REVIEW of Outlaw King (Netflix Film)

Outlaw KingThe Scottish rebellion has failed. William Wallace is in hiding, and Robert the Bruce watches in helpless acquiescence as his father and the other Scottish nobles make peace with their English enemy King Edward. Forced to marry Elizabeth de Burgh, daughter of an English nobleman, Robert watches in stony despair as his country endures further indignities under the iron boot of Edward I.

After his father’s passing, Robert becomes head of the family and his own man. The death, dismemberment, and display of William Wallace provokes public outrage, and Robert makes the difficult decision to break his sacred oath to Edward and re-ignite the uprising. To do this, he needs to ally with his Scottish rival, John Comyn, but Comyn would rather live under the yoke of English slavery than allow the Bruce family any chance at kingship. Afraid of being betrayed to Edward, Robert murders Comyn inside a church, provoking the outrage of countrymen and foreigners alike. Some of the nobles rally to his side, however, and the man who has never before won a battle must match his mettle against the implacable dragon banner of England and the unhinged brutality of the Prince of Wales.

This movie was an interesting and problematic take on the life of the famous Bruce. Although they say that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I must admit I waged a difficult internal war to not judge actor Chris Pine by his medieval-style mullet. His character seemed a mis-casting, and throughout the movie, it was hard to discern what his real motivations were for fighting. Freedom? Maybe. To be king? I suppose. This confusion was not well-painted enough to be intentional, however, and it felt like the screenwriter didn’t really know (or care) what Bruce’s convictions should be.

The relationship between Elizabeth de Burgh and the Robert is…disturbing. In real life, they were probably about ten years apart in age, with Elizabeth being 18 at the wedding and Robert being 28. In the movie, Elizabeth looks to be about age 15 with Robert looking like he’s pushing 40 (actor Chris Pine is 38 years old). The eventual consummation of their marriage is displayed in far too graphic detail. (Memo to self: next time a movie starring Chris Pine mentions nudity in the rating details, run far, run fast….) Edward’s subsequent imprisonment of Elizabeth in a wooden cage hung from the wall of a castle was accurate, however, and as a movie character, Elizabeth was the most interesting of the whole bunch.

While the famous story of Bruce and the spider was not told, I did appreciate the nod to it with the cinematic depiction of a painstakingly woven spiderweb just before the Battle of Londoun commences. This appreciation was swiftly forgotten, however, as the single greatest letdown in the movie was Robert’s “pep talk” before the battle. One can only assume that the movie producers were trying to avoid too much similarity to the movie Braveheart. Rather than shouting Wallace’s battle cry of freedom, Bruce informs his men that he doesn’t much care why they’re fighting as long as they fight like beasts. His soulless speech makes the deranged Prince of Wales’ rallying words to his men (“We fight against a godless murderer!”) sound like epic poetry. All in all, this modern interpretation of heroism falls flat in many ways, providing an eminently forgettable version of the Bruce’s life.

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  1. I actually sort of appreciated the complexity of Bruce’s character. and the unclear motives for his claiming the throne, because I think that reflects historical truth.

    Bruce was a complex man, and he was not fighting purely for ‘freedom’ (I wonder if any of them were) he was driven to action mostly through what happened with John Comyn.
    I also felt it did a good job portraying the conflict between Bruce and some of the Scottish clans.

    I didn’t care for some of the battle scenes though, especially those involving James Douglas, who came over as psychopathic: slaughtering men in a church and throwing prisoners down a well whilst being courteous to French captors, and the ambiguity of the Loudon Hill battle.
    Edward was not actually there.

    I think myself they had a hard job striking a balance between historical accuracy the moral ambiguity we often see in the past, and just being a movie about ‘freedom’, a la Braveheart. Which was atrociously inaccurate and Nationalistic.
    I liked the fact that there were no kilts or blue face paint in sight, and that it tried harder to be accurate, but I’m not sure that would go down well with everyone.

    1. Interesting perspective! I think that you’re right about moral ambiguity in a lot of people viewed as “heroes.” The episode with Bruce killing Comyn is a morally conflicting one. I just don’t think it was particulalrly thoughtfully presented–if the goal is to highlight the moral ambiguity, then do that! It just felt like a bunch of mostly historical stuff was dumped on the screen without the ability to craft a *story.* I know that, for you, historical accuracy is always paramount, but Braveheart is unquestionably, a better story than Outlaw King. My two cents…. 🙂

      1. Bruce really did kill Comyn though. That at least actually happened, it wasn’t just a plot device and therein lies the problem.

        Braveheart is a good story in the purely cinematic sense, since in appeals to the emotions, and portrays a romanticized version of events with a hero who is almost too good to be true. On some level, its like a work of Fantasy in its reduction of historical peoples and conflicts to absolutely simple ‘black and white, good and evil’ terms.

        On the same level, its easy to see Bruce as a ‘hero’ after the order of Wallace if we ignore or know nothing about the bad things he did.
        The thought of Wallace having a belt made of a man’s skin (as was reported) and attacking peasants tarnishes the image of shining goodness somewhat.

        As I understand it, the Director of ‘The Outlaw King’ is a Scotsman, but he intentionally did not want the movie to be too much like Braveheart. One of the reasons for that was because the latter stirred up so much unpleasant nationalistic sentiment, and may have been a direct influence on certain political parties in the UK today.

        As C.S.Lewis once said, we all need heroes. They’re just not as heroic as we think when we really start to examine their lives in detail. I personally still admire Bruce on many levels despite knowing about the bad things he did, and see him as a flawed human being: but that doesn’t always work well for the storyteller.

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