Note: I’d been thinking of writing this piece for a while, but credit author Steven Hart for getting me off the snide with his post from last May, Flash and clash. His article looked at the by-the-numbers swordplay Hollywood has put out over the years. This is especially so when compared to something far superior from a film we both hold dear. Plus, a certain animation tale with Scottish lineage opens today, so this post is somehow now timely.
Fair warning: the tone of the article is more frank than my usual.
- interloper |ˈintərˌlōpər; ˌintərˈlōpər|
- - a person who becomes involved in a place or situation where they are not wanted or are considered not to belong.
- rut |rət|
- noun (the rut)
- - an annual period of sexual activity in deer and some other mammals, during which the males fight each other for access to the females.
Every year, I make sure to throw in to the disc player some annual movie favorites — films that I’ll return to no matter that I’ve seen them many times previously. Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, Michael Mann’s Heat and Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, usually in the Spring. Come summer (if I haven’t already caught it at one of this town’s revival screenings), it will be Polanski’s Chinatown, and the desperate maturity of the characters in QT’s Jackie Brown. Chinatown‘s writer (and sometimes director), Robert Towne, will get his with the very underrated and under appreciated Tequila Sunrise I never miss before Fall arrives, too.
All of these films strike an emotional chord in me as a viewer. I’d add another to that list, a film that hasn’t received the acclaim (nor the proper DVD/BD release to match) in the years since its initial release: Rob Roy. I’d argue that this was director Michael Caton-Jones‘ finest film and one deserving of more praise. Rob Roy remains that even if the history portrayed is less than factual (something it shares with the film that overshadowed it that same year). Even so, it is a thrilling period tale. It’s also a very earthy film, one that involves the pivotal configuration in human melodrama: the triangle. That’s reflected upon the characters of Rob Roy (Liam Neeson), his wife Mary (Jessica Lange), and one of the all-time great film villains in Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth).
Still, there is another triumvirate in play with this: one of love, revenge, and redemption. Each set serves the film’s emotional points. Let’s not forget the physical act of sex, along with the swords, utilized as a weapon in the yarn. All are woven distinctly into this narrative.
Brief synopsis for those who’ve not seen it: In the highlands of Scotland in the 1700s, the head of his clan, one Robert Roy MacGregor, attempts to better his kin’s future. Well respected for his fighting and leadership ability by all, Rob intends on borrowing money from the local nobility to buy cattle to herd and sell at market for a rewarding profit for his kinship. When the money is stolen by an ambitious and dastardly newcomer, one Archibald Cunningham, the recently arrived duelist in the employ of John Graham, the Marquis of Montrose (the one and the same noble lending Rob the funds), he’ll be forced into the lifestyle of outlaw to defend his family and honor.
As Hollywood is want to do, a ‘film concept’ will be struck or proposed by someone, copied, and the competing studios will race to deliver their version for box office glory. How many times have we seen this? At the very least, this many. This year’s concept was Snow White, with Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman dueling it out. Same in 1995 as this movie vied with Braveheart for the (U.S.) crown of the ‘Scottish self determination’ movie that annum. One should note both films have been subject to keen film discussion in the years since concerning their treatments of masculinity, especially when compared to their seeming disdain of homosexuality (or the appearance of) via key characters. It is a valid argument, but I will address a different theme in this article. Braveheart easily walked away with the box office title, and the Best Picture Oscar, that year, and Rob Roy has been left to a smaller contingent to carry the banner for the film.
I do very much admire both films, let’s be clear. Both are manly in the extreme, too. Matt Stewart’s post from earlier this year nicely sums that epic up and how I feel toward it (its filmmaker’s recent craziness notwithstanding). And that’s one of the key differences between this pair of films. Braveheart is nothing if not grand and larger than life, while Rob Roy tends to be rather more personal, innermost you could say in its stakes. The rights of Scotland, Hell, the whole entire region, is at hand in Mel Gibson’s film. For Michael Caton-Jones, his period yarn’s battles take place on a smaller field, with a more modest number of cast, but with an ante of personal import. Especially, when vengeance is at hand — like, someone’s gotta die, and by me own hands, too! It turns out that Rob Roy is not only an adventure, but a love story between Rob and Mary with an unexpected triangulation, to boot. It distills down to what a husband and wife must do when confronted with an interloper of the most nefarious ilk.
