“I was looking for a chance to do a medieval film set in Scotland that aspired towards the elemental power and the poetic realism of Tarkovsky’s Andrej Rublev,” says Scottish director David Mackenzie, who crafted the screenplay for Outlaw King with Bash Doran and James MacInnes.
Outlaw King was an incredibly personal project for David Mackenzie and is captured for the first time on film, illustrating the turbulent story of Robert the Bruce’s extraordinary journey from defeated noble to murderer to king to outlaw as he struggled to reclaim medieval Scotland from occupation, striking back against King Edward of England’s mighty army.
It’s the 10th feature film to be directed by award-winning Mackenzie, whose body of work includes Hell or High Water, Starred Up, Hallam Foe, and Young Adam. Mackenzie and long-time filmmaking partner Gillian Berrie produce via their Scottish Production company Sigma Films with the support of Anonymous Content and launched it globally on Netflix in 2018.
“Initially I was interested in St Columba, who came from Ireland and introduced Christianity to Scotland. But then I came to the conclusion that Robert was the elephant in the room, the Scottish national hero, who was almost too dangerous to touch – a real hero for sure, but a complex one. So we took the plunge!,” says Mackenzie.
David Mackenzie is an acclaimed Scottish writer, producer and director. He is a co-founder of Sigma
Films along with his producing partner, Gillian Berrie. He graduated film school at the University of Westminster. His films include the contemporary western Hell or High Water (2016) , Starred Up (2013), Perfect Sense (2011), Asylum (2007), Hallam Foe (2007), and Young Adam (2003).
Screenwriter James MacInnes The Rocket Post won the Grand Prize at the Stony Brook Festival, and worked on the original TV series Tribes and Templar.
Screenwriter Bash Doran was Co-Executive Producer on Hulu’s The Looming Tower, and was a Co-Executive Producer on Steve McQueen’s HBO project Codes Of Conduct, a Co-Producer on Masters Of Sex, story editor on NBC’s Smash and a Staff Writer on Boardwalk Empire.
One of the biggest challenges was to work out how to tell such an epic story within the timeframe of a film
“We soon realized our initial thoughts of a broad life story with several epic battles and vast timespans was not going to work. The complicated history from the death of the Scottish King Alexander III in 1286 through to submission of all Scotland’s feudal lords at the siege of Stirling in 1304 – which is where in the end we decided to start our story – is enough to fill several films. And of course Robert’s epic battle at Bannockburn in 1314 needs a film in its own right. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that the period between 1304 and 1307 was where the most extreme things were happening – and this is what we have focused on.” says Mackenzie.
“We conflated some characters and events in the interests of drama and time, but we have broadly been very faithful to the recorded history or this timeframe.”
“It was a pivotal time in Scotland’s tempestuous history and effectively the existence of the country was at
stake. In removing the crown and all Scottish regalia (including the Stone of Destiny, the traditional crowning seat of all Scottish kings) Edward was basically trying to subsume Scotland into England. William
Wallace and his armies had tried and failed to fight this and Edward had basically won. It was only the
Scottish Church, who were using every influence they had to try to prevent their absorption into England’s
church and Robert’s dawning realisation that Edward had played his family with false promises that the
crown would be conferred on them once things settled down that prevented this from happening. Unlike
Wallace, Robert eventually prevailed through both war and politics and his struggle led to Scotland’s
recognition again as independent kingdom (both by the English king and importantly the Pope). But it was not without great cost and sacrifice to himself and his supporters, against overwhelming odds.”
“Robert the Bruce’s transformation from noble to outlaw came to a dramatic head in early 1306 when
Robert met John Comyn, his rival claimant to the Scottish crown, at Greyfriars Church in Dumfries, to
discuss possible plans to oppose Edward’s occupation. An argument broke out between the two when it
became clear that Comyn intended to betray Robert to Edward for treason. Robert murdered Comyn. This
was an act of sacrilege that led to Robert’s, (and then his followers’) excommunication by the Pope (a
major thing in those days) and the wrath of King Edward who had assumed Scottish submission and
compliance to his occupation. This set in motion the tumble of events that led Robert down his path.”
“To get to this moment within half an hour was an elusive challenge for a script with so many characters
and events to set up, but one to which we kept returning,” says Mackenzie.
