Analysis Culture

Outlaw King — How accurate is the action?

One of Netflix’s biggest November releases is Outlaw King, the medieval warfare epic following the story of Robert the Bruce’s revolt against the English Crown. Starring Chris Pine as Robert Bruce, Outlaw King continues the story of the Scottish War of Independence, as begun in the Mel Gibson epic Braveheart. Below is a brief overview of the film, and a review on how accurate the gory violence actually was. Minor spoilers lie ahead.

The story begins in 1304, with Bruce’s surrender, alongside other Scottish nobility, to King Edward I at Stirling Castle. Having pledged fealty, the King empowers the lords to rule Scotland in his name, provided they renounce claims to the Scottish throne. In particular, Bruce and a rival, Jon Comyn (Callan Mulvey), both having strong and competing claims to the office, and the King commands that these be put aside. Bruce also comes face to face with Prince Edward II (Billy Howle), heir to the crown, and apparent rival to Bruce. The two duel, setting the stage for the protagonist/antagonist relationship they will share over the course of the film.

This opening scene is a thrill to watch. The camera flows from the King’s tent, from close-ups and profile shots, outside and around the combatants, back into the tent, before finally settling on a great trebuchet that sets Stirling Castle ablaze. I’ve always found long, continuous shots such as these to be immensely enjoyable to watch ever since the first time I saw them in the Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men with Clive Owen. I’ve always admired the coordination and rehearsal they must take. I guess that’s the Ranger in me coming out.

Returning home, Bruce continues ruling his land under the authority of the King, primarily due to the guidance of his father. Two years later, pulled along by the will of the Scots in the wake of Wallace’s execution, Bruce decides to once again take up arms against the English.

His first move is to ensure Jon Comyn will join the rebellion. Bruce meets Comyn at Church of the Greyfriars, in Dumfries — hallowed ground. Comyn refuses, and threatens to inform the King of the coming rebellion. This leaves Bruce no choice, and he stabs Comyn to death in the church.

This is — to say the least — a big deal. Murdering a noble at a holy site incurs great consequences for Bruce and he is excommunicated. This killing, one of the most significant in Scottish history, has conflicting accounts. Dr. Duncan Sneddon, a scholar of Scottish history who teaches Gaelic at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, said that the rivalry between Comyn and Bruce was fierce. “Both men certainly had a claim to the Scottish crown, and both were quite willing to submit to Edward I of England if it meant they could get it.” It seems unlikely that Bruce actually planned to kill Comyn — he was known for brawling with other nobles during meetings when losing his temper. In fact, an interesting account of the killing claims that Bruce failed to kill Comyn outright, and left the church in a panic. Telling his followers what happened, Roger Kirkpatrick famously is supposed to have said “I’ll mak siccar” (I’ll make sure) and went in and finished Comyn off — hence the motto on his arms: I mak siccar.

Either way, Bruce immediately seeks the Scottish clergy. The Scottish Church absolves Bruce, under the terms that he accept the Scottish crown and support the Church. The film moves rather quickly through this story arch, breezing over some important Scottish politics.

The Scottish church’s primary concern was to maintain its independence. This remains a common theme throughout Scottish history, even post-Reformation and once the two kingdoms are unified. Bruce had powerful connections in the Scottish Church, which allowed him the deal.

According to Dr. Sneddon, the murder still remained a problem. The Scots were divided during this time, as made clear by the film, and the murder weighed on Bruce as well. Bruce wanted to go on Crusade as penance, but was never able due to the long War of Independence. Following Bruce’s death in 1329, James Douglas took Bruce’s heart on Crusade, but was killed in Spain before reaching the Holy Land.

After being crowned king, Bruce raises an army and first marches to the English garrison at Methven. The night before the pitched battle, Bruce’s army is attacked and scattered in an ambush. Bruce flees to Islay, where he can take refuge and plan his next move. After learning of the capture of his wife and daughter, he begins waging a guerrilla war against the English. The slash and burn tactics used during this phase of the war are interesting and historically accurate, given the size of Bruce’s remaining force, but doesn’t touch on the interesting use of mountain infantry tactics the Bruce would have learned while fostering in Ireland. These scenes are chock full of great action however, and it is a blast seeing a rag-tag band take back their lands from an occupier.

