An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

January 19, 2019

Aquaman, dir. James Wan

Aquaman, directed by James Wan

Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty, La Salle University
Cinema arthuriana is not a film genre.  Rather, it is a form of film medievalism that lately can be found in more and more cinematic genres.  Cinema arthuriana had its beginnings at least as early as 1904 when Thomas Edison, with mixed success, brought a version of Wagner’s Parsifal to the screen for New York audiences, thereby not only establishing cinema arthuriana as a new form of medievalism, but also reworking an already established form of medievalism, opera arthuriana, into a new genre. 
Twain has remained the most frequent source for cinema arthuriana on both the large and on the small screen, with nods (often more alleged than real) to Malory informing any number of other Arthurian films.  And Arthurian films (and television programs) have at times proven to be fades, and the current decade seems no exception.  The 1950s, for instance, gave us The Adventures of Sir Galahad (a serial), The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (a television series penned by blacklisted Hollywood writers), The Black Knight, at least three television versions of Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, Knights of the Round Table, Knutzy Knights (a Three Stooges’ vehicle), a Spanish Parisfal, and Prince Valiant.
More recently, Arthur, or Arthurian motifs, can be found in some unexpected films: in the Kingsman franchise, in Ready Player One, in Mad Max: Fury Road, in Transformers: The Last Knight, even in the latest (and supposedly last) installment of the Syfy Channel’s Sharknado franchise.  And now in James Wan’s 2018 Aquaman.
Like Arthur, Aquaman has had a complicated legacy.  The DC Comics’ hero first appeared in 1941 in a supporting role, but his character subsequently came into its own when Aquaman became a founding member of the American Justice League.  As his character developed, his appearance also changed from wimpy kid to wonder boy to buff, often overly so, super hero—sometimes blonde, sometimes not; sometimes bearded, sometimes not.  Originally, his foes were Nazi submarine commanders and other Axis villains.  Eventually, his identity was fleshed (fished?) out: he was Arthur Curry, son of a lighthouse keeper and of an outcast queen of the underwater world of Atlantis.  By either his mother or his father, he had a troubled, or trouble-some, half-brother, with whom he would eventually come into conflict. His super powers included an ability to communicate with marine life and to live both on land and under water.  Aquaman’s character has appeared not only in print, but also on television and on film, and as the butt of a long-running joke on HBO’s series Entourage, in which Adrian Grenier’s Vince Chase was cast in a fictional version of Aquaman directed by Titanic’s James Cameron, but not in its sequel. (For more on Aquaman’s development as a superhero across multiple genres, see Alastair Dougall’s The DC Comics Encyclopedia.)
In James Wan’s Aquaman, Jason Momoa plays the title.  Momoa began his entertainment career in 1998 as a swimwear model.  At 19, he was chosen for the part of Jason Ioana, one of the lifeguards in the television action series Baywatch Hawaii.  After repeated trips to the gym and to the tattoo parlor, Momoa’s career blossomed, and he was cast in (literally) meatier roles including that of the title character in a remake of Conan the Barbarian and, perhaps more famously, that of Khal Drogo in HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Aquaman opens in Maine in 1985 as lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison) rescues a woman who has washed ashore.  She is Atlanna (Nicole Kidman, who adds much needed gravitas to the film), the princess of Atlantis, fleeing a forced marriage.  Thomas and Atlanna fall in love, and have a son, Arthur.  Atlanna is kidnapped and returned to Atlantis where she is executed for having a half-breed son by being sent into the ominous sounding Trench.  Flash forward to the present when that half-breed son Arthur, who has been secretly trained in Atlantian ways by Nuidis Vulko (Willem Dafoe), single handedly defeats a group of pirates attempting to hijack a Russian nuclear submarine.  When their leader, Jesse Kane (Michael Beach), is killed during the unsuccessful hijack attempt, his son David (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) vows revenge—David it turns out is a mercenary in the employ of Orm (Patrick Wilson), Arthur’s younger half-brother and the King of Atlantis.  Orm has David engineer an attack on Atlantis as a pretext for declaring war on the surface world.  To succeed in such a war, Orm must unite the kingdoms under the sea.  His attempts are thwarted by Princess Mera (Amber Heard), originally Orm’s fiancée, who soon falls in love with Arthur.  

