“In the year of our Lord 1314, patriots of Scotland charged the fields of Bannockburn. They fought like warrior poets. They fought like Scotsman. And won their freedom.”
So says Mel Gibson in his best William Wallace voice at the end of Braveheart. These are, in fact, the final words you hear in the film, delivered via voice-over as a collection of pale-skinned, bearded dudes in plaid kilts charge toward the screen with a righteous, bloodthirsty look in their eyes. Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen), Wallace’s guilt-stricken betrayer, has successfully taken up the dead freedom-fighter’s cause and rallied the Scottish to take down the English. Say it with me now: Freeeeeeeeeedom!
In Braveheart, this particular part of the Scottish fight for independence is condensed into a 3-minute coda. Now, Netflix, Hell or High Water writer-director David Mackenzie and Chris Pine are here to give it the feature-length treatment with The Outlaw King.
Braveheart, after all, is one of the most historically inaccurate movies ever made. Isn’t it high time the film universe was balanced and the actual historical figure who was called Braveheart in his day – Robert the Bruce, not William Wallace – gets a faithful re-telling of his decade-long fight against tyranny? Sure, but did it have to be so dull?
That’s a strange thing to say about The Outlaw King, a film which includes multiple large-scale battle scenes any of Game of Thrones episode would be proud to call its own. It’s hard to be dull, after all, when there’s so much viscera on display. However, Outlaw King famously crashed and burned at its Toronto Film Festival debut earlier this year, sending Mackenzie into a panic to shave over 20 minutes off the film and improve the pacing. I wasn’t there in Toronto to see the original version of the film, but what’s on Netflix right now feels very much like a project which simply defeated its director. That’s not to say Outlaw King is a total failure; it just seems like a rather dutiful medieval history movie forever in search of a compelling story.
You won’t pick up on any of that at first. Indeed, Outlaw King begins much like Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water with an enthralling long-take dropping us right into the universe:
It’s 1304. There’s been an ill-defined skirmish with the English and the Scots clearly lost. The rival families, one notably led by Robert the Bruce (a seriously understated Pine), with equal claim to the Scottish throne are bending a knee to England’s King Edward Longshanks (Stephen Dillane). Peace, at long last, has arrived. True freedom, on the other hand, will have to wait another day. The King’s son (Billy Howle) seems especially intent on putting Robert and his brethren in their place, engaging in a not-so-friendly sword sparring session which threatens to turn fatal at any second.
That’s what ultimately bookends the film. We meet Robert sparring with Edward, Prince of Wales, and we will end with them sparring for real on the battlefield except by that point they will both have been crowned kings of their land. What happens in-between is a condensed version of just about 3 years of Robert’s war against the English, begun in earnest when the off-screen assassination of William Wallace riles the locals. Spoiler: we never even come close to making it to Bannockburn, giving the film a slightly incomplete feel.
What works best, however, is actually something quite far away from the battles. Lady Macbeth’s Florence Pugh co-stars as Robert’s remarkably feisty second wife, promised to him since a Scottish king needs a queen and his first wife died, making him a single father. The two don’t even consummate the relationship on the night of their arranged marriage, as Robert is unwilling to force that on her. Instead, they fall in love gradually and are brought closer together by the looming war, giving him something extra to fight for.
Braveheart, of course, uses William Wallace’s wife as the plot’s inciting incident, nevermind he never had a wife, especially not one tragically murdered by the English. The Outlaw King holds itself to a higher historical standard. Mackenzie felt obliged to do so as Scotsman himself but also as someone aware of the political winds of the moment, telling IndieWire, “[Braveheart]’s got much more of a rabble-rousing, ‘rah rah’ kind of tone, and — in this day and age — I just don’t feel it’s appropriate to be making that type of movie, to be honest. The forces of nationalism are expanding across the world, and I think one has to be very careful about that… even though I’m telling a true story about a national hero, I don’t want Outlaw King to be taken too literally as a rallying call.”
An admirable sentiment, one which explains why Outlaw King is completely stripped of any overt jingoism. However, if a movie about a fight for independence is not willing to lean too hard into the exact reason why the fight is happening – it seems to start mostly just because Robert notices how pissed the villagers are when Wallace is executed – then what we’re mostly left with is a procession of historical recreations.
Still, it’s enjoyable watching Robert overcome overwhelming odds (at one early point in the story his army is reduced to just 50 men), surprise the English with guerilla warfare, and ultimately, at long last, rally the different, often horribly stubborn clans to form his resistance force. The movie is called Outlaw King for good reason; Robert spends much of the running time fleeing not just the English but also his own people as well, many of whom don’t recognize his claim to the throne. Seeing him win them over with his words and repeatedly brave actions is certainly entertaining. But there’s far too little “why” here, other than Robert’s desire to be reunited with his wife and child, both of whom are taken hostage by the enemy.
Perhaps that’s entirely fitting. Braveheart, in blatant disregard for historical fact, went out of his way to bend William Wallace’s story into an easily digestible, rabble-rousing Hollywood epic with crystal clear, black and white character motivations – those bastards killed his wife! – and typical Mel Gibson Jesus imagery. The Outlaw King challenges itself to be more faithful to history, maybe too faithful, though, and less willing to have an actual viewpoint on the story. For better or worse, that makes it the perfect counterpoint to Braveheart. The film universe has now been balanced.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A dutiful medieval history lesson forever in search of a narrative throughline, elevated by excellent battle sequences and another star turn from Florence Pugh. The reteaming of Pine and Mackenzie after Hell or High Water and reported $120m budget fronted by Netflix certainly promised better things than this.