The entire conflict culminates in a pitched battle at Loudon Hill. Edward II (his father died, so the prince is now the King), marches to Scotland and meets Bruce on his own turf. At the battle of Loudon Hill, Bruce uses the Scottish land against the King. Choosing ground for the battle that has bogs on either side, he will force the English knights to charge down the middle, where several trenches with sharpened wooden pikes are laid in defense.

This summary of Scottish tactics at Loudon Hill align with John Barbour’s 1375 account in The Brus:

“The king [i.e. Robert the Bruce], on the other hand, who was always prudent and careful, rode to survey the land and choose the place [for the encounter]; [he] saw that the high road lay over a fair field, flat and dry, but upon either side of it there was a great moss [i.e. bog], long and broad, almost an arrow-shot on either side of the way where men rode, and he thought that place was far too wide to wait for men who were on horseback. Therefore he cut three ditches at right angles [to the road] from both the mosses to the way, [each] so far from the other that they were an arrow-shot and more apart. The ditches were so deep and high that men could not pass them without great difficulty, even with nobody against them. But he left gaps in the way, so large and so numerous that five hundred could ride together in at the gaps, side by side. He meant to stay to fight there and resist them, for he had no fear that they would attack from the flank, nor yet give battle from behind, and he was well aware that in front he should be defended from their power. He had three deep ditches made there, for if he could not well prevail when meeting them at the first, he would have the second under his control, or finally the third, if so be that they had passed the other two. He made his dispositions like this, then assembled his force, which contained six hundred fighting men, apart from the rabble who were with him, who were as numerous [as the fighting men] or more.”

As in most medieval films, the battle quickly descends into mass chaos, where unit cohesion disintegrates and the fighting becomes a bloody, muddy mess. The film does a great job at creating graphic combat, without being over the top or too outrageous. According to Dr. Sneddon, this is likely accurate. Neither nation had a standing, professional army at the time, so close order discipline was lacking on both sides. The Scots did have the capacity to maintain cohesion, however. One of Bruce’s great military strengths was the use of a schiltron, or formation of pikemen backed by slingers, into a mobile, rather than defensive, unit. These were used at the later, and more decisive, battle at Bannockburn to defeat the English.

In the film, Loudon Hill culminates with a clash between Bruce and Edward II, mirroring their opening sparring session. Bruce defeats the King, who is allowed to limp back to his retreating army. This is clearly ahistorical. Had this actually happened, taking the King prisoner would have allowed Bruce to end the conflict under virtually any terms he wanted. There is no possible way the Scots would have let the king go, and they clearly had every chance to capture him in the film. For all its staging from the opening scene to the last, this very obvious flaw jumps out. I feel like a similar moment could have been achieved without a blatantly unrealistic moment.

Also, Edward II was not actually present at Loudon Hill. In reality, a more historically accurate battle for this clash of kings would be Bannockburn. However, as Bannockburn was a much larger battle, the production costs would have been much much higher to film that engagement. Furthermore, Loudon Hill marks a turning point as Bruce’s first victory in a pitched battle, and casts light on a lesser-known moment in Scottish history.

All said, Outlaw King is a perfectly great movie to watch for great medieval action. It features better than average acting, especially for the new mass of Netflix content being released, and is actually surprisingly historically accurate. I’d even say I hope for a sequel, so long as it spotlights even more interesting and accurate Scottish tactics not often seen on film. I’ll agree with Sneddon’s rating of 6.5/10 (maybe for different reasons).

If you want to read his review, along with other great blog posts about all things Scottish history, you can find it here.

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2 years ago

Thank you for this review!

2 years ago

It’s good movie. It’s hard to expect full authenticity for something so far removed from modern times, especially given the results of the Jacobite Rebellion and Highland Clearances. The producers and directors did something really smart- they hired and followed local experts on historical warfare and fighting styles from the Clanranald Trust for Scotland. There’s a lot of interesting interviews and behind the scenes videos on their page.

2 years ago

Look forward to watching this!

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