What the film industry gets wrong—and Monty Python gets right—about the nation.
Essay in The Nation, 29 November, 2018
At the heart of the Netflix mud-and-chain-mail epic Outlaw King is a bald juxtaposition of hero and villain. The Scottish leader Robert the Bruce (played by a soft-spoken Chris Pine) is made king in an open-air ceremony at twilight on the shores of a loch. It is a somber and subdued coronation, with the struggle against the invading English still to come. Down in London, Robert’s adversary Edward, the prince of Wales (played by Billy Howle as a frat boy with a bowl cut), rallies an English army by strangling a pair of swans.
The contrast could not be more stark. “My title is king of Scots,” Robert says almost apologetically to the assembled nobles and peasants, “not of the land, but of the people.” Meanwhile, Edward performs a poultry sacrifice. “By these swans,” he shrieks, holding two dead, bejeweled swans by the neck, “I vow to avenge this murderous insult to God!”
The reticent patriot finds his foil in a manic swan-savager. These mingled scenes conjure the obligatory binary of many historical-epic films. Braveheart (1995) dramatized an earlier phase of the same conflict in which Mel Gibson’s character William Wallace led a Scottish rebellion against the English. That film chose to make the prince of Wales weak, effete, and implicitly homosexual, a dandy in continental silks and hose in contrast to Gibson’s kilted übermensch. But the films share the same moral universe. The English aggressors are decadent, perverse, often sadistic, and insensible to modern reason. The Scottish resisters, on the other hand, achieve a kind of grace in their gruff austerity. Where the English lust for domination and taxes, the Scottish have a cause that 21st-century viewers can get behind: the striving of a “people” for freedom.