Here’s a story you don’t see all that often: a true account of a daring raid for national pride and glory that’s set after WWII. Charles Martin Smith (best known for his role in “American Graffiti” but like his co-star Ron Howard more of a writer/director these days) has fashioned a stylish-looking, involving tale of Scotland’s must famous heist (or as they might say “liberation”), the repatriation of the “Stone of Destiny,” a rock with historical ties going back at least seven centuries (and, legend has it, back to Old Testament biblical times — this is the stone which Jacob is thought to have used as a headrest).
“People of Scottish ancestry” is probably not an identifiable target market in demographic terms, but in fact such people are all over the world, and most will walk with a little more swagger in their step after viewing this, particularly if it’s marketed properly. On Christmas Day in 1950, a motley (and yes, rag-tag) group of nationalistic college students led by one Ian Hamilton executed the greatest “student prank” of all time: breaking into Westminster Abbey in London and making off with the “Stone of Scone,” a huge (and heavy) sandstone rock that had been used to crown Scottish monarchs since around 847AD, and was stolen from Scotland by Edward I in 1296. He built a special coronation chair that incorporated the Stone in its base so that all future monarchs would also (by tradition) be crowned Kings of Scotland as well as England.
The movie is based on Ian Hamilton’s memoirs and seems to stick pretty closely to what really happened (or as close as movies with any sense of dramatic tension get, anyway), which is refreshing. As with most true tales, there’s a bit of unresolved business (because life isn’t really all that neat and tidy), some cowardice to go with the bravery, some seemingly-ridiculous or implausible moments (but they did happen!), and more “running about for nothing” than you find in neatly-scripted fictions.
I was surprised at how funny much of the heist and its planning was, but hindsight helps such things ring true. As the instigator of a few “adventures” in my own life, I could relate to the missteps and foibles of the plan and its executors, and the youthful fervor of Ian Hamilton (played by Charlie Cox, who is English but does a great job with the Scots accent).
Genuine Scottish nationalists might bristle at the “gloss” Smith has given the film (loving landscape shots, shorthanded Scottish character types), feeling it a bit superficial — particularly in its lack of any criticism of the English — but particularly for adult moviegoers, “Stone of Destiny” has the right mix of action and detail, nostalgia and laughs. The reaction to the gang’s bold move back in Scotland is particularly well-handled and will likely bring a lump to many a patron’s throat.
Looking back on one’s youth is often a risky business, but though the stunt may have ended up coming for naught (the Stone was quickly recovered and sent back to Westminster, though it is currently “on loan” to Scotland until the next UK coronation), Smith’s affectionate look back at a great slice of modern Scottish history should give audiences young and old a wee grin on their faces.