his grandfather, the deposed James II, was only half-Scottish. Any notion that Charles Edward had a Scottish accent is absurd.
Niven played the prince as a smiling charmer, and the battles, including the Jacobites’ decisive defeat at Culloden, were mostly avoided. After a disastrous shoot that required the services of four directors (including the producer Alexandra Korda), the movie was battered in reviews and died at the box office. That Korda couldn't hire writers-directors-producers Michael Powell (sometime master of Celtic mythology) and Emeric Pressburger resulted in a tantalizing "What if?"
As an actor, Capaldi appeared in 1983’s “Local Hero” with McGregor’s uncle Denis Lawson and is best known as the prime minister’s vitriolic fixer in the political satire “In the Loop.” Director of the Scottish comedy short “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life” (1993), he secured McGregor’s involvement in “Born to Be King” in 2005. Originally called “The Great Pretender,” and subsequently “The Jacobite Slipper,” it takes its current title from “The Skye Boat Song,” which laments Charles Edward’s escape from the Scottish mainland after Culloden: “Carry the lad that’s born to be King/Over the sea to Skye.”
The first “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” a 1923 silent film starring Ivor Novello, is believed lost. The never-revived 1960 film “The Young Jacobites,” which starred the teenaged Francesca Annis and Frazer Hines, was a fantasy about two children helping the prince (played by the aptly named David Stuart) to escape. Christopher Biggins played a decadent, overweight Charles Edward in flashback scenes from the 13-part 1978 Anglo-French-German miniseries “Kidnapped” (and its sequel “Catriona”), which leaves all other versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale in the dust.
Peter Watkins’s “Culloden” (1964) was a groundbreaking anti-imperialist docudrama that brought a contemporary camera crew to the battlefield — it still seems visionary. Viewed from the perspectives of a clansman and his son, Graham Holloway’s little-seen “Chasing the Deer” (1994) deglamorizes the ’45 rebellion; it was funded by public subscription and is said to make weak transitions between scenes.
After the success of “Braveheart” in 1995, the stage was set for a Jacobite Rebellion epic, but the failure of the same year’s “Rob Roy” nixed that. Capaldi’s “Born to Be King” will have to fill the gap.