Netflix recently blessed us with a war movie. I originally got Netflix so I could watch an enormous amount of war movie DVDs. Then Netflix started streaming some war movies. And now, they are making some war movies! We are truly living in a golden age. Not counting everything else. “Outlaw / King” was co-written, produced, and directed by David MacKenzie (“Hell or High Water”). It was filmed in Scotland and England. The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. After that, MacKenzie cut twenty minutes.
The movie leads with the claim that it is “based on historical events”. It starts in Scotland in 1304. Title cards inform us non-Scots that the Scots had recently rebelled against the occupation of King Edward I. This rebellion was led by William Wallace. But Wallace has been defeated and now the Scottish lords are prepared to submit to Edward. At the siege of Stirling Castle, Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) joins other nobles in witnessing Edward’s triumph (facilitated by one bad-ass trebuchet hurling Greek fire) and then bending their knees. Edward forces Robert to patch things up with John Comyn. Exiting the tent, Robert is challenged to a frenemy duel by Prince Edward (Billy Howle). Clanging within five minutes! This is a good sign. The king arranges a marriage between Robert and the daughter of a loyal ally. Elizabeth (Florence Pugh) is comely, but Robert is either a gentleman or doesn’t like the political strings. I couldn’t tell which. But I could tell that this separate rooms situation would not last. (That’s right, I’ve seen a movie.) Her feistiness will overcome his frostiness. Just like his patriotism is going to overcome his placating. If you are Scottish, you know where this is heading and are wondering how it will be depicted. If you are an American, you are wondering how kick-ass the battles will be and whether the movie will live up to “Braveheart”.
Let’s get this over with immediately. It is not as good as “Braveheart”, as entertainment. Chris Pine plays Robert as lacking charisma. He does have the saintly demeanor of Wallace. Except when he murders his rival in a church of all places. But he was justified and the clergy backed him, so keep cheering. The romance with Elizabeth should not scare away the guys. In fact, when they finally consummate, there is some Netflix Original nudity for both male and female viewers. Florence Pugh is fine (both acting and body wise) as Elizabeth, but Pine doesn’t seem to be having much fun. That might be appropriate because for the first three fourths of the movie, I wouldn’t give this guy’s problems to a monkey on a rock. The movie definitely sets him up as a massive underdog against the all-powerful Edward (Stephen Dillane). Unfortunately, those twenty cut minutes must have dealt with how he climbed out of the pit of despair. The movie jumps from spider legend (you Scots will know what I am talking about) to rousing combat porn finale in the blink of an eye. And then slaps on the obligatory romantic reunion. The happily-ever-afters kick in pre-Bannockburn. Maybe that’s where the twenty minutes were.
“Outlaw / King” does not really engage the viewer. The events are depicted without panache and Pine’s performance does not add spice. To balance his morose portrayal, the charismatic James Douglas gets scene-chewing portrayal by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Black Douglas deserves his own movie. The battle scenes are the highlights and they are very graphic. Basically they are the melee style that you see in every modern medieval movie. There is also a drawing and quartering to remind of “Braveheart” and top it grossness-wise. Speaking of which, this is in some ways a sequel to that film. Someone must have wanted to redeem Robert. And Edward and his son. King Edward here is less supervillain and more Machiavellian medieval king. Dillane’s Edward is much closer to the real Edward. You will not recognize his son. I am guessing that the real Prince Edward was somewhere between flaming and enflaming. The movie makes a big mistake not concentrating on Valence as the main villain.
It turns out (see below for details) the movie is fairly accurate. Certainly more than “Braveheart”, but what isn’t. It tries hard to get the period details right. There is a lot of mud. Politics are also dirty. Love will survive. Scotland has some awesome scenery. This all enfolds in an acceptably entertaining way. I don’t want to discourage Netflix from making more war movies and I did learn a lot about a great warrior. It turns out he is not the weasel “Braveheart” left us with.
