Outlaw King: Some Interesting Choices

Although I am not the biggest movie buff in the world, a sense of professional obligation led me to watch the recently released Netflix original ‘Outlaw King’. A film relating to Robert the Bruce, Anglo-Scottish warfare and late medieval views of war covers many of the topics that I get to teach at Winchester (e.g. the First English Empire to second year students, which is just about to get to Edward I, and a comparative study Chivalry which I teach to third year students). Outlaw King is by no means not be the best film ever made (though much better than its 1995 equivalent Braveheart) it did nevertheless throw up a few curiosities, which dovetail nicely with some lectures I am currently preparing. By this I’m not talking about some of the films inaccuracies (Edward II was never at the battle of Loudoun Hill for instance) but a few general perceptions of the period and those involved.

The most impressive thing about Bruce is that his propaganda definitely lives on, particularly the murder of John Comyn, an act that was almost certainly premeditated. Surviving Scottish chronicles for the murder were all written several decades later with the benefit of knowing Bruce’s eventual victory, but even these written in the Scotland of Bruce’s descendants were all, to varying extents, uneasy about the killing. Indeed, there are so many narratives from both England and Scotland for this murder that we will never know the intricacies of what happened at Greyfriars in Dumfries. This gave the filmmakers a great deal of discretion in how they portrayed the event. It is therefore interesting that the version they presented – Comyn treacherously threatening to inform Edward I of Bruce’s desires to usurp and Bruce stabbing him in a fit of rage – is very much a Bruce version of events. Indeed, the film is very good at portraying Bruce as a patriot looking to help his kingdom; not the head of a noble house with royal ancestry staking a claim to the throne, which is what Bruce’s actions must have looked like to contemporaries given his propensity to switch side in the decade or so before his Road to Damascus moment.

Edward II’s is also interesting, especially compared with the portrayal of him in Braveheart where he was portrayed as weak, somewhat effeminate, with many subtle hints about his sexuality that have not aged well over the past 23 years. The Edward II presented here is still unsure of himself but much more assertive and ill-tempered with no reference made to the king’s sexuality. Indeed, Edward II’s sexuality has been the source of speculation since his life. Again, whether Edward II was homosexual, bisexual or simply heterosexual but accused of homosexual desires simply as a way of further smearing his name (which is only found in chronicles in the three years following his death and then not again until the sixteenth century) is, once again, something unknowable and therefore gave the filmmakers some choices. They choose to avoid any comments on Edward II’s sexuality, giving the somewhat accurate portrayal of a bad-tempered, somewhat dislikeable individual, which certainly rings true of a man who twenty years later was deposed in a rebellion, in part headed by his estranged wife.

Another effective aspect of the film is the manner in which it conveys the very small-scale nature of much medieval warfare: the film’s climatic battle at Loudoun Hill was a small-scale affair and it was a brave decision to end here as opposed to leaping seven years forward to the more famous, and larger, battle of Bannockburn. Medieval warfare was rarely about such set piece battles and Bruce’s objective of winning small skirmishes, burning castles and waging a guerrilla war come across effectively. Similarly, the brutal punishment meted out to traitors is presented in all its gore in this film, particularly the rather horrific (if historically inaccurate) killing of Robert’s younger brother Neil at the hands of Edward II – not for the squeamish to watch. War is portrayed as brutal and the film cannot be accused of glorifying warfare and for that it should be praised.

One thing that did bug me a little, however, was the constant references to not fighting within the chivalric code. My assumption is that the scorched earth policies employed by both armies in the Wars of Independence is supposed to be presented as something that was alien to ideas of chivalry: the great theory of medieval warfare in which valiant opponents were offered the chance for honourable surrender in death. True, there was little evidence of this around this time, particularly in Edward I’s reactions to Bruce’s usurpation which was, even by Edward I’s high standards, and incredibly brutal affair. Yet, fourteenth-century kings and nobles were able to reconcile these ideals with the practicalities of waging war, particularly in relation to treason. The chivalric code allowed for such brutal as a means of punishing treason and rebellion, as rebels had forsaken the key chivalric duties. While we might view the way these wars were fought as being contrary to the chivalric code, I doubt contemporaries has such a distinction. Chivalry was simply too engrained in the worldview of the medieval nobility for any king or noble to say they were forgoing chivalry.

This was not the film I was expecting to see. It’s not the best film at introducing who all these characters are (I got lost a few times and I teach this topic!). I expected to see the standard over the top film culminating at Bannockburn, a story which forgets the fact that it took a further 14 years, and numerous brutal raids into the north of England, to achieve peace. Looking at only the year or so either side of Bruce seizing the crown was an interesting way to go, and presumably leaves scope to make a follow on depending on popularity.

In all, Outlaw King is a film worth watching that, if nothing else, made some interesting choices giving at least one historian something to think about.

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