Amber Heard as Mera
Arthur, Mera, and Vulko team up to find the long lost Trident of Atlan, which can only be secured by the rightful King of Atlantis.
The Trident is, of course, not easily found, and the search for the mythical talisman drives the plot of the middle of film which sees David Kane return as Black Manta—a potential super villain counterpart to Black Panther—to hinder Arthur and Mera’s quest.  After multiple adventures that include a trek across the Sahara and a visit to Sicily, the two end up beneath the surface of the ocean, defeating a legion of amphibious creatures in the Trench, and facing down the Karathen, a gigantic monster who guards the trident.  Arthur claims the Trident and astride a seahorse leads an army of sea creatures to defeat Orm.  Along the way, he discovers his mother is still alive.  Atlanna returns to Thomas.  Orm is imprisoned, and Arthur agrees to become King of Atlantis. 

Aquaman (Jason Momoa) on the left confronts his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson)

As superhero comics films go, Aquaman is nothing spectacular.  The plot wastes no time establishing a complicated backstory for its title character.  The film’s tone is uneven.  At times, the tone is serious; at times, tongue in cheek.  There are some throwaway lines of dialogue that are potentially funny, but both verbal and visual gags fall flat more often than not.  In one scene early in the film, when Arthur is confronted by three burly bikers in a bar, we expect the usual brawl that destroys the bar, but the three simply want to pose with Arthur for a selfie—which they incongruously snap using a shocking pink iPhone.  Arthur comes off as more than a bit thick; Mera is the brains of the duo.  Costumes hypersexualize the characters.  Momoa’s Aquaman seems to own no shirts; until he retrieves the Trident, he only wears waterproof form fitting vests to complement his skin tight waterproof jeans.  Heard’s outfits as Princess Mera are a study in aqua colored spandex. The pace of the film, which is too long by about half an hour, drags on and on until Arthur retrieves the Trident.  Then the action becomes a riot of CGI on overdrive as Arthur suddenly becomes Aquaman in a green and gold leaf costume, designed to leave nothing to the imagination, riding his seahorse and wielding the Trident to defeat a dizzying array of underwater enemies—so dizzying is that array that it is at times difficult to figure out who is fighting whom—or what.
The Arthurian elements are established by the title character’s first name, and by a variation on the traditionally problematic or unusual Arthurian parentage: for Ygraine and Uther read Atlanna and Thomas.  Aquaman, like Perceval in multiple versions of the Arthurian legend, initially defeats a knight in red armor—here, of course, a sea knight. While King Arthur’s last battle is usually with his illegitimate son Mordred, Aquaman’s last battle with his half-brother Orm is a close enough parallel.  Mera is part Guinevere, part good Morgan le Fay.  Vulko serves as Aquaman’s Merlin, and the Trident is, of course, the film’s Excalibur.  Malory has it that "whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil is rightwise king born.”  In Aquaman, the ability to retrieve the Trident similarly guarantees who is “rightwise king born” of Atlantis. Aquaman’s interrogation by the Karathen at times recalls that of Arthur and his knights by Mighty Tim in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  In John Boorman’s Excalibur, Arthur learns that the secret of the Grail is that the land and the king are one.  In Aquaman, the title character declares that the land and the sea are one. 
Aquaman wears its eco-politics lightly. The counterattack that Orm leads against earth deposits back on land all the garbage that has been dumped into the world’s oceans to pollute them.  But there is no real green agenda to the film, hidden or otherwise.  The slow pace of the film’s middle is partially compensated for by the dizzying pace of its ending.  While Orm is imprisoned at the end of the film in a room with a view (a running joke from earlier in the film), we know enough about the fate of surviving film villains that he will inevitably return, especially since, as the final credits roll, a snarling, and wounded, David Kane reappears still vowing to kill Aquaman for the death of his father—thereby laying the groundwork for a sequel—one has already been greenlit—if not for a cinematic franchise.
The Arthuriad has proven attractive to writers and illustrators of comics for a very long time, perhaps most famously in the case of Hal Foster’s comic strip, Prince Valiant, where the title character, a banished Nordic Prince of Thule, starts out as squire to Sir Gawain.  The comic strip premiered in 1937 and inspired two feature-length films, an animated television series, multiple comic book and bande dessinée series, and a role-playing game. 
Aquaman’s characterization as a modern-day King Arthur does nothing to diminish the Arthuriad, rather it attests to its continuing elasticity.  Aquaman moves the Arthuriad into the world of comics and film superheroes.  And it won’t be the only film to do so.  This Spring promises another Hellboy film, with Milla Jovovich (who played Joan of Arc in the 1999 film The Messenger) as Nimue and Brian Gleeson as Merlin.  And, as if to prove further the prescience of Umberto Eco’s famous understatement in Travels in Hyperreality, “people seem to like the Middle Ages,” the “reel Middle Ages” as juvenilia will again soon be on display in Joe Cornish’s The Kid Who Would Be King, in which a group of young boys joins forces with Patrick Stewart’s Merlin to defeat Rebecca Ferguson’s Morgana and save the world, and in Dean DeBlois’s How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the third installment in the animated Viking film franchise. 

