Yes, Chris Pine has a penis, and yes, he’s doing a Scottish accent. With the obvious out the way, we can get on with enjoying Outlaw King for what it is – which is a pretty good, slightly silly, mostly enjoyable hack’n’slash epic. It’s got its problems, and historians probably won’t like it very much, but there’s still plenty to admire if you always thought Braveheart didn’t have enough mud and blood in it.
In fact, Mel Gibson’s 1995 Oscar-winner looms largely over the whole film, with director David Mackenzie (Hell Or High Water) clearly trying hard to make his own take on fourteenth century Scottish politics look, sound and feel as different as possible. William Wallace only gets one scene in Outlaw King – and that’s as a severed head on a spike…
The year is 1305 and Wallace has just lost his last battle. Edward I (a slightly hammy Stephen Dillane) is on the throne of England and, controversially, of Scotland as well. The film opens with Robert the Bruce (Pine) swearing allegiance to the bloke who stole his country, raped his women and turned Wallace into a bridge ornament. From the side-lines stands John Comyn (Callan Mulvey), Robert’s only other rival for the Scottish crown, and the sadistic young Prince Edward (Billy Howle, playing the complete opposite of his role in On Chesil Beach).
Pine’s Bruce is a quiet, respectful, noble hero – a character that seems slightly out of place in the dark ages – but he doesn’t spend long on his knees in front of Edward. Dealing with his rivals, uniting the clans, and raising a rebel army in the highlands, Bruce quickly heads south to fight the English for his freeeeeeeeeedom!
Like Braveheart, Outlaw King only choses to tell a very small part of the real story – ditching the rest in plot holes, historical inaccuracies and a hasty on-screen epilogue (someday, someone’s actually going to make a film about the bigger, much more important Battle of Bannockburn, instead of just mentioning it on the end credits…).
Bruce gets a bit short-changed in Gibson’s film – getting all the boring talking bits whilst Wallace lops off people’s arms and legs – but Mackenzie turns him back into the warrior king that he sort of was. It’s slightly unbelievable that he acts like such a modern gentleman around his new wife Elizabeth (Florence de Burgh), and he even seems vaguely Kirk-like at times when he’s thinking instead of acting, but it doesn’t take too long before he starts getting kinky (and, yes, naked…) with a thistle and massacring hundreds of people – which is probably much more realistic for a medieval knight in his twenties.
Make no mistake, this is a violent film. If Mackenzie isn’t stringing people up and gutting them, he’s impaling them with spikes, splitting open their heads with axes and disembowelling them with broadswords. Knee-deep in mud and blood and intestines, the big battle scenes are unbelievably horrifying – and pretty impressive to boot. There are a few naff moments of Robin Hood-style swashbuckling, but the film mostly makes medieval warfare look ugly and dirty and hellish – with Mackenzie adding a great sense of scale to the climactic battle of Loudoun Hill.
Is it better than Braveheart’s big battle? Possibly.
They might be telling similar stories but the two films are actually markedly (and intentionally) different. Where Gibson swoons over the Scottish landscape with a lavish bagpipe score, Mackenzie digs down in the dirt with a tribal beat. Wallace’s film is all sweeping cinema and patriotic romance – but Bruce’s is more earthy realism and rustier edges. Braveheart, for all its faults, is a terrifically made epic. Whatever felt fake and silly and “Hollywood” about it feels about the same for Outlaw King (this is just twenty years later, with some lessons learned and some repeated), but everything else is completely original. Comparing the two films is inevitable, but it also feels slightly redundant by the end.
Don’t go expecting Braveheart 2, a history lesson, or anything you can watch whilst you’re eating and you won’t be disappointed.
Outlaw King is streaming on Netflix now.