Mary of Scotland (1936)




Director:    John Ford

Starring:    Katharine Hepburn (Mary Stuart),  Fredric March (Bothwell),  Florence Eldridge (Elizabeth Tudor),  Douglas Walton (Darnley),  John Carradine (Rizzio),  Robert Barrat (Morton),  Gavin Muir (Leicester),  Ian Keith (Moray),  Moroni Olsen (John Knox),  William Stack (Ruthven),  Ralph Forbes (Randolph),  Alan Mowbray (Throckmorton),  Frieda Inescort (Mary Beaton),  Donald Crisp (Huntly),  David Torrence (Lindsay).

 Based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, this movie tells the story of Mary Queen of Scots (Katherine Hepburn). After many years in France, she returns home to rule Scotland, but has to deal with love and several treacheries. But in real life, her biggest adversary would prove to be Queen Elizabeth of England.


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

Like two fateful stars, Mary Stuart and Elisabeth Tudor appeared in the sixteenth century, to reign over two great nations in the making . . . They were doomed to a life-and-death struggle for supremacy, a lurid struggle that still shines across the pages of history. .. But today, after more than three centuries, they sleep side by side, at peace, in Westminster Abbey.

Elizabeth I, Queen of England, is announced to the court. She is upset and asks Throckmorton to tell the others. Mary Stuart has sailed from France for Scotland. Elizabeth says Mary defied her ambassador and herself and has refused to acknowledge that she is the rightful queen of England.

Mary is the heir of Henry VII and in the eyes of Europe, says one of her advisers, it’s Elizabeth that is a pretender to the throne of England because the marriage of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, to her mother, Anne Boleyn, is deemed invalid. But, he adds, Mary must not be allowed to land in Scotland. She will use that throne as a stepping stone to Elizabeth’s throne. Elizabeth says that she must be seized at sea. She expresses a desire for a captain that will raise a black flag and seize Mary off her ship. When Randolph hears this he immediately goes outside and calls for captains Hawkins and Drake.

Sea coast, Leith, Scotland. A lookout sees a ship headed for the coast of Scotland. Mary lands and is escorted onto the Scottish soil. She will be taken to Holyrood Castle near Edinburgh. A messenger tells Mary’s brother at the castle that she is on her way to Edinburgh. The men at court laugh at the news for the Earl of Moray’s regency is now over. (The Earl of Moray is Mary’s half-brother James.) No longer will he rule Scotland.

Brother James tells the Lords to hold their tongues, especially Ruthven and Morton and leave all the speech making to Lexington. He goes to welcome his sister home. Mary tells him that her ship was pursued and nearly taken. In fact, they captured the ship that carried her horses. James says no doubt she was pursued by a freebooter. Mary laughs and says, yes, a freebooter with a skirt.

Mary talks about the old days at Inchmahome with her brother. She says then she was a spoiled little girl, but she admired and looked up to him. Coming into the Great Hall the Lords, some of them reluctantly, kneel before the Queen. Mary says that she has been away for thirteen years, but now she will rule fairly and justly. She takes her seat on the throne.

One of the Lords asks that they be allowed to greet their queen without the presence of foreigners, but Mary says no, Rizzio is her secretary. He will remain. Lexington tells Mary that the Lords want to assure her of their unwavering loyalty to her, despite differences. Mary insists on being told of these differences. Brother James says that Lexington was speaking of the religious differences between Catholic and Protestant. He says that things are changing in Scotland. It is John Knox’s day in Scotland. Mary wants to know if her brother has gone over to Knox’s side? He has. But, he insists, this was all done in an attempt to protect Mary’s throne. The other Lords back up James saying that Knox is very powerful in Scotland. Mary tells Ruthven that she does not like his tone. She will worship as she pleases and others will worship as they please in Scotland. Huntly speaks up saying: "Good for you, lassie!"

Mary asks is there anything else on the minds of the Lords? Yes, her marriage. Mary says the King of France died when she was eighteen and she is free to marry again, but adds "if I choose to." Lexington says that they would like her to marry a loyal Scot who the Lords can trust. The Lords want to know what foreign alliances Mary will make. Mary asks if the Lords have chosen a husband for her? Yes, Lord Darnley.