Aquaman, directed by James Wan from a screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McCormick and Will Beal; story by Geoff Johns, Will Beall and James Wan, based on characters from DC Comics’ Aquaman by Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger; edited by Kirk Morri; music by Rupert Gregson-Williams; cinematography by Don Burgess.  With Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Ludi Lin, Michael Beach, Randall Park, and Graham McTavish.  Co-produced by DC Films, Cruel and Unusual Films, the Peter Safran Company, and Mad Ghost Productions. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.  Running time: 143 minutes. Release dates: November 26, 2018 (UK); December 21, 2018 (US).

December 26, 2018

Robin Hood, dir. O. Bathurst (2018)

Robbing the Hood:
Robin Hood, directed by Otto Bathurst, 2018.
Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty
La Salle University

The legend of Robin Hood celebrates transgressive behavior.  King Arthur is authoritarian—the focus of a structured legend rooted in long foundational medieval texts by the likes of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Chrétien de Troyes, and Sir Thomas Malory.  Robin Hood is anti-authoritarian—the focus of an unstructured legend rooted in popular culture and shorter anonymous texts.  In literature, the Hoodian legend begins as what Roman Catholics used to call an occasion of sin.  In the B-text of Piers Plowman, William Langland in the late fourteenth century presents an idle priest, a figure of sloth, who has failed to learn his prayers but who knows instead the “rymes of Robin Hood.”  Those “rymes” mark the literary beginning of a legend that would grow by bits and bobs and cross genres for centuries, adding along the way characters and incidents with which we have become more than familiar, and, at one point, resituating itself in the time of King Richard I, some two hundred or so years earlier than when it sprang up.

Film began its fascination with Robin Hood at least as early as 1908; television, in 1950 in the United States, and three years later in England.  Rarely, it is safe to say, no matter what genre or media is employed, does someone retell the story of Robin Hood without nodding to earlier versions of the tale and to contemporary politics.  In the case of cinema, arguably the three best Robin Hood films react to world conflicts past (the 1922 Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.), present (Richard Lester’s 1976 Robin and Marian starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn), and future (the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn).  The Robin Hoods of television have similarly been used for political purposes: opposing the Hollywood Blacklist (the 1950s’ The Adventures of Robin Hood), opposing pollution and attacks on the environment (the 1980s’ Robin of Sherwood), and opposing the policies of Mrs. Thatcher (the 1990s’ Maid Marian and Her Merry Men).

Film’s latest foray into the Greenwood—Otto Bathurst’s 2018 Robin Hood—nods to earlier versions of the legend and to contemporary politics.  We have some of the usual suspects—Marian, Little John, Friar Tuck, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Guy of Gisborne, Will Scarlet (identified in the final rolling credits as Will Tillerman).   Prince John, Queen Eleanor, and King Richard, along with a number of the usual merry men, are AWOL.  Parts of the plot seem familiar enough.  The Sheriff, here in cahoots with the Church, is taxing people to death.  Robin is intent on stopping him.  Robin’s weapon of choice is a bow and arrow—his archery skills unmatched.  But as familiar as all this may sound, the film as a whole takes a decidedly different course with already well-known Hoodian naremes, and not with total success.  Indeed, it is fair to say of the film that its whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.

