Scotland had a real moment in the 90’s.
And like other Hollywood infatuations of the time, it seemed to be spurred by a single charismatic individual (see also: Boston movies and Ben Affleck/Matt Damon [one charismatic entity], Southern movies and John Grisham).
In this case, it was then-omnipresent Mike Myers, whose collection of gonzo characters skewed disproportionately, delightfully Scottish, forcing a generation of American movie-quoters to contend with the elusive, tongue-twisting pleasures of the burr.
There was the bellicose shopkeeper of SNL’s All Things Scottish and his big-screen facsimile, the crotchety father of the groom in So I Married an Axe Murderer. There was Fat Bastard, Austin Powers’ ineffectual assassin, emotional eater and low-key cannibal. And there was Shrek, ogre and apparent Scotsman.
At the same time, there was Trainspotting, a film that arguably defined an era while remaining largely unintelligible to the planet’s roughly 7.499 billion non-Edinburghers.
At the other end of the demographic spectrum, thanks to fare like The Rock and Rising Sun, Sean Connery was experiencing a late-career resurgence as a 60+ action hero and pre-internet, sub-Walken meme.
And of course, bestriding them all like a kilted Colossus was 1995’s Braveheart.
Spoiler alert: this post is not really about Braveheart.
Braveheart is a given, a constant. It is a blood-and-guts epic of such magnitude, such kinetic carnage and unintentional-parody passion that it defies further conversation.
We know all there is to know about Braveheart, and most of it is worth knowing. If you were of a certain age (and that age is 15) when Braveheart came out, you know it to be a spectacle of breathtaking awesomeness. It is lodged in the temporal lobe that way, forever.
But some things are not found until one is ready to find them, and that’s why we’re mostly here to discuss the DeVito twin to Braveheart’s brawny Schwarzenegger, the lesser-known half of this ’95 Deepmageddon, Rob Roy.
Rob Roy is a smaller, yet no less thrilling affair than Braveheart. It paints by similar numbers: a plain-dealing yeoman wants nothing more than to tend his homestead in peace but, victimized by English perfidy, (those Brits–always breaking people’s balls, right?) finds himself thrust into the heart of a rebellion.
However, the rebellion William Wallace leads is grand in scale–he commands the assembled Scottish forces against the entire English army–while Rob Roy’s titular hero ends up in a personal, perhaps ultimately futile rebellion against an ascendant peerage system embodied by the Marquess of Montrose, the effete, unscrupulous aristocrat whose lands he is paid to police.
In this way, Rob Roy situates its characters in a nascent capitalist economy–one of the supporting characters is even bound, significantly, for the promise of America, where he will “live off the fat.”
Robert Roy MacGregor is a big fish in a small pond; a local clan leader and land owner who still depends on the employment of the much more powerful Marquess. He is, essentially, an enforcer. But like Rocky Balboa, he is an enforcer with a heart of gold. After killing a local cattle thief, he somberly reminds his wife that they are “but a hard winter away” from that life themselves.
And who does somber and soulful better than Liam Neeson?
I am going to go out on a limb and say this is peak Neeson. He cuts an effortless, earthy hero, his strapping frame utterly at home in the Highland landscape.
And really, the difference between Braveheart and Rob Roy is the difference between its two leads.
Mel Gibson is a movie star. He’s got one of those small-body-to-big-head ratios that translates to leading man versatility.
Gibson can play a cop or a boxer; Neeson seems like a cop or a boxer.
He’s sized like one. His hands look like they could drive nails. He has the patient, thoughtful eyes of a detective who’s seen it all.
Rob Roy is a patient, thoughtful movie that is also action-packed and full of brilliant detail. Its costumes and landscapes pop with color and texture; its violence is immediate and sometimes bracing; its hero stolid, formidable, beset but never bested.
It’s the kind of movie where the hero kisses his wife and rides off, bound by honor, to meet his nemesis in combat.
And let’s just go ahead and jump to that final swordfight, one of the best ever filmed. Renowned fight choreographer William Hobbs once again elevates the form, staging a tense, off-kilter brawl that communicates character and story with every beat.
Have you ever thought, “if a Pit Bull attacked me, I would just kick it in the face. Like, why does nobody do that?”
Well, here we see the hero think, “What if I just grabbed the other guy’s sword? Like, why does nobody do that?”
Well, now someone has.
And that other guy. Wow.
Tim Roth’s villain (and he is a true villain, not a bad guy, not a heavy, a villain), the preening fop-cum-stone cold murderer Archie Cunningham, is a masterpiece of characterization and performance.
As Braveheart’s Edward the Longshanks, Patrick McGoohan presented a figure of commanding, pragmatic evil; a proto-Tywin Lannister who casually defenestrates his effeminate son’s “adviser” (the portrayal of the son as a simpering limpwrist presents its own set of problems). This characterization is suited to a movie that slashes in broadsword strokes.
Roth and screenwriter Alan Sharp’s creation takes the strains of toxic masculinity that necessarily run through this kind of movie and upends them.
Cunningham is an interloper, a hanger-on who presents a foppish, obsequious presence at court in order to curry favor with the Marquess. As such he is Rob Roy’s shadow opposite; an unprincipled man who nevertheless depends on those more powerful for survival. Roth received an Academy Award nomination for the performance and deserved it.
John Hurt also delights as Montrose, who is himself nothing more than a vile actor in the decadent performance of life at court. In his dismissive hauteur we see the forebear of the 21st Century upward-failing trust fund boy, jaded and cruel about the realities of a life that he has never had to endure.
And like the prep schools that produce those trust fund boys, both movies traffic in vague, self-important morals. In Braveheart, it’s FREEDOMMMMMMMMM, triumphantly shouted by Gibson during one of his weirdly frequent on-screen acts of self-martyrdom.
In Rob Roy, it’s the slightly more nuanced ‘Honor,’ which MacGregor describes to his son as “a gift a man gives himself.”
Did I mention dude grabs a sword with his bare hand?
A movie like Braveheart, for better or worse, has no choice but to wear its broad themes proudly; they are an expected, necessary part of the package. In Rob Roy, we accept them as genre concessions, easily outshone by all the fine detailing in which they are ensconced.
When I was 15, I rewatched Braveheart endlessly, but I can’t remember the last time I saw it, nor do I wish to watch it anytime soon. What’s more, I have seen its facsimile over and over again in the intervening years.
I barely remember the first time I saw Rob Roy, and yet I have rewatched it regularly, year in and year out, and I can’t think of a contemporary movie quite like it: a swashbuckler that feels personal, manageable, full of delightful performances and action sequences that, in many ways, best their larger-scale counterparts.
Braveheart is a Best Picture, Rob Roy is a great movie.