Hero from Chelmsford?

Submitted by cathy n on 14 November, 2018 - 5:58 Author: Dale Street
outlaw king

Review of ′Outlaw King′

At times it seems as if ‘Outlaw King’ can’t quite work out what kind of film it wants to be.

Is it a film with credible characters, a plausible plot and a serious storyline? Are those long shots of Robert the Bruce wandering through overpowering Scottish landscapes perhaps a visual metaphor for the loneliness of the human condition? Or is it a cross between a medieval ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (lots of guts and gore and mud and blood) and a Scottish version of King Arthur (good-looking bloke teams up with woman and slays his way against overwhelming odds to become the People’s King)?

Unfortunately, the film cannot the resist the temptation of the latter. The direction of travel thereafter is all downhill, but in an intensely entertaining kind of way.

Edward I prepares to dispatch his troops to crush the rebellious Scots, he seems to be wearing an England football top. His son prepares for war in a drunken revelry. Holding aloft two dead swans he pledges: “By these swans I vow to avenge this murderous insult to God.”

Robert the Bruce, by contrast, prefers something akin to Marks and Spencer leisurewear for men (except when wearing his chainmail PPE). When he goes to war, it’s more like a Butlins weekend honeymoon. He even takes his daughter, to make it a real family affair.

Edward II (his father dies in the course of the film) is a cad, a coward, a bully, and an incompetent military commander. Even the vow which he makes to his father at his deathbed is breached within seconds of his demise.

Robert the Bruce is the exact opposite. So as not to offend her, he doesn’t even have sex with his wife on their wedding night. People keep on bowing down before him, but he’ll have none of that. Resilient in the face of adversity, he is a magnet for the oppressed and downtrodden. Without doubt: a King for the many, not the few.

(There is, it is true, that unfortunate incident when he murders fellow-noble John Comyn in front of a church altar. But it was a spur-of-the-moment murder. And the Church forgives him. So even that’s okay.)

Despite the substantial cuts made to the original film, the version on release is still overly long. Even the most ardent English patriot will long for the final battle and Scottish victory, to get the film over and done with.

When the hour of battle finally lours, things don’t look good for the People’s King. He’s outnumbered and out-horsed (he hasn’t got any) and his wife is in a cage hanging from the walls of an English coastline castle. Things don’t get much worse than that. But Robert fires up his troops with an appeal to God, honour, country, and family (and to fight like beasts). The best that Edward II can manage is a psychotic version of Project Fear.

Then there is a very bloody battle. Robert wins. Edward loses and gets booed off the battlefield. He’s such a pathetic individual that he’s not even worth killing. And, of course, the young boy with the Toni & Guy haircut who wanders through the film with the Poundland Scottish crown concealed beneath his chainmail, is killed. His final act on earth is to hand over the crown to its rightful owner.

The film is not serious history. According to the latest research on Robert the Bruce, he was born near Chelmsford in Essex. He was ambitious rather than altruistic. And his murder of Comyn was a calculated political assassination. But this hardly matters. The film does not pretend to be serious history. And no-one ever criticised Elizabeth because Elizabeth I did not really look like Cate Blanchett (nor dress up in shiny armour and ride a white stallion along the English coast as the Spanish Armada approached).

Pro-independence fundamentalists have hailed the film as “a clarion call for independence”. More sensible people will probably see it as a well-made film loosely based on events which happened over seven centuries ago.

A different take: a film without a heart

Like Dale Street I rather wonder whether the “pro-independence fundamentalists” who have described David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King as a “clarion call for Scottish independence” can possibly have been watching the same film I saw. The entire endeavour, both in terms of the actual film itself and the story it’s telling, end up feeling a little... well, pointless. Chris Pine gives a measured, reserved performance as Robert the Bruce, but with the effect that his reasons for risking everything to undertake a dangerous war against the English crown seem rather inscrutable, a mystery the film never really explores.

Dale says that Robert “fires up his troops with an appeal to God, honour, country, and family”, but this isn’t quite right. Where Mel Gibson’s ridiculous Braveheart had William Wallace conclude his pre-battle pep talk with a bloodcurdling nationalist battlecry (“Alba gu bràth”: in Gaelic no less, a language that Wallace, a minor Lowlands nobleman, may not even have spoken), Robert strikes a very different tone. What he actually says is: “Whether you fight for god, for honour, for country, for family, for yourselves, I do not care [my emphasis], as long as you fight.” It’s hardly stirring stuff.

This could all have been turned into an interesting inquiry, which Dale himself hints at: was Robert motivated by sincere nationalist ideology, or by an entitled, power-hungry aristocrat’s belief in his own right to rule, or some combination of these, or something else? However, in the context of a script that presents him as blandly sympathetic rather than complicated and multidimensional, its effect is to leave the film without any real core.

Dale is also absolutely right to query the film’s portrayal of Robert as a “People’s King”. The film’s title unavoidably evokes Robin Hood, and there’s a good deal of “Robert and his merry men” about the portrayal of the campaign, with much sitting around fires in the woods and much singing of ballads. But there was no “rob the rich to feed the poor” element to the war; rather, it was a conflict between different factions of a substantially enmeshed aristocracy — the Prince of Wales, later Edward II, and Robert the Bruce are shown as childhood playmates — about who had the right to rule which territory.

Manohla Dargis, reviewing the film for the New York Times put it best, saying: “Like many movies of this type, it never engages a simple yet profound question: Why would human beings, especially the lowliest, willingly die to be ruled by a king named Robert instead of one called Edward?”

There is undoubtedly much human drama and escapist entertainment to be mined from the histories of clashes between aristocratic feudal dynasties and factions, as the world-conquering popularity of Game of Thrones attests. But, while we cannot artificially overlay contemporary political frames onto a Medieval context, it would be refreshing to hear some stories, even imagined ones, of how the “ordinary people” of our distant past fitted into and engaged with these events, and not just the tales of kings and would-be kings.

Daniel Randall

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