As the film opens, Robin of Loxley (Taran Eggerton) is leading a devil may care life comfortably ensconced in ancestral family home.  He stumbles on a horse thief, the not very well disguised Marian (Eve Hewson), who advocates a sort of income-inequality-is-bad philosophy light.  Marian’s costumer designer for this scene seems to have decided for some unknown reason that she needs to display as much of her breasts as it is possible to do so.  To be fair, the camera’s cinematic gaze here knows no gender prejudices.  Later in the film, Robin is wounded in the thigh by an arrow but must remove his shirt, and thereby display his twelve pack, to receive treatment.

In this Hoodian cinematic enterprise, Nottingham seems at the center of all things England, as the Crusades are being waged off in the East and need conscripts, so Robin receives, in a wonderfully retro scene, what else but a draft notice, duly signed by the Sheriff (a wonderfully dastardly Ben Mendelson).  But that notice sends Robin off not to the Holy Land but to the Arabian Peninsula, where there are medieval versions of weapons of mass destruction (a Gatling gun-like weapon that fire arrows), snipers (Arab and English), and extra-judicial killings of POWs (Abu Ghraib meets My Lai) under the command of Gisborne (Paul Anderson, who will later return to England as a member of a medieval Black Ops team).  A wounded Robin, who has challenged Gisborne’s actions, is shipped back home after having been away from Nottingham for two years, accompanied by the film’s version of Little John (Jamie Foxx, playing an Arab who has watched his son be killed by Gisborne).  Ever since Kevin Reynold’s 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, we have come to expect that Robin will have a Muslim sidekick, though here Foxx merges the 1991 Morgan Freeman role of Azeem with the character of one of the Hoodian legend’s original merry men.

While Robin has been away, all has not been well at Loxley Hall.  Indeed, the Sheriff has declared Robin dead and confiscated his lands.  Marian, who had pledged undying love to Robin when he set out on Crusade, has found consolation in the arms of Will (Jamie Dornan, late of The Fifty Shades of Grey franchise who, in a wonderful visual joke, only wears grey costumes throughout the film).  Dornan’s Will is some sort of labor organizer as Nottingham is not only the center of all things England, but the city also sits atop a huge mine into which workers are sent at their peril.  Exactly what is being mined is unclear, but the working conditions seem to have been inspired by those in any number of sci-fi intergalactic prison films (think Judge Dredd).

The Sheriff is intent upon exploiting the citizens of Nottingham to raise as much money as possible, supposedly for the Crusade. In his endeavors, he is aided and abetted by the local clergy who attach themselves to a huge cathedral that seems the center piece of Nottingham, though the cathedral doesn’t look all that medieval, nor do the costumes of the clergy, of the Sheriff, or of the other characters in the film.  My guess is that the Sheriff shops at Kenneth Cole; Robin, at Alexander McQueen; and Will, at Abercrombie & Fitch.  Even Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin), who functions as an agent provocateur within the church, sports a bright green tunic, which seems as far removed as possible from what we might expect for a medieval clerical habit—the same is true of the costumes of his clerical superiors.  Indeed, the film’s costumes and the sets are at times designed consciously not to be medieval.  The costumes in particular remind me of the wonderful exhibit last year at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art called Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic, which displayed papal regalia along side nearly 150 contemporary ensembles inspired by them.  The film’s costumes resemble the contemporary ensembles more than they do the vestments which inspired them. And Nottingham Cathedral seems modelled on the Temple of the High Sparrow from Game of Thrones more than on any genuinely Romanesque or Gothic structure.

Tuck, Will, Marian, and Robin are convinced that the Sheriff is up to no good—when is he ever in a Hoodian narrative up to anything but no good?—but the Sheriff’s aims and motivation escape them, so Robin pretends to ally himself with the Sheriff against the peasants who in the film are—bad pun à la Mel Brooks coming here—always revolting.  We soon learn the Sheriff was an orphan cruelly reared by abusive clergy—nod here to the ongoing clerical abuse scandal involving the Catholic Church—but he himself is the creature of the film’s true villain simply called the Cardinal (played by an oleaginous, snarling F. Murray Abraham).  What the two are up to is raising great amounts of money to support the Arab efforts in the Middle East, so that, once the Arabs win, the Cardinal can basically rule the world with the Sheriff at his side.