SPOILER ALERT! HISTORICAL ACCURACY: (Keep in mind that I am not Scottish, so I may be off in some of this analysis.) The movie starts in 1304 at the siege of Sterling Castle. Nice touch having the huge trebuchet. It was called Warwolf and was reputedly the largest trebuchet in history. It is true that Edward postponed accepting the surrender until he could use it. It seems unlikely it hurled Greek fire. It did lob up to 300 pound rocks. Edward did accept submission of the Scottish nobles at this time and Robert would have been one of them. However, he had been on board for some time and (as “Braveheart” depicted) was basically allied with him. Robert had a tense relationship with John Comyn. Both wanted to be King of Scotland. Comyn was the most powerful noble in Scotland and had more support due to his having been more consistently anti-British. The movie downplays that Robert was less than patriotic before he rebelled. Robert tried to broker an agreement with Comyn where Comyn would accept Robert as King in exchange for some concessions. Apparently, Comyn ratted the Bruce out to Edward and Robert was forced to flee from the King’s court. He returned to Scotland and arranged a meeting with Comyn. The meeting was similar to what is depicted in the movie, except that Robert would have already known of Comyn’s duplicity, plus the murder may have been more due to the rivalry for power.
After the murder (for such it was), Robert rushed to Bishop Wishart for absolution and the clergy came on board for the rebellion. (Robert was excommunicated by the Pope.) He was hastily crowned king. Robert’s rebellion was not really a response to Wallace’s death (since he was hardly a fan), but more the result of seeing the hand-writing on the wall with regard to Edward becoming increasingly suspicious of Robert. Robert was already married to Elizabeth (since 1302) and although her father was an ally of Edward, I found no evidence that it was a political marriage. (I don’t think Robert waited to consummate.) Robert had a daughter named Marjory from his first marriage.
The Battle of Methven is fairly close to reality. Robert did face Valence (Earl of Pembroke) who was Edward’s military commander in Scotland. He was sent with the vanguard and it was he that Edward instructed to raise the dragon banner. The Prince followed later with the main army. The Prince did take the Oath of the Swans, so that bizarre moment was reality! Rpbert and Valence did meet the afternoon before and agreed to wait to the next day. They did not agree to a duel. Valence surprise attacked at dawn, but it was less perfidy than just taking advantage of Robert’s unbelievable lack of sentries or scouts. It was a massed cavalry attack and probably did not involve fire arrows.
Robert escaped the disaster with around 500 men. Along the road they encountered Jack Douglas as shown in the movie. The movie does a good job showing Edward dissing Douglas earlier. Douglas had petitioned for return of his lands, but when Edward learned who his father was, he threw him out. The movie does a pretty good job with the Battle of Dalrigh which was when the MacDougalls ambushed Robert. It was in a field, not on the shore. According to legend, things were so hairy that at one point Robert avoided being dragged from his horse only by loosening his brooch and giving up his cloak. This marked the low ebb as Robert sent his wife and daughter to KIldrummy Castle. However, when the castle was besieged, she was no longer there. She was captured at St. Dulhoc by the Earl of Ross who gave her to Edward. Robert’s brother Niall was captured at Kildrummy and drawn and quartered, but not by Prince Edward. The spider incident occurred during this period when Robert was on the run and taking refuge in caves, etc. Supposedly he witnessed a spider trying several times to complete a web and recognized the moral of “if at first you don’t succeed”.
Robert inaugurated a guerrilla war that consisted of hit and run attacks. He retook his own home and Douglas captured his own castle in the Douglas Larder incident where he and a small group of men slaughtered the garrison in the chapel. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Marjory were being held under house arrest. Marjory was sent to a nunnery and Elizabeth was moved around periodically. She never spent any time in a wooden cage, but this did happen to one of Robert’s sisters. Robert built up his support with his successes in the guerrilla war and was ready to take on the king’s forces. He faced off again with Valence at the Battle of Loudoun Hill. The Prince was not there. The movie reenactment is acceptable. Robert did take advantage of marshy ground to funnel the British cavalry into his pikes and ditches. Obviously, there was no duel at the end. Edward I actually died after this battle. Elizabeth was not reunited with Robert until 1314.
CONCLUSION: My first take was that the movie was a misfire, but after looking at the history I am a little more forgiving. Not that it is perfect historically. It takes some major liberties, but most are artistic license that make sense. I was particularly impressed with the inclusion of the Warwolf, the Oath of the Swans, and the Douglas Larder incident. The three battles are fun and surprisingly accurate. I abhor “Braveheart” and was hoping this movie would prove that a great movie could be made about the First War of Scottish Independence. “Outlaw / King” is not a great movie. But it is a war movie and it tries hard.
GRADE = B-