Like Dale Street, Solidarity 486, 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: 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. 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
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, 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.