This is the concluding piece to the first half of my appreciation of a film that I, like others, hold dear. I credit author Steven Hart and his post from last May, Flash and clash, for spurring me on. Since this article will focus on the ultimate and crucial sequence of the film, and if you haven’t read Mr. Hart’s highly regarded 2008 piece (one that brings into relief the same closing match), a sequence he and I agree is The Best Sword Fight Movie of All Time, I am encouraging you to do so. Certainly, before lungeing on, as it were.
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.
Note: there’s no way even to begin to dissect this action sequence without detailing some of the scene-specifics. The standard spoiler warning is in effect from this point forward. Once more into the fray…
The Sword Fight
Argyll: “I think these men hate the other.”
Montrose: “Aye. They are none too fond.”
All that has come before, and its meaning, sets the stage for the greatest sword fight on film (discounting, of course, whatever io9 had to say on the subject last March). All of the emotional and physical stakes in Rob Roy come down to this climatic (please excuse the pun) action sequence. And for me, the implicit rut and sword symbolism of the film is thoroughly depicted within — you can use whatever nature scheme or testosterone-filled story you’ve watched, cared to imagine, or quoted from by comparison. That would include the notorious, quasi-‘sword’ fight scene from Blake Edwards’s Skin Deep (1989), which starred the late-John Ritter with glowing condom, which is merely more hysterical than life-threatening. The film remains very much intimate, in scale and death-dealing. And because of that, it’s a doozy. Here are some of the things I’ve come to appreciate about it through the years since I first saw this in its initial theatrical-run.
First, I must praise Michael Caton-Jones, sword-fight master William Hobbs, director of photography Lindenlaub, along with film editor Peter Honess for holding supreme the tenet common to all great action sequences: the audience never lost its way watching it. Throughout, viewers know exactly what’s going on in the scene. This sounds obvious, but it’s harder to achieve than you think. Ever looked at an action sequence and wondered, Wait, what’s happening? Exactly. Here, no disorienting film editing or quick cuts (outside of those dispensed by Archibald, that is) marred Rob Roy‘s utmost match — as it’s done too often in many of today’s CGI-filled actioners. This crew knew how to take their time and never reverted to flashy technique or cheap thrills to keep moviegoers interested.
Second, and almost as important, sword fights, like boxing, martial arts, and dance, on- or off-screen come down to footwork. The filmmakers made sure, along with capturing the arm and body movements, and of course the blade techniques showcased, to frame the sequence so that the important legwork needed (by those engaged seeking to gain the upper hand) wasn’t overlooked. So, too, the emotional context and adversarial traits of the principals, something well chronicled in Alan Sharp’s story, stayed true to the action on-screen. Another great read I recommend was set down by Michael C. over at the Film Experience blog in his fine look at the sword fight from 2010:
“Hobbs’ brilliance is to make the fencing matches more about the characters than the violence.”
The combatants’ contrasting personalities, statures, and fighting styles, built so carefully for the whole of the movie, were not thrown aside (as sometimes happens) so that the hero could somehow win. In fact, Robert Roy MacGregor succeeds over Archibald Cunningham because of them. Recall, virility is the undertone of the entire film, along with its connection to fatherhood. Both men are as lethal as they are fertile. Even the smaller man is no less menacing. In fact, byway of his apparent adroitness with the blade, the story conveys that Archie may well be the most fecund of the two. And therefore, the most dangerous.
The match offers another interesting contradistinction. It is the shorter man, Archibald, who inflicts his damage from long-range, at the far end of his épée. The converse is the big man in the fight, who’d you think would have similar and greater benefit, doesn’t. Rob’s skill, though, lies with his close-in work with the blade. This was shown by what occurred earlier. Note how he dispatched first Tom Sibbald (at the start of the film) and later Guthrie (in the tavern) with deft close-quarter work. Rob even gained quick advantage over Archibald with a hidden knife to make his escape from Montrose’s clutches when he tried to make amends. Both will be determiners in the affair of honor.
That said, given the fight to the death is in Archie’s preferred arena of the formal duel, Rob is always at the disadvantage. Thus, the other underlying framework in this stellar action sequence is how Rob, quite painfully at times, plays the chess game with swords. Figuring out a way to bring his formidable opponent into his killing range. It’s no accident or cheat how this was done, I maintain. No fool he. For most of the sword fight, Rob is constantly stymied by Cunningham’s agile counter-moves and maneuverability on the dueling floor. Archie is the feline in this cat-and-mouse encounter.
