people’s view of Robert the Bruce is from “Braveheart”. In that movie, he is portrayed as a British
lackey who betrays the Scottish hero William Wallace. Like much of that travesty of a movie, this
is bull shit. But since many get their
history from cinema, Robert needed a reappraisal via that medium. It came with the movie “Robert the Bruce”,
which was released 24 years after “Braveheart”.
The movie stars the same actor who portrayed Robert in “Braveheart”,
Angus Macfadyen. Clearly, he is a fan of
Robert as he co-wrote the screenplay and produced the film. We can assume he felt guilty about his
previous portrayal. The movie
was filmed mostly in Montana. Yes, you
read that right.
The movie begins with a voiceover explaining the situation in Scotland in 1306. The King of Scotland has died with no heir. Scotland is divided between clans aligned with the British and those Scots who still have the “fire for freedom” stoked by William Wallace. Robert the Bruce has picked up Wallace’s torch. That torch is barely flickering as Robert has suffered a series of defeats and is in his “Alfred in the swamps” stage. He disbands his army and takes refuge with a peasant family. He bonds with them. Especially with the widow Morag (Anna Hutchison). Unfortunately, the Bruce is a wanted man and there are villains on his trail. Queue the clanging swords and whistling arrows.
I was taken by surprise as far as the plot. I expected a biopic covering the events from the end of “Braveheart” up to the Battle of Bannockburn. Instead, it covers only the lowest moment in Robert’s career and ends with him just beginning to turn things around. In fact, it is just as much about Morag’s family. Sadly, the much more fascinating figure of James Douglas (Diarmaid Murtagh) is given just a small role. The acting is fine, but Macfadyen (who is normally a fierce actor) is wooden here. Macfadyn was 25 years older than his character. I suppose you could imagine that Robert the Bruce would have looked like he aged 25 years between the Battle of Falkirk and the winter of 1306. Of course, Macfadyen’s acting might have been influenced by a director who must have shouted “more morose!” a lot on set. I know Robert had good reasons to be depressed during this period. However, for a national hero of Scotland and the victor at Bannockburn, he comes off as a whiny baby, a quitter, and a poor leader. I wonder how Scots feel about this portrayal.
Oddly, the script drops a Western into medieval Scotland. The wounded, wanted hero is taken in by a family, who nurse him back to health. But eventually, this idyllic pause ends with him being discovered and pulled back into his violent past. But he’s not a lone hero any more, he has a family that supports him. The final clang-out resembles many a cowboy shootout. Most of this is unrealistic for a movie about an actual historical personage. But it fits the movie’s disregard for history. It is not on a level with “Braveheart”, although it might have challenged that if it had been a true biopic, but it is far from a history lesson. What you will learn about Robert the Bruce is pretty much limited to the introduction and then the post script.
As far as historical accuracy,
Macfadyen chooses the winter of 1306 as the period least likely to rain
ridicule from historians on him. That’s
because historians are hazy about those months.
After William Wallace was executed in 1305, Scotland was divided in
loyalties between two potential successors of Wallace as leader and John
Balliol as king. John Comyn, Balliol’s
nephew, was Bruce’s rival. They hated each
other, but still Comyn agreed to give up his claim in exchange for some of
Bruce’s lands. In 1306, Robert barely
escaped from Edward I’s court when he was warned that he was to be arrested. He returned to Scotland to deal with the
betrayal of Comyn. They met at a chapel
and Robert killed Comyn. The movie has
this scene and leaves it unclear as to exactly what happened, reflecting the
lack of historical consensus. Robert took the throne (although he was
excommunicated for murder at an altar).
Thus began the War of Robert the Bruce.
Things did not go well at first.
He was defeated by Edward at the Battle of Methven. Robert and just a few of his surviving
followers, including James Douglas, carried on.
They went on the lam. The movie
probably overplays the idea that he had given up all hope, but it certainly was
a bleak period. It is unclear where he
spent the time covered in the movie. The
best guess is he took refuge in the Hebrides Islands. Or maybe Ireland. Regardless, we don’t know what he was
doing. We can be sure he did not spend
the winter moping around with a widow and her family. The following spring he initiated a guerrilla
war that got the attention of Edward II.
When Edward invaded Scotland, Robert pulled off one of the most spectacular
victories in history at Bannockburn
As an imagining of what Robert the Bruce was doing during one mysterious winter, “Robert the Bruce” is not ambitious. It can’t be blamed for gross historical inaccuracies, but it hardly serves as a tutorial on the fascinating Robert. If you want to see an historical figure put into a time-worn hero on the outs, pursued by evil, and reborn by new friends plot, “Robert the Bruce” is competently done. If you want to see one of the greatest heroes of Scotland overcome adversity to kick British arse, look elsewhere.
GRADE = C