“You speak, Archibald! One must never underestimate the healing power of hatred.”
Filmmakers and Cast
Before going on, I must say a few words for cast and filmmakers. This one has a number of my favorite actors strewn about, no doubt led by Belfast’s own Liam Neeson. Yes, the Northern Ireland actor plays the Scot hero. This particular aspect, not to mention Mel Gibson portraying Scotland’s national hero William Wallace in Braveheart, is somewhat irksome to one Scottish crime writer, in particular. Russell McLean, when he spoke at the ‘Movies for the crime fiction fan’ book panel at last year’s Bouchercon event made that clear. That and the accent used by Jessica Lange gave the author more than enough ammo to rail upon, to entertaining effect, for all in attendance (like me).
No matter. I still found Liam and Jessica an expressively attractive and romantic pair on-screen, both unafraid to show themselves vulnerable in fraught circumstances. Writer Alan Sharp, in his script, gave them an innate strength. It’s a testament that just about everyone with a speaking part delivers some grand quote or another byway of Sharp’s capable wordsmithing. Not an easy thing to do, mind you, and connect with a broad audience specifically with period dialogue. Plus, there were plenty Scotsmen well represented here, as well.Besides fellow countryman Michael Caton-Jones deftly helming this production, and Alan Sharp with pen at the ready, you had Andrew Keir as the formidable Duke of Argyll (in his final theatrical film) and the inimitable Brian Cox (as the co-conspirator Killearn) performing support duties as only as they can (if you doubt Cox’s Scot bona fides, be sure to check this out). Of course, given the historical tension of the tale, the Scots-Catholic Jacobites at odds under the rule of Protestant England, they were plenty of Englishmen at hand to balance the performers’ scale.
Chiefly, the great John Hurt, chewing the scenery with the best of them, as the Marquis of Montrose. Yet, as it is so often, a story, no manner how swashbuckling, simply pales without a formidable villain in the piece. And without question, Rob Roy makes its mark by having one for the ages. Tim Roth would deservedly earn a Best Supporting Actor nomination with his turn as Archibald Cunningham. He may well be one of the most realized bad guys on film of the last two decades. Make no doubt, even though he’s the henchman for the Marquis, he is truly the villain of the film.
The Rut of the Film
The standard spoiler warning is in effect from this point forward as the following details are key to the point I’m attempting to make. I put forth that the skilled duelist Cunningham is the supreme interloper in the story, in battle and on the carnal/paternal front. He is the catalyst that disrupts everything in the region and those he touches, literally, in the story upon his arrival. He is the dangerous wildcard that unsettles the entire works (family cart and all). When introduced to the Duke of Argyll by his English rival John Graham at the hall where the local sword matches are conducted, Archie is immediately under-estimated:
Argyll: “Did you see Guthrie here at work, Mr. Cunningham.”
Archibald: “He’s a fair hand at a cleaver, it must be said.
Argyll: “Oh, you do not think much of our highland tools.”
Archibald: “If I had to kill an ox, a Claymore would be my first choice, Your Grace.
His foppish, effeminate manner, along with a small frame, appearing no match to the highland brutes and their brawny ways. He quickly and decisively turns that assumption on its head when he outclasses, by sword and word, Argyll’s champion in the resulting match. Accordingly, Archie establishes his dominance on the field, to all males present, and in the audience’s head.
This all will set the table for one of the all-time best clashes on celluloid, with no small credit to fight choreographer and swordsman William Hobbs, along with the film’s director and cinematographer (Karl Walter Lindenlaub). It is what film critic Roger Ebert says is, “one of the great action sequences in movie history.” If you haven’t read journalist and author Steven Hart’s well-regarded 2008 piece that centers on the film and its closing match, one both he and I agree is The Best Sword Fight Movie of All Time, I highly recommend you do so now. I’ll wait here.
