A cry, a charge, hundreds of bodies rushing together in the chaos and confusion of combat. The clatter and bang of weaponry, a rain of mud and blood as a field is churned into a battleground. Another cry: “Cut!”
Standing ankle-deep in mud a few miles north of Glasgow, in Mugdock Park, The Big Issue is on the set of the Netflix film Outlaw King. The biggest film ever made on Scottish soil (and there’s a lot of soggy soil around) with a budget of over £100 million, it’s taking on a suitably weighty subject: the story of Robert the Bruce, legendary king and liberator of the country.
It seems that every bearded man in the west of Scotland has been rounded up as an extra to swell the ranks of the Scottish, but mostly English, army. In 1307 the Battle of Loudoun Hill, recreated today, became Bruce’s first major victory as his ragtag band of 500 overcame a legion of 3,000 English soldiers. The David and Goliath tale sounds more folklore than fact and carries lots of baggage in our age of nationalism and fake news when history and war are weaponised by various people for various ends. The Declaration of Arbroath from 1320 tripped off a lot of independence supporters’ tongues during the Scottish referendum, Churchill quotes have been recruited to argue for and against Brexit. So how do you depict history and war without glorifying or fetishising?
I’m not sure if I was even familiar with Robert at all. Obviously you hear about William Wallace
Things usually get trickier when Hollywood, not always known for delicate nuance, gets involved (just ask the Mel Gibson lookalike statue that stands under the Wallace Monument in Stirling) and it is American actor Chris Pine – currently People magazine’s 22nd sexiest man alive – playing Bruce.
In a tent, with mud slopped across every surface, including Pine’s face and clothes, he acknowledges the burden that comes with the role.
“Of course I do,” he says. “Clearly Robert holds a special place in Scottish history and in people’s minds, especially given the current climate of independence and all that. So I do feel a responsibility – one I will never be able to live up to just because it’s simply impossible.
“There’s only so much I can do. But I did the work I felt I had to do to know the man as much as I could, given the fact he lived nearly 800 years ago. I’m not even sure if I was familiar with Robert at all,” he admits. “Obviously you hear about William Wallace…”
Ah, William Wallace. The man, the myth, Braveheart. Robert the Bruce turned up in Mel Gibson’s epic as the man who ultimately betrayed him in a version of historic events massaged and manipulated for dramatic effect. Bruce’s tale is also often reduced to almost fairytale dimensions; hiding in a cave with a spider trying and trying again to string his web. The arachnid’s dogged determination inspired Bruce to keep fighting and the rest of Scottish nationalist narrative followed behind.
Chris Pine talks about wanting to separate the man from the myth… but at that exact moment with immaculate timing, a tiny spider descends between us on a spindle of web from the roof of the mucky tent. It seems like fate, even if we’re focusing on fact, but there is no time to reflect before Pine is called back to action.
Authenticity is the order of the day, from costume to location to accent. Veteran Scottish actor Tony Curran speaks of filming in the real places the characters would have lived in and visited. “Glasgow Cathedral is one of the oldest standing buildings in the United Kingdom, it’s been there since the 12th century, and we were shooting a scene in an area where the event would have happened. It gets the hairs up on the back of your neck.”
Patrolling the set is dialect coach Barbara Berkery – renowned in the industry for perfecting Renée Zellweger’s Bridget Jones – who says the Scottish accent is currently in great demand. One of her pupils, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is playing Bruce’s comrade ‘Black’ Douglas, and credits her with helping him understand his character. “She collected a lot of 13th and 14th century Scottish poetry for us to get into, that was extremely helpful,” he says.
Needing less voice coaching is Billy Howle, the English actor playing the Prince of Wales. The baddie, right?
“I don’t really believe in baddies,” Howle answers. “He didn’t ask to be the Prince of Wales, in the same way none of us ask to be who we are. It’s foisted upon him.
