What 'Outlaw King' gets wrong - according to a historian

0
Have your say

Historian Fiona Watson has her say on Netflix's Robert the Bruce epic.

"It may have all the characteristics of a sweeping historical epic — glorious camera work, revenge-filled plot twists, lots of speechifying, an English villain with a hipster bowl-haircut — but the film doesn’t feel emotive or romantic.

King Robert wasn't the sensitive soul presented in Outlaw King (Photo: Netflix)

King Robert wasn't the sensitive soul presented in Outlaw King (Photo: Netflix)

"The antithesis of Braveheart."

That was The Scotsman's verdict of Outlaw King: an intriguing and somewhat understated movie exploring Robert the Bruce's rebellion against the English occupation of Scotland.

Braveheart has been much maligned for its historical inaccuracies. And you might assume David Mackenzie's take on William Wallace's contemporary to be a much more grounded take on the battle for Scottish independence.

One historian, however, is slightly uncomfortable with viewing Outlaw King as a completely accurate portrayal of Scottish history.

Just how historically accurate was Outlaw King (Photo: Netflix)

Just how historically accurate was Outlaw King (Photo: Netflix)

As Fiona Watson, author of 'Traitor, Outlaw, King: Part One - The Making of Robert Bruce', tells the Scotsman: "What bothers me about Outlaw King is that it is touted as being historically accurate, and I think that in some of the detail it is, but the problem is what they've missed out."

So just how accurate is Netflix's Medieval drama? We asked Watson what Outlaw King gets right - and wrong.

*Some spoilers for Outlaw King follow*

Robert the Bruce: 'he was Macbeth with a happy ending'

Black Douglas really was 'a radge' (Photo: Netflix)

Black Douglas really was 'a radge' (Photo: Netflix)

In Outlaw King, Robert Bruce is presented as an enigmatic, mild-mannered man-of-the-people, driven by a desire to give the Scottish people their country back and reunite with his wife, Elizabeth.

In reality, however, Watson suggests that Bruce was a cold and calculating character, driven by his own personal goals.

"I think the most important thing to know about Robert the Bruce is that he was absolutely single-minded in his ambition to become king," she says. "Right from the minute he appears on the scene when he's about 22 he is utterly consistent in working towards that, ruthlessly ambitious to the point where he would commit murder for it."

"He felt that the Bruce family had been cheated of it in the early 1290s when his grandfather vied with John Balliol. and that really contrasted with the way it was portrayed in the film."

Robert Bruce's relationship with wife Elizabeth was likely less romantic than the one presented in Outlaw King (Photo: Netflix)

Robert Bruce's relationship with wife Elizabeth was likely less romantic than the one presented in Outlaw King (Photo: Netflix)

Though Bruce's infamous felling of crown rival John Comyn wasn't brushed over in Outlaw King, Watson felt that the representation of Bruce's motives were misleading.

"The way I see it, Robert Bruce knew that John Comyn was going to claim the throne of Scotland when Edward I dies and that's why he feels John Comyn has to die first.

"He's got all these boxes ticked, he's got blood, he's got the power and the experience.

"The truth of the matter is that John Comyn had to die because he was going to become king. Don't get me wrong - I think Robert Bruce is the greatest king we ever had, and a fantastic general who should be much better known - but a nice man?

"He is Macbeth with a happy ending. The body count is huge and his vaulting ambition stopped at nothing including murder, but he gets to die in his bed."

Servant of the English

Though the film accurately demonstrates the surrendering of Scots leaders, Robert Bruce included, to Edward I in the film's opening, Watson suggests that in reality the film's protagonist was far cosier with the King of England.

"Robert Bruce submitted two years before the rest of the Scots and was Edward I's main man when the English king was finalising the second conquest of Scotland in 1304/1305.

"Bruce is running around chasing Wallace, he's getting Edward's siege engines positioned to reduce Stirling Castle and Edward's listening to him, he's his Scottish advisor."

Robert Bruce appears shocked at the news of Wallace's death in the Netflix picture, but Watson suggest that the heartbreaking news which appeared to spur Chris Pine's Bruce on would have been of no surprise to Scotland's would-be-king.

"The notion that it was news to Bruce that Wallace had suddenly been killed is nonsense. The chances are he was in London or down south and knew fine well that had happened. Everybody did."

A very political marriage

Much of Bruce's drive in Outlaw King appears to derive from his desire to be reunited with his love Elizabeth, whom he develops a gradually close and passionate relationship with.

Watson, however, suggests that their marriage was out of political convenience rather than love.

"They were married when she was very young, she was probably 13/14 - that was his reward for submitting," says Watson. "She's captured in 1306 and he doesn't see her again until 1315 - after the Battle of Bannockburn, not Loudoun Hill.

"It's a political marriage. They have a number of children and she dies before he does in 1326 and he's not even there, there's no evidence to suggest this was anymore than your usual royal marriage of convenience."

Douglas was 'a radge' and Edward II was a useless ruler

Watson says the film does deserve praise for the representation of two of the film's most tempestuous characters: Black Douglas and the future King Edward II.

On the revenge-seeking, blood spattering Douglas, she says: "He totally was a 'radge', he was the radge of the millenium, he's fantastic he needs his own mini-series I think. He doesn't have any fear he is so energetic."

Douglas' violent return home was an accurate representation of historical events, though some of his most astonishing exploits didn't make the film's final script.

"He charged uphill at the Battle of Old Byland, which certainly isn't in the manual, and there's another story he took Castle Roxburgh by surprise, supposedly by pretending to be a cow. He was the great bogey man."

And what of Edward II: was he really a swan strangling maniac, or was his representation in Braveheart as a cowardly subordinate of his father more accurate?

"He was probably in reality somewhere in between his portrayal in Braveheart and his portrayal in Outlaw King.

"It's good that they don't have him as this completely useless character like the portrayal in Braveheart, because he was known to be a strong man, he was personally brave because he stayed on the field at Bannockburn.

"As far as ruling was concerned though he didn't have a clue. He offended people left, right and centre and as a king he wasn't up to it."

At the film's climax, King Robert and Edward meet at the Battle of Loudoun Hill and take each other on in a one-on-one fight.

Watson explains that this likely never happened, but in this instance is willing to offer some leniency to the film's creators.

"Without an epic fight, how the hell do you finish it off? You either go the whole hog and it's five hours long, or opt for poetic license!"

What else did Outlaw King get right and wrong?

Costume: "My understanding is that it was definitely more accurate on that front. They've taken more care with that, and they made a better fist of that than Braveheart, because there were no kilts basically."

The burning of castles: "This was true. Bruce hated castles, they were of far more use to the English than him."

The ambush at Methven: "This happened. It was crass stupidity on Robert Bruce's part. It was a complete and utter fiasco, almost inexcusable."

The battle with the McDougalls: "Yes this happened at Dalrigh near Tyndrum. The story goes that McDougall managed to get the brooch of Bruce's cloak. He should definitely not have survived."