Robin, after some training by Little John in a sequence that nods to, of all cinematic predecessors, Rocky, then springs into action to defeat the Sheriff and the Cardinal—Will advocates a less confrontational response, which only exacerbates the tension between Robin and Will over the affections of Marian.  Robin, Tuck, and Marian manage to hide all the wealth that the Cardinal and Sheriff have accumulated in Sherwood, but Will becomes a casualty in the final battle. Wounded and horribly disfigured, he appears in the film’s final scene as the Sheriff’s new sidekick intent upon opposing everything we previously advocated, think Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight.

As I indicated earlier, this latest Hoodian film is, in the final analysis, less than the sum of its parts.  The film’s opening and closing graphics are borrowed from Arrow, the popular Hoodian television series on the CW channel. Familiar characters appear in unfamiliar situations—not unheard of in previous Hoodian films.  Bathurst’s film gives us Robin Hood before he took to Sherwood and began to rob from the rich and give to the poor—but so did the last Robin Hood film, Riley Scott’s 2010 Robin Hood with Russell Crowe in the title role, and Cate Blanchett as a Marian modelled, it would seem, on Ingrid Bergman’s Joan of Arc in Victor Fleming’s 1948 film. Throughout the 2018 film, there are nods to earlier films, Hoodian and otherwise.  Contemporary political and social issues get thrown into the mix higgledy-piggledy.  Bathurst’s film even presents a Hoodian bad-boy parallel to the King Arthur whom we had from Guy Ritchie in his 2017 film, and, like King Arthur, it was clearly filmed with a series of sequels in mind—in neither case, however, will such sequels be forthcoming, so badly have both films tanked at the box office.  But to be fair, the Ritchie film offers a fresh take on the Arthuriad, as I have argued earlier in Medievally Speaking, and deserves a better critical reception and more appreciation than it has received.  The same can’t be said for Bathurst’s film—here the legend of Robin Hood gets robbed!

Robin Hood, directed by Otto Bathurst. Screenplay by Ben Chandler and David James Kelly.  Summit Entertainment, Appian Way, Pixoloid Studios, Safehouse Pictures, and Thunder Road Pictures. 2018.  Running time: 1:56.

November 12, 2018

Outlaw King

Beam Me Up, Robbie!: Outlaw King, directed by David Mackenzie

Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty, La Salle University,

A Saturday Night Live skit last year poked fun at the confusion over the current profusion of young actors with the first name Chris.  There are Chris Evans (Captain America), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Chris Pratt (the Jurassic dinosaur guy), and Chris Pine (the young James Tiberius Kirk from Star Trek). And it is Pine who has traded in his journey into the future to galaxies far, far away for a journey into the past to a medieval Scotland in seemingly endless conflict with England—though thanks to Brexit, that conflict continues, albeit decidedly less bloodily so than in the film, today. In Outlaw King, Pine plays the often-embattled Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) who reigned, at times uneasily, as King of the Scots from 1306 until his death.

Outlaw King, now running almost 30 minutes shorter than it did in its original festival release, must at least in passing deal with another famous Scottish thistle in the side of the English, William Wallace (1270-1305), whose life Mel Gibson brought, with considerable historical license, to the screen in the 1995 film Braveheart.  Wallace defeated an English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in September 1297, and was then briefly Governor of Scotland.  His defeat at the Battle of Fallkirk in July 1298 forced him to go into hiding until his capture in 1305.  Wallace, or at least his severed left arm, makes a brief appearance in Outlaw King.  His execution—vividly recreated by Gibson, who in Braveheart dies screaming “Freedom!”—was notably gruesome even by medieval standards.  He was first hanged, but cut down while he was still alive. He was then castrated and eviscerated, and had his bowels burned before him. Finally, he was drawn and quartered, and beheaded. His head was put on a pike atop London Bridge, and his severed limbs were then separately sent to be displayed throughout Scotland as a warning to any other would-be rebels of the wrath of England’s Edward I.  And, in Outlaw King, the public display of Wallace’s severed arm as a warning and threat leads to yet another Scottish rebellion, now under the initially reluctant leadership of Robert the Bruce.

