Outlaw King—an anti-Braveheart?

A few weeks ago, the trailer for Outlaw King, a new film distributed by Netflix, dropped online. Somehow I had never even heard of this project until the trailer hit, and while my first impression was that this would be another one of those low-budget, direct-to-Netflix releases with a cool poster and not a lot of substance, actually watching the trailer completely upended that assumption.

Outlaw King tells the story of Robert the Bruce and his bloody quest to unite Scotland into a single kingdom under his rule. As I summarized in my Historical Movie Monday post about Braveheart, by the time Outlaw King begins in 1304, Scotland had been in political chaos for thirty years. The death of a king with no direct heir, the death of the best potential heir to the throne on her journey back from Norway, and the interference of England’s King Edward I as a (at first) neutral arbiter spawned the anarchy and wars depicted so memorably (and inaccurately) in Braveheart. Robert spends this film reducing castles and strongholds one by one to secure his rightful rule and, in the climactic battle, fights the English at Loudon Hill, a small but important Scottish victory that came just before Edward’s death.

The cast looks great. Chris Pine is an unexpected choice for such a role, but based on early reviews he acquits himself admirably. Stephen Dillane, whose cunning gravitas has been exploited to good effect by HBO several times (as Thomas Jefferson in John Adams, which I’ve seen, and as Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones, which I haven’t) looks like a wonderfully ruthless Edward. The cast is also full of great faces like James Cosmo, who played Hamish’s father in Braveheart, Tony Curran, and Sam Spruell.

Netflix will release Outlaw King both streaming and in theaters. Some see this is as a bid for prestige and a place at the Oscars table. I don’t know about that, but I’m glad we’ll be able to see this in theatres, as this kind of film—with its sweeping landscapes, sumptuous costumes, widescreen cinematography, and large-scale battle scenes—needs to be seen on the big screen. Imagine streaming Lawrence of Arabia on your phone. Blech.

But these aren’t the primary reasons I’m excited. As my post on Braveheart probably makes clear, medievalists and historians have a love-hate relationship with that film. We love it for all the things I just listed in describing Outlaw King, but we hate the liberties it takes with the past—from small stuff like the Scots wearing kilts centuries too soon or the use of woad centuries too late, to big things like the early death of Edward I or Wallace’s completely fictional sack of York. As you can imagine, the Scots—real, present day Scots, not tenth-generation Appalachians who think of themselves as Scottish—feel a similar ambivalence. Great movie, terrible history, and, unfortunately, that movie is how a lot of people perceive the history.

So it looks to me like Outlaw King is positioning itself to be the anti-Braveheart, a movie more rigorously dedicated to the past as the past, taking liberties and streamlining when necessary for the purposes of the medium. The fact that it restricts its story to a span of about three years also helps.

Here are two early responses to the trailer from people who seem to know their stuff. This video essayist points out that the clothing and weapons are pretty much spot-on for the era as opposed to Braveheart’s medieval Mad Max aesthetic. He includes some addenda in his comments. This video essayist, despite advertising his video as “Crimes Against Medieval Realism,” doesn’t say much more critical than that a castle’s crenelations are too small for the period and that the movie bows to the temptation to include a fiery arrow scene. Both videos point out some minor problems, but both end on positive, hopeful notes about the authenticity of the film. And to me, the fact that the biggest problems we can spot in the trailer are unthatched roofs, unwhitewashed castle walls, and minor anachronisms of gear or dress are positive signs compared to a lot of the problems in other medieval films.

Finally, here’s the Outlaw King review from Medievalists.net. You can read the full review there, but I wanted to pull out this excerpt specifically:

The strength of the film in its retelling of history is that it allows for the tangle of relationships between families, clans, and the aristocracy that made the Anglo-Scottish wars so complex. The characters (as the real historical people) are caught in a vast web of conflicting loyalties, which makes anything as simple as “unite the clans” a Herculean task. No one’s duty is clear cut . . . There is space made in the dialogue to allow for these relationships to be uncovered, which gives the audience a clearer picture of how difficult Robert’s task to bring Scotland together under one crown really is.

That—“allow[ing] for the tangle of relationships between families, clans, and the aristocracy”—is a tall order. A lot of movies fail at it, because, like or not, the relatively slow pace at which information is conveyed visually in a film does not easily allow for great complexity. Even good historical films, like Valkyrie, one of my favorites, have a streamline a lot. The art lies in balancing streamlining with the suggestion of complexity. And that’s an essentially historical act. As Herbert Butterfield put it, “The historian is never more himself than when he is searching his mind for a general statement that shall in itself give the hint of its own underlying complexity.” That Medievalists.net highlights this as a strength of Outlaw King makes me hopeful.

If Outlaw King can give us a good movie, like Braveheart, but approach the film’s history with a care for accuracy, authenticity, and real-life complexity, it will give medievalist film buffs what we’ve never had before—a movie of our own!