Just the one movie this week, and as it was my birthday on Saturday and we were staying in The Scottish Borders, I chose Outlaw King (2018) from Netflix. Billed as a historical (!) action drama it was directed by David MacKenzie, and stars Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce. Of course as it’s an American movie the historical part leaves a fair bit to be desired, but that’s nothing new, and doesn’t really detract from the movie itself.
This one has spoilers as the real history is well known (at least in Scotland!).
The movie starts in 1304, when the Scottish nobles, Bruce, John Comyn (Callan Mulvay) et al surrender to Edward 1st (Steven Delayne) with the promise that their lands would be returned to them if they pay homage to the King. This they do. There then is a fight between Bob Bruce and Edward’s son (later to be Edward 2nd) (Billy Howle) which is called off, and then the King marries off his goddaughter Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh) to Bob. James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) turns up to petition the King to restore his lands, but Eddy is not happy about James’ Dad Lord Douglas being a traitor so dismisses him. The King and his crew leave Scotland, putting it’s management under Bib and Comyn, with the Earl of Pembroke – Aymer de Valance (Sam Spruell) supervising them.
Two years later, after William Wallace has been chopped up to pieces and bits of him publicly displayed across the nation, Bob witnesses the rioting this causes. On top of that the people are really naffed off at how much the English are collecting in taxes from them, so Bob decides another revolt is in order. His father has died by this time but his brothers all agree with him, and Bob goes to see John Comyn to enlist his support, but he doesn’t want to revolt and threatens to tell King Eddy, so Bob kills him, in a church no less. None of the other clans want to break their oaths to Eddy either, but the Church of Scotland decide to support him if he will take the Crown of Scotland at Scone. Which he does. On his way there James Douglas waylays him and pledges to join the revolt with him.
When Eddy 1 hears about it he outlaws Bob, and sends his son to hunt him down and crush the revolt under the dragon banner. The dragon banner represents the abandonment of chivalry and taking no quarter, which in laymans terms basically means ‘no prisoners, kill them all’! The ambitious de Valance decides to move against Bob before Eddy 2 gets there. Bob doesn”t want to cause any bloodshed so challenges Valance to single combat, which is accepted but Valance insists on delaying it for a day as it is Sunday.
Anyone with half a brain can guess what happens next. Valance and his men attack Bob’s camp in the middle of the night. Bob sends his missis and daughter Marjorie away to his brother Nigel, and stays to fight a losing battle during which the majority of the Scottish army are massacred. Bob escapes with 50 men and sets off for the Scottish Island of Islay. Along the way he is met by John MacDougall, a cousin of Comyn, who isn’t happy about the murder of Comyn, but lets Bob’s men pass. Later on the MacDougalls attack Bob and his men, just as they’re about to set sail, and Bob’s brother Alexander is killed in the mêlée. (You’d a thought he’d learned his lesson after the Valance fiasco.)
Anyways what’s left of his army gets away to Islay. In the meantime Eddy 2 has arrived, burning and pillaging along the way and finds Nigel, Elizabeth and Marjorie at Kildrummy Castle and takes them prisoner. He has Nigel hanged and drawn and Liz and Madge sent to England. Madge is sent to a strict nunnery for religious indoctrination, and Liz is put in a cage and hung off the wall. On Islay Bob hears the news and decides to take back the castle by stealth, and the success of that leads him to start his guerilla warfare, taking castles back from the English.
When Douglas Castle falls to Bob, Eddy 1 decides to go after him himself. However, Eddy 1 snuffs it not long after reaching Scotland and Eddy 2 takes over control of the forces. Bob decides to stand and fight, inspite of being outnumbered 6 to 1, and Clan Mackinnon arrives to help him. The battle is to be at Loudon Hill, and as the English forces are mainly cavalry, Bob devises defences to address that. He has hidden spear filled ditches and is surrounded by boggy marshland, so the horses get skewered on the spears and bogged down in the marsh with the Scots finishing off the riders. Valance orders a retreat when the battle has obviously gone tits up for the English, but Bob and Eddy 2 have a duel. Bob wins, but he lets Eddy 2 go free, (has to really, even the Americans can’t alter history that much!). And that’s the end. An epilogue shows Elizabeth being released to Bob in a prisoner exchange, no mention of Marjorie though.
In spite of the messing about with the timescales, and artichokes on the table when they didn’t arrive until the 16th century 🙂 this is a really well filmed and well acted piece of cinema. Most of it is filmed in Scotland, which is a nice change from Ireland or Croatia being used for every place in movies these days. The battle scenes are visceral, especially the Loudon Hill battle. Costumes are realistic though missing the yellow dyes the Scots preferred in their fighting kit. The slow growing relationship between Bruce and Elizabeth is well done, Florence Pugh shines in this. MacKenzie paces the story well, not chopping about too much so there is a nice flow from scene to scene. Chris Pine seemed an unusual choice at first glance, a very nice looking American guy and an action hero in many of his movies, but he’s dirtied up in this and ably producing his acting chops.
Mixed reviews from the critics, and I agree with this one from Rotten Tomatoes ~ “Muddy and bloody to a fault, Outlaw King doesn’t skimp on the medieval battle scenes, but tends to lose track of the fact-based legend at the heart of its story.”
Well worth a watch if you can think of it as fiction!