[Left: Mel Gibson as William Wallace in Braveheart]
Wallace’s cause was also Robert’s—the two were briefly allied.  In 1290, succession to the Scottish throne became a cause of continuing conflict, as there was no clear claimant to that throne after the death of King Alexander III and then that of his heir and granddaughter, Margaret, Maid of Norway, herself only a child.  With their country on the brink of civil war, the Scottish nobles and clans invited England’s Edward I to come north to settle the matter.  Edward’s solution was to declare himself ruler of Scotland, and the Scots soon rose in a series of rebellions against his increasingly tyrannical rule.  Outlaw King opens in 1302 with Robert the Bruce repledging fealty to Edward I (Stephen Dillane), and receiving in return royal forgiveness for his previous rebellious activities and the hand of the daughter of the Earl of Ulster, Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), in a politically advantageous marriage—Robert’s first wife having died in childbirth. In addition, Edward, somewhat unconvincingly, promises to recognize the Bruce claim to the Scottish throne, though John Comyn (Callan Mulvey), long a rival to the Bruces, also advances his in many ways more legitimate familial claim to the same throne.  

The death of Robert’s father (James Cosmo), who had fought with Edward on crusade in the Holy Land, leaves the younger Bruce with second thoughts about how much Edward is to be trusted.  Comyn agrees to meet Robert, but when he learns of the latter’s plans to mount a revolt against Edward, Comyn reasserts his allegiance to Edward and promises to betray Robert.  In a moment of pique, Robert kills Comyn, and after some ecclesiastical hair splitting about how sacrilegious the murder actually may be since it takes place in an abbey church, the bishops of Scotland rush Robert to Scone to be crowned King of the Scots. Edward soon enough defeats the Scots under Robert’s rule, and Robert takes to land and sea to escape the English, until 1307 when, thanks to his use of especially brutal guerilla tactics, Robert manages to defeat a much larger English army, now led by Edward II (Billy Howle), at Loudoun Hill. The film ends with that battle. 

In 1314, at the more important Battle of Bannockburn, Robert would defeat an even larger English army led by Edward II, and thereby ensure Scottish independence, though peace between Scotland and England was not finally established until 1327 under Edward III.  Of course, Robert’s descendants would three centuries later ascend the English throne after the death of Queen Elizabeth I.  At times, history can be nothing short of ironic.

Directed by David Matthews, from an original screenplay which he co-wrote, Outlaw King is only the latest example of what I have called “the reel Middle Ages,” films that bring the medieval to life with varying degrees of historical accuracy, and with sometimes radically different cultural agendas.  Pine broods well, but doesn’t quite have the gravitas necessary to be an epic film hero, nor, in the film, to rally the fractious Scottish clans to his cause—he meets with indifference and betrayal as he crisscrosses Scotland in an attempt to raise an army. 

Indeed, Robert’s wife outshines him initially when she stands up to the English who are about to conscript a mere boy into Edward’s army.  Robert had counseled patience, not boldness.  Dillane’s Edward I seems less threatening and villainous than Patrick McGoohan’s in Braveheart, though Howle’s Edward II is decidedly less effeminate and more dangerous than Peter Hanly’s in the Gibson film.  Indeed, Howle’s Edward II is totally mad, and clearly bent on outdoing his father’s cruelty.  When he marches north, he unleashes “the dragon,” thereby eschewing the laws of chivalry and giving his troops a free hand to adopt whatever military tactics they want.  Scottish women are shipped off to England to become servants and sexual playthings; men and boys are summarily executed wherever they are captured.

In Outlaw King, the English have long lost their patience with the Scots, and they adopt a take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth policy in dealing with the rebels.  That policy leads to scenes of at times gratuitous and gruesome violence—a Scottish lord is strung up and then has his belly slit open so that his entrails spill out in front of a horrified crowd.  His father protests, only to have his own throat cut.  Robert’s wife is suspended in a cage off of a cliff, and left exposed to the elements.  Robert’s own guerilla tactics lead to a final bloody conflict that spares neither man nor beast as the would-be King of the Scots uses the very land upon which he treads as his ally against the invaders. 

