Continuing our foray into Scottish (inaccurate) history movies, this week we chose to watch Rob Roy (1995) directed by Michael Caton Jones, and starring Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange, Tim Roth and John Hurt.
It’s another oldie so spoilers abound!
The plot goes something like this:-
We start in 1713, and Robert Roy MacGregor (Neeson) is chief of the Clan MacGregor. In order to feed his people he works as a protector of cattle for the gentry, but is barely making it, so he decides to get a loan from the Marquess of Montrose (John Hurt) to buy some more cattle and trade them at a profit. Montrose has a relative staying with him, the aristocrat Archibald Cunningham, who is broke, effeminate, and a master swordsman (played by Tim Roth to perfection). Archie learns about the loan from Montrose’s assistant Killearn (Brian Cox doing seedy rather well) and they divise a plan to steal the money. Roy has been promised a credit note for the sum, and leaves his loyal man Alan MacDonald (Eric Stoltz) to wait for it from Killearn. Killearn gives him the £1000 in cash instead, and then Archie lays in wait for him on his journey back to Roy, ambushes, kills and drowns him and takes the money to split with Killearn.
Roy goes to see Montrose to request an extension whilst he finds MacDonald and retrieves the money, but Montrose has other ideas. He has a rival in John Campbell 2nd Duke of Argyll (Andrew Keir) and wants Roy to falsely testify that Argyll is a Jacobite. Roy refuses so Montrose decides to imprison him and seize his land to repay the debt, but Roy escapes.
Montrose declares Roy an outlaw, and tells Archie to capture him and bring him back ‘broken but not dead’. Roy hightails it into the hills leaving his wife Mary (Lange) to look after the homestead. Archie and his redcoat militia head straight there, burn the house down, kill all the cattle, and Archie rapes Mary whilst Killearn looks on. I was yelling at the telly during this scene, it was devastating.
Roy’s younger brother Alasdair arrives just as Archie and his men leave after falling asleep whilst on watch, and Mary makes him promise not to tell Roy about the rape as she knows Archie did it to incense him and goad him into looking for him. When Roy comes back he tells his clan they will get revenge for the damage by hitting Montrose where it hurts- in the pocket, by stealing his cattle and rents.
In the meantime, one of Montrose’s maids, Betty has fallen for Archie and got pregnant by him. He rejects her, Killearn sacks her, so she turns up at the MacGregors and tells Mary of hearing Archie and Killearn plot the robbery. A bit later on Betty hangs herself. Roy abducts and imprisons Killearn, wanting to make a case against Archie. Mary asks to have a few moments with him alone and she tells him he’ll be spared if he testifies against Archie. However, Killearn taunts her about the rape and also realises she’s pregnant so threatens to tell Roy that Archie is the father if Mary doesn’t let him go. Mary is mightily peed off by now and stabs Killearn in the neck (big cheer went up from the sofa at that point!) and Alasdair finishes him off and drowns him.
Again Montrose sends Archie off to capture Roy as he’s fed up with the cattle and rent thefts, so Archie goes on the rampage burning the clan’s homes. Roy doesn’t take the bait, but his hothead brother takes a potshot at Archie, sadly missing him but killing one of his militia. This gives away their hiding place so Roy and his men make a run for it into the hills. The redcoats shoot Alasdair and Roy carries him up the hill. Before he dies Alasdair tells Roy of the rape. Roy is then captured and dragged roughly to see Montrose. In front of Montrose Roy accuses Archie of murder, rape and robbery, which Archie doesn’t deny. Montrose doesn’t care about that though as he’s now got Roy’s land and wants to keep it, so orders him to be hanged from a nearby bridge. Roy grabs the rope, wraps it round Archie’s neck and jumps off the bridge with the rope (very James Bond if you’ve seen the latest trailer!) He escapes down the river as Montrose arders the rope to be cut to stop Archie being strangled to death, and Roy is pursued by redcoats. In a rather revolting scene he pulls the innards out of a dead cattley beasty thing and hides inside it.
Mary meanwhile goes off to visit Argyll, and tells him all of what’s been going on and exposing Montrose’s plan to frame him. Argyll grants the family asylum on his land. Roy arrives there, and whilst initially upset by Mary keeping the rape & pregnancy from him, he soon comes round and will accept the child as his own. Argyll arranges a dual between Roy and Archie, though having seen Archie’s skill with a sword doesn’t hold out much hope for Roy.
Argyll makes a wager with Montrose, that if Roy wins, his debt will be written off, and if he dies, Argyll will cover the debt.
Now comes the best bit of the movie for me. The dual is held in Montrose’s hall. Big, lumbering Roy with a heavy broadsword, and neat, lithe Archie with a rapier. They vow to ‘give no quarter’ i.e a fight to the death. Possibly the best dual I’ve ever seen. There’s no background music, just the sound of the ringing of the swords. Archy struts around and then leaps into a burst of action with feline grace and injures Roy, and does this again and again, whilst Roy gets worn down. Eventually he falls to his knees, seemingly defeated, and Archy rests the blade against his throat. As Archie looks to Montrose for permission to finish Roy off, Roy grabs the point of Archie’s blade with his left hand, his own blade with his right hand, stands up and slices him open from shoulder to waist just about. (More cheers from the sofa!). Roy is free of debt, with his honour intact, and goes home to Mary.
A visually stunning movie, filmed entirely in Scotland, the cinematograpy by Karl Walter Lindenlaub is so well done. Apparently the rain and the midges were a problem during the shooting, but that’s Scotland for you!
Although the movie goes from 1713 to 1722, it doesn’t include the Jacobite uprising of 1719, which real Rob Roy took part in, and Archibald Cunningham is a fictional character, so the dual and rape didn’t really happen, but it made for a compelling movie. The loan from Montrose and patronage of Argyll was true, as was the burning down of the home he had with Mary and his outlawship.
Mixed reaction from critics, my favourite guy Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote “This is a splendid, rousing historical adventure, an example of what can happen when the best direction, acting, writing and technical credits are brought to bear on what might look like shopworn material.” He also said the film’s outline could have led to “yet another tired” historical epic, but he found that the director was able to produce “intense character studies”. He thought Tim Roth’s performance was “crucial” to the film’s success and thought that the climactic sword fight at the end was “one of the great action sequences in movie history”.
Some wee woman called Rita Kempley of The Washington Post compared the movie negatively to both Death Wish and First Blood (REALLY????) she didn’t like the violence and wrote “Frankly, Rob Roy is about as bright as one of his cows. He doesn’t even recognize that his obsession with honor will lead to the destruction of his clan.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Ebert though, it’s the relationships between the characters that make a movie, and these were well done. For me, Jessica Lange and Tim Roth stole the show, Lange was luminous, feisty and stoic and convyed so much with her eyes, a wonderful performance. Roth was perfect, and the only person out of the whole movie to be nominated for an Oscar (for best supporting actor) which he didn’t get, but also nominated for a BAFTA, which he did get. Phil thought John Hurt was brilliant (when is he ever not?). Neeson was good, for sure, but this movie belongs to the supports.
I’d give it 5 stars, but apparently stars are for fridge/freezers 🤣🤣 so I’ll leave it at bloody brilliant! 😀