In 1745, Flora MacDonald plays a Jacobite song on the piano and is scolded by her stepfather for its seditious nature. In Italy, James, the Old Pretender, wants to make another attempt at regaining the English throne but is worried that he is too old. It is decided to send his son, Charles.
Charles arrives in Scotland and meets Donald, a Scottish shepherd, who he asks to send a message to the Scottish nobles, asking them to meet him at his ship. King George II is warned about the impending invasion but is not worried. Charles tries to persuade the nobles to fight for him and most agree, except for Lord MacDonald, who is concerned about the lack of French support. The clans rally to Charles, including Lord George Murray, and proclaim their loyalty to James. The rebellion begins. Charles is accompanied by another shepherd, Blind Jimmie.
Charles and his men enter Edinburgh in triumph. Clementina Walkinshaw throws him a rose and they meet at a dance and begin a romance. General Cope arrives with government troops and Lord Murray does not want to tell Charles about it, thinking little of his military ability, but the prince finds out. Charles recommends they attack and the Highlanders defeat the English at the Battle of Prestonpans in seven minutes.
Charles and his forces then invade England. King George II starts to panic and sends his son, the Duke of Cumberland, to fight him. At Derby, only 127 miles from London, Lord Murray and the army council recommend a retreat, as further support has failed to materialise. Charles opposes this but the retreat goes ahead anyway. Charles is upset and seeks solace with Clementina, who encourages him to leave for France with her, but he elects to stay with his men.
The Duke of Cumberland defeats the Highlanders at the Battle of Culloden (which is not seen in the film) but is unable to find and capture Charles. Charles flees to the islands with Donald, and is hidden by Flora MacDonald. MacDonald helps him evade the government troops looking for him, during the course of which at one stage he has to dress as a woman. MacDonald keeps Charles' spirits high, and he manages to get on a boat to take him back to Italy.David Niven as Bonnie Prince Charlie
Margaret Leighton as Flora MacDonald
Morland Graham as Donald MacDonald
John Laurie as Blind Jimmie
Jack Hawkins as Lord George Murray
Judy Campbell as Clementina Walkinshaw
Ronald Adam as Macleod
Charles Goldner as Captain Ferguson
Elwyn Brook-Jones as Duke of Cumberland
Finlay Currie as Marquis of Tullibardine
Herbert Lomas as Kinloch Moidart
Hector Ross as Glenalandale
John Longden as Colonel O'Sullivan
Franklin Dyall as Macdonald
Guy Le Feuvre as Cameron of Lochiel
Stuart Lindsell as MacDonald of Armadale
James Hayter as Kingsburgh
Martin Miller as King George II
G. H. Mulcaster as The Duke of Newcastle
Torin Thatcher as Colonel Kor
Hugh Kelly as Lieutenant Ingleby
Henry Oscar as James III
A movie about Bonnie Prince Charlie was a dream project of Leslie Howard prior to his death. The role was taken by David Niven, who had been a friend of Howard's.
At the time, David Niven said that he was keen to make the movie as it gave him the chance to return to England, and he did not enjoy being in Hollywood after the death of his first wife. He was so enthusiastic he did a screen test in costume to persuade Samuel Goldwyn, who had Niven under contract, to loan him out to Alexander Korda, who was producing the film. Later on, however, Niven alleged he had been forced by Goldwyn to take the role. It was one of the few roles Niven played in his career without his moustache. He says Goldwyn received $150,000 from Korda for his services, although Niven only got a fraction of that.
Michael Powell was originally named as the director.
Korda's original choice to play Flora MacDonald was Deborah Kerr, but she had accepted a Hollywood contract and was unavailable for filming. Stage actor Margaret Leighton was cast instead.
Filming took place on location in Scotland and at Shepperton studios in London. Second unit filming began in August 1946 near Fort William. Doubles for the main cast were used as David Niven was unavailable until the spring.
Soldiers in the British army were hired as extras, but complained they were not paid.
The film ended up taking two years to make. Portions of the film were also directed by Robert Stevenson, Leslie Arliss and Alex Korda. Producer Edward Black died not long after the premiere.
Niven later recalled the movie without affection:
Bonnie Prince Charlie was one of those huge, florid extravaganzas that reek of disaster from the start. There was never a completed screenplay, and never during the eight months we were shooting were the writers more than two days ahead of the actors. In confusion we suffered three changes of directors, with Korda himself desperately taking over, and at one point I cabled Goldwyn: "I have now worked every day for five months on this picture and nobody can tell me how story ends. Advise." He didn't. He didn't even bother to answer. I loved Alex Korda, a brilliant, generous creature, but with this film he was wallowing in confusion. I felt sorry for him, but sorrier for myself as the Bonnie Prince who would assuredly bear the blame for the impending debacle.
However, Niven did meet his second wife during filming.
The film was poorly reviewed by London critics, most criticising the movie as dull and claiming that David Niven was miscast. However, Margaret Leighton received acclaim for her performance. Alex Korda took out paid advertisements defending the movie and criticising the critics. The film still failed to recoup its cost at the box office.
The film was released on DVD on 14 March 2011.
A film about the making of Bonnie Prince Charlie – Born to be King – is to begin filming at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire in January 2014. It is written and will be directed by Peter Capaldi and will star Ewan McGregor and Kate Hudson.