Near the end of the match, Rob’s preparatory move against Archibald is misunderstood by some, I think. The choreographer has the supposed mouse in this fight drag the tip of sword along the battle ground in a gesture of wayward fatigue. The energy already expended by our hero, along with his injuries, make him more than winded and ready to fall, apparently. However, knowing this character by this point of the story, writer Sharp made his cunning and smarts clear from the beginning, opens another reading of this act. I believe Roy finally concluded he cannot get through the skillful and punishing defense of his nemesis. Ergo, this was but a setup by the waning Highlander to draw his enemy in by a little exaggeration on his part to sell that vulnerability.
The Scotsman knows there’s a price to be paid, the currency being his own flesh and blood, for this gambit, though. Still, I gathered Rob’s fully aware of Archie’s personality by this point, given the sadistic enjoyment his opponent has already doled out by cutting him hither and yon during their match. No doubt, the henchman’s less than gentle custody of him played into this, too. For that reason, I surmise Rob wagers his rival won’t finish him outright as there’s one final gloat to be had before the killing blow is struck.
Observe, as well, that when the Scot receives Archie’s remaining and quite penal (now there’s a homonym) slash, which results in Rob dropping to his knees (along with his weapon), the mighty Claymore, the traditional broadsword of the Scots, is never far from his grasp when the duelist closes. Lastly, when Rob looks up at his rival hovering close, Archie relishing the moment as he holds the blade beneath the Highlander’s chin (a move telegraphed from his first match with Guthrie in the same hall), this is the hero’s reveal. No fear is shown by Rob, here. It’s not a brave face he’s giving — he’s just successfully brought the man he seeks to kill, once and for all, within his orbit. This really was a bloody wonderful dance after all.
My apologies for prattling on, I blame the recently passed Father’s Day for its influence on my work, but Rob Roy the film, as under appreciated as it is, was well deserving of the praise I’ve laid out. The production, one decidedly conceived, developed, and supported by the Scottish movie community, delivered a rousing period adventure that has stood the test of time, I believe. It may have some bawdy elements, but remains more polished and detailed than it’s been given credit. While it was modestly successful, shot entirely in Scotland, which proved a turning point for that country’s film industry, its lack of support in the consumer aftermarket for a decent DVD/Blu-ray Disc release by its studio (MGM/20th Century) remains sorely lacking. Borrowing a quote from a different and excellent film review by my colleague Colin to describe the thin offerings, Rob Roy…:
“…has been poorly served on DVD. Although none of the available editions are truly awful, they aren’t especially satisfying either.”
It’s an oversight for fans of the film — especially given Braveheart’s later disc releases (in both standard and high-definition), as their extras, features, and commentary track denote. This film deserved at least as much. The great looking Blu-ray Disc released in 2011 is ridiculously barebones — the 1997 Region 1 DVD leastwise had a trailer and a booklet. If nothing else, we can hopefully agree, for those who’ve heard it, that Carter Burwell’s film score for Rob Roy was more than match for James Horner’s in Gibson’s film.
I’ll close with one last tidbit, an easily overlooked detail that conveyed another closeted aspect of the film. It is the post-match moment that centered on Archibald and John Graham, the prideful and haute Marquis of Montrose. The same Lord tasked with cooling the wayward duelist’s “… fever in his blood” by employment (of course, leveraged for the Marquis’ profit), quietly comes over to his dispatched champion. Shocked with the result and held for settlement of the debt, one last resolution is squared between this pair. Though a bastard and underling he was to his lordship, the nobleman’s last gesture, one that is simple as it is cinematic, may well have been the most revealing for these two splendid wrongdoers. Kneeling over the vanquished duelist, Graham gently reaches for Archie’s dearest emblem, one that has always accompanied the swordsman: the portrait brooch of his mother. By performing that deed, it whispered the ornament, too, meant something to Graham. Thereby hangs the tale of Archie’s lost paternity. Unresolved even to the lethal swordsman, it may have been known after all — by the same someone who never claimed him.