[Left: Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce in Outlaw King]
Bogs and ditches dotted with sharpened wooden spikes quickly make mincemeat of the English cavalry and their horses. Before the final battle, we get the obligatory rally-the-troops speech—twice.  Edward II urges the English to fight to defend their borders from invading swarms of Scots—striking a note with decidedly global echoes today.  Robert is brief: he urges his men to fight for whatever they believe in—God, Scotland, clan, family, self—just as long as they fight.  Neither rises to the rhetorical heights that Gibson’s William Wallace did in Braveheart. In battle, Robert’s right hand man is James “Black” Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who is Loudoun Hill’s version of a Viking berserker.  During the battle scenes, the scale of carnage is beyond the pale.  Robert has the opportunity to kill Edward II, but he allows him to crawl back to his troops to fight another day—though Edward II would soon enough be deposed by his own nobles.

The medieval historical epic has been a cinematic staple for more than a century.  The reasons are obvious—such films present larger than life characters whose stories are the stuff of legend.  But the golden age of the medieval historical epic has long past. In Outlaw King, except for two very brief scenes, a wedding and a funeral, in which the costume and wardrobe department seems to have decided to blow the budget, gone is the pageantry, the epic sweep, the panoramic long shot—think how Charlton Heston as the eponymous hero in Anthony Mann’s 1961 El Cid goes riding off into the sunset in the film’s final, awe-inspiring scene, and compare that scene and ride with the domesticity more than evident in Robert’s final rush on horseback to embrace his wife, who has been uncaged and returned to him as part of a prisoner exchange.  Robert is not here riding off into history and legend.  He is simply going home to his wife and daughter. Outlaw King goes for the close-up—the personal rather than the epic. Instead of pageantry, we get gore.  Instead of history, we get gritty costume piece.  The lulls in action are brief, and few, quickly giving way to more violence and gore. The camera wants us to see Robert’s scarred and bloody face, and Edward’s puking crawl through the mud as he feebly tries to reunite with troops who have abandoned him. 

[Left: In Anthony Mann’s 1961 El Cid, though dead, Charlton Heston as the title character riding off at the film’s end into history and legend.]

Heston, of course, made a career out of playing epic screen roles and larger-than-life characters; he was Moses, Ben Hur, Sir Thomas More, Cardinal Richelieu, China Gordon, Marc Antony, and Michelangelo.  A blue-faced and wide-eyed righteous avenger, Gibson’s Wallace, was, for better or worse, also larger than life.  Pine’s Robert is much less so.  His Robert is a character for the small screen—the laptop or iPhone—not for the wide screen or CinemaScope.  As the young Kirk, Jack Ryan and Wonder Woman’s Steve Trevor, Pine has certainly shown that he can act, though he clearly cannot carry a film like Outlaw King, whose predominant mood is an almost universal world weariness.  The Scots are weary of the English invading, and the English are weary of the Scots rebelling—as Dillane’s King Edward I bellows: “I am so sick of Scotland!”  Elizabeth has more spunk that her husband—and she is no one’s fool, victim, blushing bride, or obedient daughter.  She stands up to her parents, to Edward II, and even to her husband, defiant and shedding nary a tear, though she too can’t carry the film.  Film rarely finds medieval women engrossing or of more than passing interest, and, in Outlaw King, Elizabeth’s husband receives similar (mis)treatment.

Outlaw King directed by David Mackenzie, a Netflix release of a Sigma Film production, in association with Netflix and Anonymous Content.  Screenplay by David Mackenzie, James MacInnes, and Bathsheba Doran.  With Chris Pine (Robert the Bruce), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (James Douglas, Lord of Douglas), Florence Pugh (Elizabeth de Burgh), Billy Howle (Edward, Prince of Wales), Tony Curran (Angus Og Macdonald, Lord of Islay), Stephen Dillane (King Edward I), Sam Spruell (Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke), Callan Mulvey (John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch), James Cosmo (Robert Bruce senior), Paul Blair (William Lamberton, Archbishop of St. Andrews) , Chris Fulton (Euan Bruce), Steven Cree (Sir Christopher Seton), Stephen McMillan (Squire Drew Forfar), Lorne MacFayden (Neil Bruce), Jack Greenlees (Alexander Bruce), Josie O’Brien (Marjorie Bruce), Alastair Mackenzie (John Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl), and Gilly Gilchrist (Maol Cholum I, Earl of Lennox). 146/120 minutes. From November 9, 2018, screening in cinemas and streaming on Netflix.