From Braveheart to the Outlaw King

Braveheart – 1995

Director Mel Gibson
Screenplay Randall Wallace
Starring  Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan, Catherine McCormack, Brendan Gleeson, Peter Hanly, Angus Macfadyen, Brian Cox, Tommy Flanagan, James Cosmo, David O’Hara, Ian Bannen

Having thoroughly enjoyed Braveheart upon its release in 1995, I watched it once in the theaters and then bought it on videocassette where I watched it a few times more. I bought it again on DVD, but never watched. I bought it on Blu ray, where it sat in my collection for the last 10 years. Backlash of the press towards Mel Gibson had less to do with it as length and the fact that in a house filled with girls, a violent battle epic was never in the cards. 

The release of The Outlaw King gave me an excuse to finally break the cover of the Blu ray and watch the film. It feels fresh and focused. Mel Gibson had little idea that Hollywood was going to turn on him so vociferously and he made a film that reflects that. What seems bigoted to liberals and bold to conservatives was really just a method of storytelling in 1995. 

The film is a mixture of awkward romantic scenes and gloriously epic battles. The budding romance is almost embarrassing. The beautiful and delicate McCormack seems too young for Gibson, and indeed there was a 16 year difference between them. The interplay seems forced to the point of just being something of a means to an end. 

The battles, as grand as they are, seem small in comparison to the computer generated masses we are shown today. While the scale is harder to mask so many years later, it’s more effective seeing the smaller numbers. It seems there’s more at stake, and that these really were towns that rose up, not invisible armies that appear out of  a program.  

Fighting is the end everyone seeing this film desires. And in that, there is no disappointment. Gibson’s arrogant dedication to craft is a sight to behold even to this day. He knows how to stage battles big and small. 

Key to the success of these battles is the cadre of actors that he takes into battle. Gleeson, Cosmo, O’Hara and Flanagan are distinctive, feral, comedic and ferocious when needed. Gibson smartly gives them many opportunities to look good. This helps to compliment his stoic lead character, bringing cohesion to the disparate ground dwellers they portray. 

The English are given their due as the great enemy oppressor of the good. As one of Irish descent, I always welcome the sight of England as the bad guys. McGoohan plays deliciously against type as a cruel Longshanks. We want our English bad guy Kings to be old an heartless, like we picture England of the colonial era.

Macfadyen is layered with guilt and consternation as Robert the Bruce, The question of whether he ever straight up betrayed Wallace gives way to dramatic tension in seeing how his switching sides affects them both. The pace changes from field battles to guerrilla warfare at the juncture of the Battle of Falkirk. Gibson smartly gives Robert the chance to move out of the role of villain The force of that villainy attributed to his ailing father, played with wizened pragmatism by Bannen. 

Is this a true Best Picture Oscar winner? Out of the class of the 68th annual awards, only Apollo 13 is a better film. Babe is damn close though. It holds up well enough if one discounts the politics behind its derision in the years since its release. The history of the film is as spotty as most historical epics. The accuracy of events gives way to the dramatics of the story. The acting is not precise or spectacular, and that hurts. It lacks subtlety, but since when are epics subtle?

At this point, the characteristics that stand out most for the film are its cinematography, makeup, score and, yes its direction. The spirit of the film is as strong as Mel Gibson’s and that is saying something. 

While not a perfect film, it is worthy as an epic that deserves recognition. 

(**** out of *****)

Outlaw King – 2018

Director David Mackenzie
Screenplay David Mackenzie, Bathsheba Doran, James MacInnes, Mark Bomback, David Harrower
Starring Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh, Billy Howle, Tony Curran, Callan Mulvey, Stephen Dillane, James Cosmo, Callan Mulvey

Extending the story of Robert the Bruce (Pine), Outlaw King is a steady and unspectacular story. The costumes are decent, except for some bad hair pieces here and there. The battle scenes are actually pretty intense. The acting is good, for the most part. Pugh building on a good performance in Malevolent, is excellent. 

The story starts with the acquiescence of the Scottish nobility to Longshanks (Dillane). Edward I is a longtime friend of Robert The Bruce’s father (Como, who played Gleeson’s warrior father in Braveheart). Their bond lands the son a favorable marriage to Elizabeth de Burgh (Pugh). The wedding is his second, as his first wife died during childbirth. 

The chemistry between Pine and Pugh feels authentic. They have an unhurried ease about their courtship reflected in their kindness towards one another. Elizabeth shares a similar friendship with her step daughter. This trio of relationships is one of the highlights of the film.

Another aspect of the film that works is the decision to show some warts in the decisions of Bruce’s story. The primary example is the decision to show the murder of John Comyn (Mulvey). While Comyn is shown as contentious, he is not shown as a complete tool. The tension between each is real and both have legitimate claims they’re being driven to pursue.

Overall the feeling is one of muddy grime while watching Outlaw King. Every things seems cold and unclean. I suppose that it’s close to the reality of the time. There hair and makeup doesn’t do much to bring reality to the proceedings.

One of the characters spends a significant amount of time outside in a hanging cage. After some time the person is released. They look as healthy as ever. 

There is little to expect, character wise as the story proceeds. The rebels attack and the stiff English military loses. How they win in the big battle is hard to figure. So much mud,blood and guts.  By the last, the viewer is worn down and just glad its over. 

The middling success of the film is not due to any of the actors. Outside of the thankless soldiering done by Edward II’s Howle the performances are all solid.

This time Longshank’s son is moved from being soft and lazy to a viciously poor warrior. The trade still amounts to caricatures, but at least this time he can swing a sword on the battlefield. It shouldn’t be this hard to pull off a sinister offspring, but the five screenwriters could not figure it out.

In contrast, one could surmise that Dillane’s Edward I is presented more realistically than McGoohan’s. This time he’s a man who just wants Scotland to sit and behave as he fades into the sunset. 

Outlaw King will not be considered an equal bookend to Braveheart’s first part of the story of the Scottish Rebellion, but it should not be considered a failure by Mackenzie. The history presented is debatable, but it’s close enough to warrant some nice scenes and a series of muddy battles.

(*** out of *****)

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