David MacKenzie’s historical epic Outlaw King, starring Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce, premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival to mostly mixed reviews. The Netflix exclusive was perceived pre-premiere as a turning point for the streaming service, a legitimate blockbuster of sorts that could conceivably compete with what the traditional studio system was offering. Then again, they had said the same thing about Bright. Outlaw King is obviously a far better movie than Bright but it didn’t receive the kind of reviews Netflix were hoping for. For what it’s worth, I thoroughly enjoyed the film when I saw it at TIFF, although I certainly felt that it suffered from a rushed nature that left its complex history reduced to bite-sized chunks. If anything, I felt the film could have benefitted from being longer, or even expanded to a mini-series that went full-on Game of Thrones in its retelling of the First War of Scottish independence.
However, it didn’t surprise me to hear that MacKenzie had decided to cut 20 minutes from the film before it debuted on Netflix last week. this is a costly investment for the platform and they want to get the most from it. It seems to have worked from a purely critical point-of-view, with publications like IndieWire calling the shortened film an improvement from the cut that screened at TIFF. The vast majority of viewers won’t know the difference anyway, unless Netflix decide to release an uncut version at some point in the future (and really, isn’t that the kind of thing Netflix would be perfect for?) For me, the new cut removes much of what made that original version so interesting to me. The relationship between Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh (played by the always impeccable Florence Pugh) is downplayed to the point where you don’t feel the chemistry at all. Bruce’s anger at the English is greatly softened, making him a less dynamic protagonist when he does finally decide to fight back. One battle is removed and the pacing is quicker, which will probably make for an easier lazy viewing from your couch on a Saturday night. It’s not a mess of a cut - this is no Harvey Scissorhands situation - but Outlaw King worked so well with that breathing room it now lacks.
But there’s one scene that has been removed, whose absence I believe to be utterly detrimental to Outlaw King. Early on in the film, Bruce goes on a hunting trip with his now English comrades, including the entirely bratty Edward II (Billy Howle). They have been informed that the remaining dregs of the Scottish rebels are somewhere in the woods. Robert stumbles upon them, and the group includes the legendary William Wallace. After a brief altercation, where Wallace essentially calls Bruce a coward and traitor, Bruce helps them to escape. Later on, Wallace’s death is revealed when one of his severed legs is put on display as a warning sign to the Scots to stay in line.
From a historical point-of-view, I get why this scene was cut. This incident definitely didn’t happen and it’s usually the sort of cloying faux coincidence that I abhor in historical dramas and biopics. I’m already dreading watching the new Mary Queen of Scots film for that scene in the trailer where the suddenly Scottish accented Mary tries to go full sisterhood on Queenie. Such moments are not only lazy history but bad for storytelling.
But I greatly feel the loss of that Wallace scene in Outlaw King. It is the phantom limb I cannot shake. It was a moment the story needed but it was also something that cinematic Scottishness has needed for a very long time.
Historical and cultural depictions of Wallace are near legendary in their description of his size. Walter Bower, a chronicler of the period, described him as ‘a tall man with the body of a giant … with lengthy flanks … broad in the hips, with strong arms and legs … with all his limbs very strong and firm.’ Blind Harry, the author of the lengthy poem The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace, described him as being seven feet tall. Granted, that story was written over 170 years after Wallace’s death and is considered more a historical novel than anything else, but it’s still the image that has endured throughout the centuries.
In the film, Wallace is shown to be a desperate man, the last of the dregs of rebels who have worked endlessly to take on the English forces when even the Scottish nobility have bowed to their King. In exchange for their loyalty, they have their lands back but their freedom is on an extremely short leash, something Bruce is keenly aware of (or at least more so in the original cut). The Wallace that Bruce meets is thin, his beard is wild and muddy, and he has the eyes of a man clinging to a cause that has long lost its power. This Wallace is in many ways the anti-Wallace of Scottish history and culture. He looks like Pine, himself a tall man, could knock him over with a sharp breath. There is no dignity in this Wallace, a man who seems more animal than human at this late point in his life. He does not fight; he runs. What else can he do? And we know he cannot run forever.
Depressingly, the most prominent cultural image we - both in Scotland and around the world - have of William Wallace is the one directed and performed by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. The film itself is its own mess of stereotypes, clichés and manifestations of Gibson’s extremely messy id, but his Wallace is also just a little too perfect. Never-mind the height difference, this Wallace is rousing and violent but strong to the end and such a virile romantic specimen. It’s a great selling point for tourists and worked wonders with international audiences, but it’s another example of overwrought tartanry that Scottish culture never really needed.
David MacKenzie seemed hyper-aware that any film he made of Robert the Bruce or that period of Scottish history would be in the shadow of Braveheart, even though he’s actually Scottish and so is one of the film’s writers, playwright David Harrower. The image of Scotland’s history is so indelibly defined by Hollywood that trying to change course in any way feels like a futile gesture. Why deviate from the noble savagery and kilted wonders when it sells more castle tours and tea towels? Outlaw King is by no means the anti-Braveheart in terms of how it defines this history, but it does shake off much of the iconography. The battles are bloodier and not as celebratory (no mooning here). The Scottish nobles are selfish backstabbers. There’s a relieving lack of faux-Celtic music to score every emotional beat. And William Wallace is a starving desperate man whose need to live is more motivational than his desire to fight. He doesn’t die to a cry of ‘Freedom’. All we see is the leg that distresses a nation.
Outlaw King served best as a reclamation of Scottishness from the sheen of Hollywood. The cut on Netflix you can view now is not as strong but it is still sharp in its rejection of such imagery. Still, it would have packed a better punch had everyone gotten to see Bruce meet Wallace. The two great heroes of early Scotland have been softened enough by entertainment. They could have used this edge.
Header Image Source: Netflix