This Netflix film praised for its historical accuracy is missing that essential ingredient to make it great.
Robert the Bruce’s fourteenth-century rebellion against England is cinematically recounted in this Netflix feature that tries to cram as much history as possible in 121 minutes. Directed by David Mackenzie, Outlaw King (2018) brings to life all the intrigue and violence of late medieval feudalism. Though the film comes across as authentic and makes a genuine effort to get the history right, it lacks some essential ingredients to break into the top tier.
As the film opens, the defeated Scottish lords are vowing fealty to King Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane), including Robert Bruce (Chris Pine), Lord John III Comyn (Callan Mulvey), and Aymer de Valence (Sam Spruell). Robert has history with King Edward I’s son, Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), a weaker man who just wants his father’s approval. As a parting gift, King Edward I sends his goddaughter, Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), to become Robert’s wife.
Things get complicated when Robert’s father dies, and Robert is left competing with Lord Comyn for the Scottish throne. When Robert learns King Edward I executed William Wallace, he senses an opportunity to renew the rebellion. Lord Comyn wants to remain loyal to England, so Robert brutally murders him in a church and then gathers an army. Unfortunately, Aymer de Valence has also remained loyal to England, ambushes Robert’s army in a forest, and destroys it.
Robert and a few companions are forced to flee. He sends his wife and daughter into hiding, where Edward, Prince of Wales captures them and brutally murders Robert’s brother. Robert decides to fight a guerilla war, culminating in the Battle of Loudoun Hill, where Robert uses the boggy terrain and clever tactics to his advantage. He defeats the English army and humiliates the Prince of Wales, who is revealed to be a miserable coward. Robert and Elizabeth are reunited and live happily ever after.
Historically, Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) was king of Scotland from 1306 to 1329. In the 1290s, King Edward I of England took advantage of a power vacuum in Scotland to claim the throne. Sir William Wallace led a rebellion until his defeat and eventual capture in 1305. Edward I had Wallace hanged, drawn, and quartered. Robert the Bruce (Earl of Carrick) and John Comyn (Lord of Badenoch) were appointed joint Guardians of Scotland after Wallace’s death, but Robert murdered Comyn and claimed the Scottish throne for himself. He led a second rebellion against England, this one ultimately successful.
Despite a few flaws, critics have raved about this film’s historical accuracy, at least in comparison to its predecessors. The weapons, clothes and uniforms, traditions, and events depicted are as authentic as can be expected, from “raising the dragon” to being married under a sheet, to Elizabeth being suspended in a cage and Robert the Bruce murdering his rival in a church (although a companion actually finished him off).
But as a successor to Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), the epic retelling of William Wallace’s rebellion, Outlaw King falls flat. Braveheart was notoriously inaccurate, but it was a great movie with great characters we wanted to succeed. In contrast, Outlaw King is mostly accurate but I couldn’t care less about the characters. Robert the Bruce is dull and unconvincing. The filmmakers attempted to give his wife, Elizabeth, some agency but she mostly just hangs around (no pun intended) like a set piece.
Contrast William Wallace’s speech before the Battle of Stirling Bridge in Braveheart with Robert’s final speech in Outlaw King. Wallace’s motivation is clear. He wants freedom for the Scottish people (and revenge against England). You want to jump up, grab an anachronistic claymore sword and fight with him. In Outlaw King, Robert literally says, “I don’t care what you fight for, as long as you fight.” Um, ok? Wallace had a cause that was larger than himself. Robert the Bruce just wanted to be king because… he deserves it, I guess?
Outlaw King premiered on Netflix to generally positive reviews. It currently has a critic rating of 61 percent and audience favorability rating of 71 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences were thrilled by the gritty realism and battles, but the film lacked that certain quality that makes for great drama. We want to feel something as well as be awed by spectacle.