He may be a global legend, with his own globally-celebrated night to boot, but the work of Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns hasn’t seen a lot of big screen action; there’s a few old animations of Tam O’Shanter that get pressed into service for educational purposes, but Roddy McDowell’s 1970 film is one of the few that attempted to translate Burns world-view to a mainstream audience. So put aside Tam O’Shanter and his unfortunate horse, mixing it up with local witches, and strap in for an altogether different Tam; Tam Lin, and his entanglements with the toughest of opposition, the Scottish fairie realm.
Except McDowell skips most of the supernatural elements and updates things to the modern world of sports cars, drugs and horrible entourages of hangers-on; Tom Lynn (Ian McShane) is part of the swinging group that follow Michaela Cazaret (Ava Gardner) a woman with Liz Taylor-level riches and a wardrobe to match; the credits mention that her gowns are ‘executed by’ French luxury house Balmain, and execution would be too good for some of them. Tom Lynn is her lover, but he quickly discovers that very bad things have happened to her previous paramours, so Tom has a sense of foreboding that he might come to a sticky end. A pure of heart vicar’s daughter (not very Scottish detail, but there you go) played by Stephanie Beecham offers him a way out of his fashionable trap, but Cazaret is unwilling to let her plaything go…
McDowell was as much in thrall of Gardner as Tam Lin was to the fairy queen he courted, and fashioned The Ballad of Tam Lin as a heartfelt Valentine to his muse; despite that, it’s quite an unflattering view of a character described here as an ‘old bitch in heat’. Gardner was no spring chicken, but that’s kinda right for this role, and we’re meant to sympathise with our young leads keen to avoid having their true love blighted by an older generation. Elsewhere, the 1970 details offers distractions a-go-go; blue space hoppers, Joanna Lumley, Gardner biting McShane’s bare bottom, Traquair Castle and the luxurious Scottish backdrop of Peebleshire; throw in a two headed snake and you’ve got a perfect storm of dreamlike elements that add to the otherness of the whole piece.
The Ballad of Tam Lin was swiftly recut and re-marketed as a horror film (The Devil’s Widow), but even folk horror doesn’t quite fit this film. In love with corruption and decay, it’s a strange but worthwhile re-issue; as our villainess says. ‘I never resign myself, I never give in and I never let go that is the elixir of life .’
Thanks to BFi for access to this title. A BFI Blu-ray release from 10 October 2022
Order THE BALLAD OF TAM LIN from the BFI Shop:
DEEPER INTO WEIRD WALK: THE BALLAD OF TAM LIN
Mon 31 October. Rio Cinema, Dalston, London: “The Ballad of Tam Lin” with special guests Ian McShane and Stewart Lee. *Tickets on sale on Friday.
- Presented in High Definition
- Audio commentary by BFI Flipside co-founders William Fowler and Vic Pratt (2021)
- Love You and Leave You For Dead (2021, 11 mins): Ian McShane on Tam Lin
- An Eerie Tale to Tell (2021, 10 mins): Stephanie Beacham on Tam Lin
- Ballad of a B-Movie: Revisiting Tam Lin (2021, 12 mins): interview with Roddy McDowall biographer David Del Valle
- Legendary Ladies of the Silver Screen: Ava Gardner (1998, 18 mins): Roddy McDowall remembers Ava Gardner and The Ballad of Tam Lin in this adoring archive introduction
- Adventures Along the Way (2022, 32 mins): actress Madeline Smith looks back on being one of the coven
- Listening In (2022, 27 mins): Jacqui McShee, lead singer of the seminal British folk group Pentangle, recalls the writing and recording of the film’s cult soundtrack
- Hans Zimmer on Stanley Myers (2021, 20 mins, audio only): the much-loved composer discusses the work of Stanley Myers
- Red Red? Red (Jim Weiss, Chris Maudson, John Phillips, 1971, 34 mins): an impressionistic study of a commune in Devon where people dress up, play instruments, make love and take part in strange revolutionary games
- Border Country (26 mins): rare short films from the BFI National Archive reveal rural lifestyles at Scotland’s edge
- Theatrical trailer
- ***First pressing only*** Illustrated booklet with a new essay on the film by the BFI’s William Fowler, essays by Sam Dunn and Corinna Reicher, a contemporary review by Tom Milne from Monthly Film Bulletin and notes on the special features and credits