In the discussion it is brought up that the Earl of Bothwell said: "Mary and Elizabeth rolled together wouldn’t make an honest woman." Mary is offended and says she will take note of all the veiled insults which have been flung at her this night under the guise of welcome.

Mary is really angry and says: "The ambition of other men carried me to France when I was a child. The ambition of other men married me to a dying boy who became King of France. I wasn’t asked. But I am through. I’m going to live my own life, do as I say. I refuse to marry. I love no one, and I shall marry no one." She leaves.

And the Lords are mad too. Some say that Mary only sits on the throne as long as they keep her there. Who will keep Mary in hand? James says he will. "She’ll accept the council I propose." But some of the Lords don’t trust James. To stop this incipient mutiny, James says that he will look after the interests of all the Lords, not just himself. He wants to be prime minister and Lexington to be secretary of state.

Mary listens to a large group of people singing in her honor and this brightens her mood. She says that she will find a way to win. But then John Knox appears and refers to Mary as "this jezebel of France". Her mother was French Mary of Guise. She was regent when his own teacher George Wishart was burned alive for heresy. To drown out the rather hateful words of Knox, the Earl of Bothwell brings forward a band of bagpipers and drummers. Knox tells them to stop, but they play on.

The band stops when Mary makes an appearance. She asks Knox to come inside and speak with her. He follows her. Mary tells him that he can preach his faith, but let her practice her faith too. She says she will respect Knox’s religion, but she asks him to be tolerant of other faiths. But Knox is not a tolerant man and Mary’s hopes of reconciliation with Knox are dashed. Bothwell is there and he is shocked at what he calls Knox’s insolence. He speaks his mind a bit too brazenly which offends Mary. But Bothwell is able to turn her attitude by saying he knows he’s a bit brash and that it was his band that helped her out with Knox. And Bothwell indicates that he will be more on Mary’s side than the Lords will be. In fact, he leaves her to go speak with the Lords who are presently forming her council.

Bothwell asks the Lords if they’ve divided up the spoils yet? And he tells them that he will be taking charge of Her Majesty’s armed forces himself. The Lords say they won’t allow it. Bothwell tells them he just now accepted the position from the Queen herself. Then he bursts out laughing at the joke he has played on the Lords.

Elizabeth expects Randolph to return from Scotland this day. Leicester says he is a bit jealous of the man because Her Majesty is giving more and more of her important commissions to Lord Randolph. Randolph comes in. Elizabeth asks if Mary is as pretty as they say. Randolph gives her a broach containing Mary’s portrait. Now it’s Elizabeth’s turn to be a bit jealous. Randolph tells her that she has many suitors, chief among them Lord Darnley. Elizabeth says the man is a weakling, a drunkard. And he stands next to her throne after Mary. Elizabeth feels if they should marry she would be placed in double jeopardy.

Randolph tells Elizabeth not to worry. He feels that Bothwell, the head of her forces, is in love with her and he is more likely to be the husband than Darnley. He speaks so highly of Mary that Elizabeth says she sees that Mary has won him over too and, therefore, he shall go north no more. She appoints Throckmorton, a "cold fish", to be her ambassador to Mary. She tells Randolph to leave.

Elizabeth has a plan. Throckmorton will ride north tonight and confer with Moray, a man with ambitions to be a king.

Mary likes Bothwell, but her secretary David Rizzio does not. He urges her to marry, but not to Bothwell who is faithful to no religion. He says even Darnley would be a better choice. She refuses all European suitors. So Rizzio tells her to marry Darnley. It is a bit of surprise but she says she will marry Darnley. She tells Rizzio to summon him. (Her interest is called to the window to see the arrival of the Earl of Bothwell.)

Bothwell waits to see Marry and is getting impatient. Darnley is there for the same purpose. The Queen is with Throckmorton. Bothwell tells Darnley that he hears that he has been offered a deal to accept a position in England if he backs out of the one in Scotland. Darnley is perturbed and says he will wait below.

Throckmorton tells Mary that Elizabeth will make Mary next in line to succeed her if she marries the man Elizabeth chooses. And that man is the Earl of Leicester. Mary is shocked that Elizabeth had the temerity to name that man as a candidate. She refers to Leicester as Elizabeth’s leavings. This would make her (Mary) the laughing stock of Europe. And now Mary says she knows what she will do.

