The new Netflix film Outlaw King – about Robert the Bruce – looks set to finally give Scotland a film about its real past, rather than perpetuating the myths of Brigadoon, Rob Roy and Braveheart, writes Alistair Heather.
What a time it is for a film about a successful, bloody battle for Scottish independence.
Outlaw King announces itself into a precipice-of-Brexit Scotland, where towns and cities are aflurry with thousand-saltire marches in support for a second independence referendum. It’s easy to imagine the film landing in the midst of all the current rancour and being blown to pieces in the crossfire.
But what is exciting about the film is not its potential to tip the independence movement over the elusive 50 per cent support mark, nor to salve the bitterness that lingers in some quarters over Scotland’s perceived injustices at English hands. Rather, the film promises to mark the end of a long, damaging tradition of misrepresenting Scottish history on screen.
Scotland’s past has been used by directors as material for impressionistic collages. A kilt here, a mournful glen there, a noble swordsman angered and a chaste lady wronged.
The tartanry and kailyard schools of Scottish representation, which leaked out of the works of Walter Scott and J M Barrie, were taken at face value in Hollywood and Ealing Studios, and this refracted, misunderstood impression of Scotland was transmitted out at the wider world, to many in Scotland’s horror.
A Scottish film critic in 1945 bemoaned the proliferation of nonsense depictions of Scotland in cinema, with productions bringing “acute discomfort to the Scotsman”. You can only imagine the same critic’s acute discomfort when Brigadoon was released a few years later.
A Broadway musical adapted for the screen, Brigadoon saw a dashing Gene Kelly stot around the Highlands before stumbling across a magical village, where the locals danced and sang their way through the day. With its genuinely hilarious attempts at Scottish accents and wild representation of an oddly camp, technicolour Gaeltachd, it could easily be dismissed as a bit of late-40s fun. However, its comedic tartanry pariochialised the Scottish past, made a laughing stock of Scotland, and helped establish the recurring trope of the crabbit, grippit Hielan mannie in international cinema. Scotland’s past was presented as another world.
Neither Scotland nor Scots folk had the budget or infrastructure to challenge these images, or provide them with context. Shorn of a way to represent ourselves, we instead were left to build a modern identity, and an understanding of our past from the scraps of tartan and slivers of Scots that appeared in these films. And the films just kept coming.
Through Whisky Galore we learned that we were sneaky and comic. Highlander taught us that our ancestors were superstitious peasants. Through Rob Roy we learned that Jacobites and Reivers were basically romantic cowboys. You can recognise the Scottish Cringe in every one of these films.
Then along came Braveheart.
This earthquake of a film has aftershocks resounding to this day. For many, Braveheart was a moment of crystallisation, a realisation that Scotland had been denied its own history. Far from being a bunch of shortbread-munching whisky burglars, we were in fact bold freedom fighters, rising against and battering both the English and our own corrupt aristocracy. SNP numbers raced upwards, the Yes vote skooshed the 1997 Devolution by over 70 per cent.
But, for others, Braveheart was another criminal misrepresentation of Scottish history. Indeed, the internet groans under the weight of buzzfeed lists ‘debunking’ the film. Scots didnae wear kilts in thae days, Scots didnae paint their faces blue, Scots wernae wee guys fae Australia. On and on.
The real issue with Braveheart and these other films is that they were not made to address a Scottish audience on the subject of Scottish history, but rather to entertain an American or English one with a love story, a comedy, or a good-versus-evil fable. But, being the megabudget releases they were, they became a key battleground in the debate around Scottish history and identity.
And so at last to the Outlaw King. Can it add something meaningful to our understanding of ourselves? Or is it yet another damaging piece of historical appropriation, set to further divorce us from what’s come before?
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Reading the tea leaves, the signs are promising. For a start, the director is a Scot with a strong track record. David Mackenzie was educated at Duncan of Jordanstone in Dundee and has gone on to produce several films set in Scotland. The screenwriter is Scottish and all principal filming was conducted here. Also, the images leaking out of the Outlaw King camp show a devout attachment to historical accuracy in dress, in comportment and in armament. Mel Gibson’s shaved chest and bulging biceps have no echo here.
The English don’t seem so effete in this one. This may seem trivial, but in Rob Roy, Braveheart and elsewhere the English were turned into hall-of-mirrors freakshow baddies with a penchant for homosexuality (portrayed as bad), whilst the Scots were all sturdily hetero and honest to a fault. The indication that the English might actually get a fair hearing as humans suggests that we can hold out hope for a less inflammatory depiction of Scotto-English relations.
Vitally, the Scottish champion in this film is not some landless tearaway like Wallace, or a pauchle of dodgy islanders sneaking away whisky illegally, or a makie-uppie clachan of magical kilt wearers, but a bona-fide historical character, legitimate claimant to the Scottish throne and born leader.
What’s more, Bruce was a winner. He was no honest, scrupulous gentle knight that would sooner lose than cheat. Bruce bobbed from side to side, left Wallace to be emasculated and burnt in London, then when finally he did break cover he lived as a brigadier in his own kingdom, fighting a guerrilla war against the English whilst murdering scores of Scots that would not support him.
Finally, the film seems to be addressed at us, rather than merely being about us. Whilst it will be released worldwide through the streaming site Netflix, in Scotland we’ll get a real release in bricks-and-mortar cinemas. So whilst its international impact will surely be less than that of Braveheart, it has the potential to be powerfully influential here.
Whatever tale the Outlaw King is about to tell us about our own history, one thing is sure. Scottish history on screen will be changed for good.