W. R. Burnett’s novel Captain Lightfoot was immediately adapted by Burnett as a screenplay, and production started even before the novel was published. Veteran director Douglas Sirk was brought in to helm the filming, and wisely decided to shoot as much as possible on location in Ireland (including–ironically–the Lord Powerscourt Estate, one of Michael Martin and John Dogerty’s alleed victims).
There are many reviews available online, including a very misleading contemporary review reprint from The New Yorker that suggests the movie was a political drama. The best synopsis can be found on the Turner Classic Movies site.
The film opens with a screen of text: “Ireland 1815: This is the story of Mike Martin-better known as in legend as Captain Lightfoot-and of a great hero called Captain Thunderbolt-and the story of Ireland. The Ireland of deep black rivers and red-coated dragoons riding through a land bitter with resistance against foreign rule. The Ireland of secret societies and highwaymen on the Dublin road-the Ireland of dark deeds performed with a light heart-the bad, good old Ireland.”
Little of Michael Martin’s confession was used in the plot-line. Instead, Burnett introduced Thunderbolt as a retired highwayman, now running a high-rolling Dublin casino from behind the scenes and using his female companion as the proprietress. The profits were to go to Irish nationalists. The main drama surrounds the capture, imprisonment, and rescue of Thunderbolt (Jeff Morrow), with action leavened by a romance between Lightfoot (Rock Hudson) and Doherty’s daughter, Aga (Barbara Rush).
The Irish landscapes look spectacular in Cinemascope and Technicolor, and the costumes are colorful if not period accurate. Despite his strained Irish accent, Rock Hudson played his role ably, and Barbara Rush polished her typecasting as an ingenue.
Looking back, it is surprising that no Irish commentators wondered about the film’s sources, apparently believing it originated as Burnett’s novel. No one noted that Lightfoot and Thunderbolt were supposed to have been based on real characters