Rizzio goes out to get Darnley. He asks Bothwell if he has seen the man recently? No. Bothwell figures out what’s going on and rushes in to see Mary. In a storm he blusters out that he loves her. Mary tells him that she’s going to marry Lord Darnley. Bothwell says she can’t do that. He will never let her go. Mary repeats she will marry Darnley. Bothwell becomes angry again and leaves saying that Mary has seen the last of him. This upsets Mary who says she won’t let him leave. Darnley comes in to see the Queen and she tells him that she will marry him. Darnley tells her he is so happy.

Mary knits while speaking with the council. James tells her that the members are upset at her apparent lack of confidence in the council. She prefers to take the advice of Rizzio than the advice of her own council. They want her to get rid of the foreigner. She refuses. Mary says she lost Bothwell and without him she has not effectively ruled Scotland. But she still has David and she will never let him go.

A drunken Lord Darnley arrives at the council. He tells Moray that he doesn’t take orders anymore now that he is king. He complains that Mary is as cold as ice to him. Mary gets up and leaves the room. The King comes after her. But he can’t get past her guard.

The Lords are plotting something. Rizzio comes to ask the King to sign some important papers. Darnley tells him "later". Two of the Lords are busy trying to convince the King to kill Rizzio.

Mary tells Rizzio that he is her only friend and the Lords are driving him away from her. She says she wants him to go back to Italy for his own sake. Rizzio asks her why doesn’t she recall the Earl of Bothwell? Mary says she wants no more talk of Bothwell.

A coup seems a foot as the Lords and their men kill the palace guards. Darnley comes in to see Mary and Rizzio. Ruthven now comes in. Other lords come in. They want to kill Rizzio. Rizzio takes off and the Lords chase him. They corner him and stab him. Then they throw the body out the window.

The Lords return to see Mary. They try to force her to sign a pardon for those involved in the assassination. As she bends down to sign, the news arrives that Bothwell’s returned to Edinburgh and he is marching to the castle. The Lords decide to kill Bothwell too.

Mary and Darnley are held prisoners in her private room. She tells Darnley that they will kill Bothwell as they killed Rizzio, but then they will come to kill him, Darnley. She says that the Lords had to have Darnley with them to prove that she dishonored her marriage vows by being unfaithful.

Mary says to her husband that he still has a chance to save himself and her by helping her to escape before they kill Bothwell. He is worried that it is a trick, but she swears to him that she will never leave him.

Mary and Darnley are able to go down to the courtyard and greet Bothwell. Bothwell puts Mary on his horse and she rides out. Bothwell holds out against the guards working for the Lords. Ruthven goes to check on the Queen and King only to find them gone. The Lords now say to each other that they must get out of Scotland. Ruthven says he will kill Darnley if he can ever lay his hands on him. Bothwell’s men come pouring in and chase the guards away.

Elizabeth is told about events in Scotland. She reacts in horror shouting: "No!" Mary Stuart has given birth to a son. James has vanished with the other Lords that killed David Rizzio. The Queen says: "I failed."

It’s the first birthday of Mary’s son. Bothwell comes in to give him a present. Darnley comes in, again a bit drunk. He has just returned from Glasgow. Darnley says that Ruthven and Morton are back in Scotland secretly. Mary assures him they are not. Darnley is being very paranoid and he tells Mary that he is leaving Scotland. She tells him he cannot leave given his position. Darnley tells Mary that she has never loved him. She says she loves his son and he should not even think of deserting his own son. Darnley says he will disown his son. He heaves shouting: "Try and make him King of Scotland and England then!"

Kirk-o’-the-Field – Darnley’s refuge just outside Edinburgh. The Lords are planting gun powder in the castle. Darnley hears strange sounds and has a pistol in his right hand and a candle in the left. The gunpowder is lit and a terrific explosion occurs.

John Knox preaches about a king of Scotland crying out from his grave for revenge against his murderer! But Knox names the wrong man as the murderer. He says it was Bothwell.

The Queen and Lord Huntly go out for a ride. Bothwell and his men surround them saying he is taking the two of them to Dunbar Castle.

Bothwell’s Stronghold – Dunbar Castle. Huntly sees that this "abduction" is a pretense. Bothwell says Scotland can point no finger at Mary if he marries her against her will. Huntly says that the two of them are mad. He says that Moray will stir up the clans against the two of them and soon they will be under Moray’s power.

