While I was on paternity leave, I had a lot of time to binge-watch Netflix, so I was excited to get to some of the films that had been piling up in my list.
Outlaw King, Netflix’s historical fiction about Robert the Bruce’s rebellion against the English crown, was a natural pick for me.
- I like Chris Pine
- I love Scotland
- And I’m interested in Scottish history. I nearly wrote my very first history paper on William Wallace when I was 14, mainly because I had watched Braveheart a thousand times and read about some of the historical battles depicted there.
Unfortunately, while this movie did a lot of things well, it didn’t resonate with me the way I anticipated it would.
The film opens as Robert the Bruce and the Scottish nobles are surrendering and pledging fealty to England’s King Edward I in 1304.
Robert the Bruce, portrayed by Chris Pine, immediately comes off as a man of distinct honor, despite the brutal war his people have fought and lost. As a reward for his restored loyalty to the crown, Robert is given the hand of the king’s own goddaughter, Elizabeth de Burgh, played by Florence Pugh.
The relationship between Elizabeth and Robert is the best part of this movie. It begins icily. Although he treats her well, Robert does not trust his English wife to hear the private conversations between him and his brothers. But, once Robert sees how Elizabeth is taken with his daughter from his first marriage, he softens.
Pugh portrays Elizabeth with a fierce strength, assuring her husband that she is loyal to him, rather than the crown her placed her here. Their love quickly grows.
Around them, Scottish nobles are whispering to each other that they gave up too much in their fealty to King Edward. Two years pass, and Robert sees the riots that ensue when one of the quartered parts of William Wallace is brought into the city.
Robert’s distaste for the English quickly grows into hatred, and he decides he must fight back. He gathers as many nobles as possible, which is not many, and they declare him King of Scotland.
Again, Pine plays an honorable king who is well-loved by those who follow him, and a feared commander and warrior by those who do not. The English march north to face him.
On the eve of their first battle against, the English forces launch a surprise attack, decimating Robert’s army and separating him from his wife and daughter.
The rest of the movie plays out in a rather expected manner: Robert flees with his remaining allies, tries to find more but no one will follow a defeated man with a bounty on his head, and is enraged by the capture of his wife by the English and the death of more than one of his brothers at this hands of the English or the loyalist Scots.
Robert and his followers fight back by taking English-controlled Scottish castles one by one, using guerrilla tactics. This infuriates King Edward and draws more and more Scotsmen to Robert’s cause.
Finally, we come to the climactic battle of Loudoun Hill, where the outmatched Scottish forces lay giant stakes int eh ground to defeat the English cavalry.
What ensues is several minutes of unfettered brutality on screen. The purpose of this drawn out depiction is clearly to show the pure horror of medieval warfare. Bodies pile on top of each other, caked in mud and gore, until there is no ground for the living to stand on.
This scene is overdone with little emotional effect. It lasted about two minutes too long. The one feeling I had during much of the scene was… Enough! We get it.
The battle mercifully ends in a Scottish victory, and Robert is reunited with Elizabeth, which is the most emotive scene in the film.
A Flat Protagonist
I liked seeing Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce, the honorable king who was loved by his people and hated by his enemies. But that’s about all we got of Robert. Even his speech before the penultimate battle scene is less an inspiration and more a caution to the viewer of what they are about to see.
“…Today we are beasts. Whether you fight for God, for honor, for country, for family, for yourselves, I do not care, so long as you fight!”
This last word is roared in fury and bloodlust as Robert’s face reddens and spittle flings from his mouth. The soldiers around him do not chant or cheer; they echo his roar.
Robert the Bruce could easily be twisted into a mythical hero in a story like this. But I do not think that is the story this movie wanted to tell. I believe Outlaw King intended to depict merely a man fed up with his oppressors, and a war not for glory or honor, but for wrath and vengeance.
But in bringing Robert the Bruce down to the level of a beast, the film presented a character whose only visible flaw was that he sacrificed everything he had for this war, and that he hated the English.
I wanted Robert the Bruce to be a great character, but the film made him one-dimensional: a man capable of immense brutality to save his wife.
I enjoyed this movie for what it was. Seeing Chris Pine’s and Florence Pugh’s scenes together is well worth a repeat watch. But the non-climax is so heavy that it weighs the story down.
I wasn’t looking for a glorified depiction of war. We have too many of those as it is. But I at least wanted a character I could believe in. If Robert the Bruce’s flaw is his brutality, then the movie succeeded, but it’s not a success I want to linger in.