“As soon as we start to talk about heroes and villains a lot of the politics of the time and the reason for the warfare and bloody battles is lost. Things were cut-throat, absolute in that you would be fearing for your life most days. That’s very difficult to imagine because we don’t live that way any more. The amount of adrenaline and testosterone thrown into the mix, you can start to understand why a lot of the events that occurred did.”
Howle admits he too did not know much about the history they are re-enacting besides the story of the spider.
“What I did know becomes almost folklore,” he says. “You get this idea of a person which can be quite dangerous if you’re not informed fully with the facts. Film can be a very powerful propagation of ideas, sometimes much more so than history. There’s a responsibility to aim for authenticity because you’re showing this to a large audience so you’re informing their beliefs or understanding.”
As Pine and Howle take position at opposite ends of the set, we walk through the battlefield. No expense or detail has been spared in recreating carnage. A group of extras chat while perched on a model of a disembowelled horse, its intestines snaking into the sludge. Another is on his mobile phone, but dangling from his wrist is another, severed, hand. We weave through piles of bodies and body parts until our path is blocked by a series of trenches sunk into the ground. During the Battle of Loudoun Hill, these ensnared the English cavalry; either side was flanked by bogs in which heavily armed soldiers sank and drowned. Bruce used his knowledge of the land to overcome those who conquer the land. It was the mud what won it.
Wallace wasn’t a man, he was an idea – a dangerous and destructive idea.
Directing the battle (and the entire film) from behind a monitor is David Mackenzie. His last film Hell or High Water, which also starred Chris Pine, was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, which meant his stock had risen enough for him to be able to fulfil his dream project back home in Scotland.
“I’ve been scouting for locations all my life,” he says, explaining that Bruce had long been a source of fascination. “In our family, we’ve got a family tree that goes back [to Bruce’s time] so that was always part of the mythology when I was growing up.”
At one point in the film, a character describing the recently martyred William Wallace says: “Wallace wasn’t a man, he was an idea – a dangerous and destructive idea.”
Why isn’t Robert the Bruce a dangerous idea?
“Coming closer to the true story of Robert and rescuing him from other mythologies is not dangerous, I think it’s important,” Mackenzie says. “William Wallace, for all his bravado and integrity and strength, certainly had some failures and didn’t achieve his aims at all. We made a hero out of the wrong guy.”
Digital streaming company Netflix funded the film after other studios were reluctant to invest in, according to producer Gillian Berrie, “medieval fodder which is not full of effects and over-the-top characters”.
“We live in a world where fantasy in film and television is almost dominant,” Mackenzie agrees. “I feel certain that the world of fantasy and the world of post-truth are somehow connected.
The spectacle is horrific, chaotic but there is beauty too.
“Bruce has been mired in legend so trying to unpick that and turn him into a human being is more interesting to me than the fantasy version. The more complex and human, the more you understand the world in which these guys were operating. It’s as much about personalities as it is about nationalities. That seems better than the idea of simplifying moral black and white stories that get your blood boiling.
“It’s a really great story but it’s not an easy story that gives you easy answers. At this point in time there are far too many over-simplifications that provide easy answers and allow people to get on their high horse. This is a 700-year-old story, meaningful in its own terms back then; its contemporary parallels are more obtuse and harder to read.”
The scene is set for hundreds of filthy, freezing hairy extras to charge into each other again, playing out thousands of mini victories and defeats in silhouette against the setting sun.
The spectacle is horrific, chaotic but there is beauty too. Should there be? Mackenzie’s trenches are separated by centuries from those of the First World War, but the scene seems tragically timeless. Bloody battles punctuate our history; commemorated, celebrated, lessons never learned.
“I’m definitely not interested in making violence glamorous or balletic,” Mackenzie says. “To me it should be representative of the reality: messy and quick and confusing.”
He points out a detail that was invisible from the ground; the trenches are designed in the threads and spires of a spider’s web, symbolising the trap we fall into again and again and again.
Outlaw King is in select cinemas and launching globally on Netflix on November 9