Alone Mary and Bothwell kiss. She talks to Bothwell about when she was young and taken to France. They kiss again.

Mary and Bothwell marry. Huntly breaks his sword over his knee.

Elizabeth is told that Moray has abduced Mary’s son, but he will not harm him. Moray’s strength depends on making him king. And now John Knox thunders to the people that Mary and Bothwell killed Lord Darnley. The Lords are now marching on Bothwell and Bothwell’s men are outnumbered by a ratio of 5 to 1.

The rebel lords under Moray lay siege to Holyrood. John Knox arrives to tell Bothwell’s men to open the gates to the righteous. The men ignore him. Moray comes in to speak with Bothwell primarily. Bothwell offers his own terms. He says he will leave Scotland if Mary can continue as before being the Queen of Scotland. Moray says he will see if it’s acceptable to the Lords.

Moray returns to say that the Lords of Scotland accept his terms. Bothwell says he and his men will return if ever Moray breaks the agreement and moves against Mary. Bothwell and his men leave. With her eyes teary Mary goes inside.

It’s not long before Moray breaks the agreement. He tells Mary that she will have to move out of the palace. Mary says: "Now I see your treachery." They will let her stay only if she abdicates and agrees to have her son crowned king with Moray as regent, of course. Mary refuses. She tells them to lock her up and she will bide her time until Bothwell returns.

Throckmorton brings news to Elizabeth that Bothwell has been defeated. He has escaped to Denmark where he hopes to raise the necessary forces for a fatal blow to Moray. Mary’s son has been crowned king. Mary is still in prison, at Lochleven. She has asked Throckmorton to tell Elizabeth if she does not move against rebellion in Scotland, she may find rebellion in England. This concerns Elizabeth. So she says she will oppose Moray publicly as a rebel, but privately she will support him.

Mary communicates with someone across the lake via candle signals. A man and his two boys pick her up after she climbed down a rope ladder to the ground. She it taken to England where she stays with a poor family. Elizabeth sends an escort to conduct Mary to a "place of security".

Mary is shown her apartment and is introduced to Sir Francis Knollys, her host. But it is soon revealed that her apartment is just a nice, big jail cell. Bothwell is also in prison. He goes mad and dies.

Bring in the prisoner, shouts one of the judges. Mary comes in. The main judge says she is accused of attempting to take the life of the Queen of England. The charge is that she has conspired with certain English subjects of her own religious persuasion, Anthony Babington being one of them. He has been executed for treason. His friends were also executed for treason. Mary says that it is Elizabeth who has conspired to have her assassinated. And now she has invented a false plot so that Mary will be condemned to death. But she still has faith that Bothwell will carry the field in Scotland.

The judge calls in the cell mate of Bothwell. She knows the man. Mary asks him where is Bothwell, but the man only hangs his head low and doesn’t answer. She now knows her husband is dead. She asks the judges to condemn her, kill her, for she does not care. She is so condemned.

Elizabeth visits Mary. She tells Mary that Mary’s life was always a threat to her. She was born too close to her throne and it was a matter of "you or I". They trade various insults as to whose life was successful and whose life a failure. But the real reason why Elizabeth came is to give Mary a chance to live. She doesn’t want to execute her. She wants her to sign a statement that she renounces her claim to Elizabeth’s crown. Mary says she still wins. Her son will inherit her throne. It will be her son who will rule England. Elizabeth walks out.

In the morning Mary is taken from her place of imprisonment to walk up to the place of her execution.


Pretty good movie.  But it paints Mary as virtually an innocent victim of the powerful ambitions of Queen Elizabeth I of England.  The fact is that Mary conspired with the Catholics in England and the Catholics in Spain to assassinate Elizabeth.  Mary was willful indeed.  She even chose death over life when Elizabeth asked her to renounce her claim to the throne of England.  The movie strikes a more reasonable chord when the stress is on the conflict being inevitable because Mary was just too close to Elizabeth's throne.  The conflict was only widened by Mary being Catholic and Elizabeth being Protestant. Katherine Hepburn does a wonderful job of acting, but the script paints Mary's character too simply, too innocently.  And Elizabeth is painted mostly as being an ill-tempered, power hungry person. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

See Mary, Queen of Scots  (1971)



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