“Robert was inaugurated as king by the Scottish bishops (Scottish royals did not have coronations) who
unilaterally absolved him of his great sin before the Pope could react. But his destiny soon took a
devastating turn when the forces he had been gathering were defeated at Methven by Valence in a
surprise night-time attack and reduced to just a handful of men. He goes from King to desperate outlaw in one night. The fact that he somehow manages to claw his way back is what makes the story so
extraordinary,” Mackenzie observes. “He went from being one of the richest men in England and Scotland
to becoming a complete outlaw – living on the run, hounded by Edward’s army with no one but a few loyal supporters on his side. And yet he persisted, like the spider constantly rebuilding its broken web in the children’s myths about him we grew up with. And eventually he succeeded.”
“From the moment he resolves to take action, he suffers a string of failures taking him to rock bottom –
including the capture and death of so many of his loved ones. He then picks himself up and starts to fight
back using strategy over might to develop medieval guerilla style tactics, culminating for our film in
Loudon Hill in 1307, Robert’s first and only open battle with the occupiers until 1314 – and a major turning point in his fortunes and his support among the Scottish people.” Mackenzie explains.
“Robert’s family life was running concurrently with these events. He was beholden to his father’s wishes as
everyone would have in this patriarchal society. His first wife died giving birth to his beloved daughter
Marjorie and he still grieved her. But his arranged marriage to King Edward’s god-daughter Elizabeth de
Burgh turned out to be more than a marriage of convenience and as love blossomed so did her support of Robert’s actions – even against the interests of her own family and at great personal sacrifice. This special romance is such a strong part of the history that it deserves its significant place in the film.
The complex webs of family ties, obligations and privileges is one of the things that make the power play
of the feudal system so interesting. By giving land and wealth to their supporters, an overlord buys their
loyalty. A king can effectively control a whole country with a few people obliged to be on his side; a lord
can do the same with his subjects and on it goes down the social scale. It is such an effective method of
governance that I think elements of it still exist in Scotland today,” comments Mackenzie.
“Although it is complicated to show, we tried to get hints of this social structure into the story where we
could and the scenes where Robert is obliged to conscript some of his tenants to fight in Edward’s army in France are an attempt to show this in action.”
“I wanted us to make an epic realist film that in its own way stood against the tide of fantasy film-making – we called it an anti-fantasy film. We were interested in exploring the realities of what life must have been like for our characters back then. The costumes are inspired by the limited images from drawings and tapestries that survive – and some clothes of the time discovered preserved in bogs. The production design was based on extensive research of the period. Many of the scenes had live music in, which would have been the reality of the time.”
Outlaw King marked the beginning of Mackenzie’s rewarding working relationship with actor Chris Pine
“This has elements of a classic action hero story: the underdog who rises to overcome incredible odds, a
David and Goliath tale if you like. I knew David would do something spectacular with this story – he was so passionate about it,’ Pine says.
Playing Scotland’s legendary national hero was rightly an intimidating prospect for Pine.
“As an American playing a Scottish icon, it was nerve wracking. I researched and read a lot – but medieval
history does not relate the nuances of the man. Many written accounts are embellished for the exultation
of this Scottish hero. He was complex – driven in part by political ego but he also made many selfless
decisions for the good of his country and initially he lost land, his wealth and his family all in the service of his people. Finding the essence of the man who could do that was key. Working closely with David was so helpful of course and I hope we have done his story justice,” Pine says.
It is a tale that played to Mackenzie’s interests as a filmmaker and allowed him to investigate the tenuous
bridge between hero and anti-hero, told in a way that is both epic and intimate. Honor, loyalty, tyranny,
friendship, love, loss – all inform the story of Robert the Bruce. “I have always been drawn to anti-heroic films not heroic ones. Robert is absolutely a hero but he is not an easy one. I was inspired by the complex true hero narratives like Lawrence of Arabia and Andrej Rublev, which is also a great representation of medieval life.
The whole notion of the hero has been so formularized and codified by cinema, that real heroism is almost lost to it (with exceptions of course!). Real life stories are much more complicated. It is difficult to take a real life historical character and honestly tell it, with all its narrative inconveniences, in a film narrative without resorting to myth and legend. As soon as you condense you start being less true. This has been a huge challenge of this film – to distill enough to make a fluid entertaining film while hanging onto the historical reality of an iconic figure – who has already been misrepresented in a very successful film. It is so easy to mythologize and the appetite for it is clear among audiences, but it is harder to try to demythologize while still being entertaining. This is what we have tried to do – and we have been helped by some extraordinary true events that we based the film upon.