David Mackenzie’s and Chris Pine’s Second Team-Up Works Almost As Well As Their First.

Directed by David Mackenzie / 2018

David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King opens with an impressively long take, beginning with a closeup of a single candle, then pulling back to let us see Scottish lords swearing fealty to King Edward I (Stephen Dillane, Game of ThronesStannis Baratheon). Among them is Robert Bruce, who is played wonderfully by Chris Pine (Star Trek, Wonder Woman). The take continues as we follow Robert out of the King’s tent, where he is challenged to a mock sword fight by Edward II, the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle, Dunkirk). The two spar for a bit, but Prince Edward is summoned back inside the tent by his father. The camera follows him back in and then he and the king leave to watch a giant trebuchet launch balls full of Greek fire at a Scottish castle. It’s only after this that we cut to the next scene, but not before the camera comes to rest on Robert’s face, as he watches the king fire the projectiles wondering perhaps if he and the other lords may have made a mistake. The opening scene sets up everything that happens in the movie to come- Robert’s marriage, arranged to preserve the peace, Robert’s rivalry with Prince Edward, which will grow in mutual animosity over the course of the film, and Robert’s rivalry with John Comyn (Callan Mulvey)  for the crown of Scotland. All done in one long, unbroken take that runs for close to 10 minutes.

It’s a showy, but still splendid bit of filmmaking from Mackenzie, who also directed Pine in the marvelous Hell or High Water- a movie about a completely different kind of outlaw. Hell or High Water’s Texas setting might seem a departure for Scottish director Mackenzie, but the movie shares strong thematic elements with Outlaw King. Both films take the side of the underdog who is hounded by the powers that be as they battle for what  most to them both- home. In Hell or High Water Pine’s character robbed banks with his brother in order to get enough money to pay off the bank that held the mortgage on his family’s home. In Outlaw King Robert Bruce fights a guerilla war against the English in order to drive them from his home land, and gain Scottish independence.

Robert doesn’t begin his rebellion until he sees the Scottish people riot at the news of the death of popular freedom fighter William Wallace (more on him later). The other lords believe that the Scots are sick of war and fighting, but Robert has seen differently. He thinks that if the lords would just unite, they could take on England and win. He might be right, but no one else is willing to join his fight. Robert’s chances are dealt a further blow when his army’s camp is attacked in the middle of the night  by English forces. He’s left with just 40 men, and he’s facing one of the best equipped and trained armies on Earth at the time. Clearly, he’s not going to win by fighting fair. Robert and his men use cunning and guile to seize English-held castles and, since everyone loves a winner, begins to win more nobles over to his cause.

It’s a showy, but still splendid bit of filmmaking from Mackenzie

The movie’s cinematography and art direction are top-notch. The film looks suitably medieval- something which modern depictions of this time period seem to have problems with (I’m looking at you King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and the upcoming Robin Hood movie). There are plenty of blood and guts as befits a movie about men stabbing each other with sharp objects. The Battle of Methven, where Robert’s army is defeated in a nighttime raid, is a fantastic sequence- hundreds of flaming arrows arc through the night sky providing a grim illumination as the English slaughter the surprised Scots. The final battle at Loudoun Hill, on the other hand, goes on for far too long, and has too much shaky cam and unclear action to be a rousing action sequence. I do have to wonder how many men were accidently killed by their own side during such melees. It’s not long into the fight before everyone is covered in mud and blood, and it’s really hard to tell anybody apart.

Students of history will know how Outlaw King turns out for King Robert, even if the film compresses, re-arranges and outright makes up some events. It treats the outcome of the film’s final battle as more definitive than it was in life. But all of that’s okay, since this is a movie and not a history lesson. And compared to Braveheart’s treatment of history, Outlaw King is practically a critical historical treatise.

Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning epic casts a long shadow over Outlaw King. Comparisons between the two are natural. The two films cover the same period of history- The First War for Scottish Independence- and Robert the Bruce was an important secondary character in Braveheart. In that film, of course, everything Robert does is either directed by or heavily inspired by Wallace. In Outlaw King William Wallace never appears (whole, at least) in Mackenzie’s film, but throughout the first act everyone seems to be talking about him. “Wallace isn’t a man,” one character says, “He’s a dangerous idea.” Still, Robert is more inspired by the same dangerous ideas that drove Wallace to fight rather than the man himself.