“Love is a dung hill, Betty, and I am but a cock that climbs upon it to crow.”
Back? Good. One thing about the swashbuckling adventure movies of years passed is the outright masculinity they exude. So much so, its little wonder that the swordsmanship at hand portrayed and symbolized sexual potency without coming out and plainly stating it. Swords, therefore, were phallic stand-ins for the characters vying and clashing on-screen (and usually for the affection of a woman). In Rob Roy, that’s literally the case, especially for its protagonist and antagonist. In point of fact, the film goes out of its way in taking that suggestion out from under and putting it squarely on the table like few before it since Prime Cut.
Virility is center stage as both men are established as so early on — Rob with his family of wife and young sons, and by Montrose’s crony impregnating the estate’s help soon after his arrival (and all without an apparent care for the maiden made so). And it’s through the course of the tale where that specific aspect hits so very close and personal for the hero figure. The bladesman Cunningham, himself as bastard child to a beloved but tawdry mother (Archie only briefly referred to his father as “some unknown noble“), interjects himself (to put it mildly) all over the place to get ahead — at least as far has his station will allow in the circles of English society of the time.
“It’s a hard thought, but men make the quarrels and women and weans bear them.”
First, he steals the money meant for Rob’s cattle plan, killing and attempting to pin the blame on Rob’s friend MacDonald (Eric Stoltz) in the bargain. That’s bad enough, but it’s merely insult preceding the intimate injury to follow. Given the job to track down the wronged and on-the-hook MacGregor by the debt-holding Marquis, it’s simply wolf in the fold time next. Not only tasked with ferreting out the innocent outlaw (“Broken, but not dead, Archibald.“), he’ll devise upon even more heinous means to draw out the honor-bound Highlander.
He rapes his wife. Not only that, Mary, who’ll attempt to keep this quiet (no fool she) to protect her husband, will discover herself pregnant, subsequently. She won’t know whose child she’ll bear. Tell me Cunningham is not the ultimate encroacher after he steals another man’s money, violates his wife (burning Rob and Mary’s homestead in the process), and potentially fathering her next child. And, he’s English, at that! What’s a Scotsman to do?!? Again, another parallel with Braveheart. The film Rob Roy, primarily through this villainous character, pushed all the buttons on this subject and those now thoroughly invested in the trigonometry of the situation. Love and loathing have no equal here. In fact, the most cold and hate-filled exchange in the film occurs immediately after the sexual assault upon Mary (and actors Roth and Lange play up Alan Sharp’s words like nobody’s business, IMO). It also speaks to the “reckonin’” to come, as Killearn soon warns Archie afterward:
Archibald Cunningham: “Think of yourself a scabbard, Mistress McGregor, and I the sword. And a fine fit you were, too.”
Mary: “I will think on you dead, until my husband makes you so. And then I will think on you no more.”
That about sums up what the husband and wife must do redeem their stead and settle the score set forth by Michael Caton-Jones and Alan Sharp. And it is this, its villain’s undisguised and loathsome sexual behavior, that may have turned off viewers and relegated the film to the relative obscurity and neglect it has been bequeath. That is unfortunate. Yet, that is also its strength. Even more so for the character of Rob Roy MacGregor. The concept of honor, the idea of which was also planted early in the film, is but the means and not what’s really being upheld here. Paternity is the story’s essence. Who survives between these two men, and whose seed (and name) prevails to be passed on. Rob Roy is likely one of the more out-and-out ruttish films on record — and its sword-fighting pedigree only accentuates this. Plus, the violation that unfolds will demand a comeuppance once all are aware of the situation, which arrives with mustache-twirling glee with Rob’s capture prior to the third act (once the sadistic Archie punishes and torments his womb rival, that is):
Rob: “You are a thief, a murderer, and a violator of women.”
Archie: “Ah. I had hoped you’d come to me long since on that score.”
Rob: “If I had known earlier, you would have been dead sooner.”
Archie: “I will tell you something to take with you. Your wife was far sweeter forced than many are willing. In truth, put to it, I think not all of her objected.”
To be continued in Part 2…