Rob Roy, Taking Liberties


In 1817, at the peak of his popularity as an historical novelist, Sir Walter Scott dashed off this bit of doggeral to accompany the manuscript which he was forwarding to his old friend and printer, James Ballantyne. Exceedingly popular in the nineteenth century, Scott's numerous works, such as Ivanhoe, Quentin Durwood, Kenilworth, and Woodstock, earned him the nickname of the father of the historical novel. According to Eric Anderson, Scott's numerous novels remain " enduring and massive achievement." Nevertheless, Scott has been labeled by his critics as both "The Great Unknown" and, more bitterly, "The Great Unread." Fortunately since World War II, a handful of films have preserved and inspired a continuing, even resurgent, interest in his many works. Ivanhoe remains perennially popular as indicated by recent productions, while older films such as Quentin Durwood still appear occasionally on late night television. Above all, the popularity of a recent film, Rob Roy, based upon one of his most difficult novels, indicates that Scott, and indeed Scottish history, still provides a treasury of creativity relatively untapped by the imaginative and historically oriented film maker.

After years of relative neglect, period films set in Scotland made a comeback in the mid 1990's. Mel Gibson's portrayal of folk hero William Wallace in Braveheart won Oscar recognition in 1995. In the wake of the enormous attention garnered by Braveheart, many viewers may have overlooked other recent Scottish epics such as The Bruce, Chasing the Deer, and even Rob Roy. Certainly of the latter films, the most successful was Rob Roy. Inspired by popular nineteenth century author Sir Walter Scott's novel of the same name, Rob Roy is a story of love, honor and revenge in the early 1700's.

In his own time, Scott's historical works earned him praise for making the past come alive. Although he also penned novels set in a variety of British and European settings, his Scottish novels are generally regarded as his best. Yet, Scott's reputation as a literary figure has fluctuated over the years. Some critics berate him for not expressing the tension between England and Scotland more stridently, while others praise him for presenting any exciting Scottish history at all to judgmental English readers raised on the myths of the Fifteen, the Forty Five and Cullodon. In addition, the extent to which personal financial difficulties influenced Scott's literary output and the rapidity with which he turned out his novels produced much literary debate. Nevertheless, with a little plot streamlining, character modification, and the addition of some twentieth century spice, Scott's novels and, in particular, the story of Rob Roy MacGregor still entertains almost two centuries after it first appeared.

Irish actor Liam Neeson stars as the stalwart chieftain, Robert Roy MacGregor. The story begins with MacGregor and men of his clan tracking a group of cattle thieves. When MacGregor overtakes the robbers, he kills the group leader, but sets the rest free. This opening establishes the severe yet just manner in which the story's hero deals with his obligations.

Having completed their task, MacGregor and his men return home. MacGregor is troubled by the desperate poverty of the Scottish people and recognizes that such conditions might easily drive men to lawlessness. The implied injustice of poverty introduces an important conflict in both the novel and the film; the personal, social, and economic tension between Rob Roy MacGregor and the great nobles who control the fortunes of Scotland and its people provides the tension which drives the film.

To its credit, Rob Roy does not portray the aristocracy as monolithic or totally arbitrary. In fact, the Marquis of Montrose, played by John Hurt, is shown as a diffident man and a somewhat inept courtier, yet still preoccupied with intrigues and material accumulation, while the Duke of Argyll is depicted as a reasonably even-handed and well-grounded country gentleman. Although the Marquis is not a sympathetic character, neither is he a villain. That role is filled by members of the Marquis' retinue, in particular a young rake named Archibald Cunningham, portrayed with style and malevolence by Tim Roth.

When Robert MacGregor secures a loan from the Marquis of Montrose in order to buy cattle and use the proceeds to benefit his clansmen, Cunningham, aided by the Marquis's unscrupulous factor or estate manager, plots to steal the money. When their scheme succeeds, MacGregor finds himself unable to pay the Marquis. When the Marquis suggests that the debt might be remitted in exchange for a denunciation of his ancestral enemy and rival at court, the Duke of Argyll, MacGregor nobly refuses. The Marquis tries to take MacGregor into custody for default on his debt, but the hero escapes and takes refuge as an escaped outlaw in the mountains of Scotland. There, although the government's troops "...suffered from the adventurous spirit of the outlaw.... These...were never sullied by ferocity.... For equally good-tempered and sagacious... "Rob Roy possessed "many traits of mercy, and even generosity...." The outlaw, Scott concluded, was "a remarkable man."

Yet, interestingly enough, Scott's Rob Roy is not the hero of the novel. In fact, Rob Roy is almost an incidental figure in Scott's story of a young Englishman, Frank Osbaldistone, banished north by an angry father in the era of The Fifteen, the Scottish rebellion in 1715 to place the Old Pretender on the throne of England and overthrow German George, the first Hanoverian King of England. Ironically, Rob Roy, like a haunting piece of music appears and reappears only a few times through out the novel.

Scott worried about this and in his introduction to the novel in 1817 confessed bluntly and amusingly the difficulty in living up to a title in which the title character has so small a role. He wrote: "When the author projected this further encroachment on the patience of an indulgent public, he was at some loss for a title; a good name being very nearly of as much consequence in literature as in life. The title of Rob Roy was suggested by the late Mr. Constable, whose sagacity and experience foresaw the germ of popularity which it included."

If Scott could make a relatively minor but important thematic character into the title character of his book for the sake of better sales, it seems fitting, even appropriate, that in turn the film should take the liberty of making Rob Roy, into the central player and allow him to live up to the title of the novel.

Moreover, this most recent film adaptation does not dwell on the arcane and difficult political aspects of the struggle between Scottish clansmen and aristocracy, or indeed between the English monarchy and its Jacobean cousins. In fact, the protagonist's Jacobite politics are never elaborated upon, instead serving primarily as a plot device. The story does provide, however, a fine example of Walter Scott's conception of a hero. In Rob Roy, as in all Scott's novels, the hero is steadfast, incorruptible, and indomitable. Not only does the film capture the author's vision of a romanticized past, but it also presents it in a manner accessible to modern viewers. While the story may have been rendered almost apolitical, it likewise is freed to concentrate on the evolving personal relationship between the characters.

The story takes a number of dramatic turns as MacGregor struggles to hold on to his sense of honor, while simultaneously extricating himself and his family from the treasonous shadow cast upon his reputation by his predicament. As his wife, played by actress Jessica Lange, and fellow clansmen become embroiled in the plot, MacGregor faces the unenviable task of balancing his responsibilities as husband and father with those of his role as clan leader.

Certainly the adventurous story is complemented by the Scottish scenery. Filmed entirely on location in the United Kingdom, the beauty of the lakes and hills of the Scottish Highlands is one of the strongest atmospheric features in the film, and underscores the enduring appeal and atmosphere of Scott's novels. The sweeping vistas of Rob Roy will fail to captivate only the most jaded viewer. Without doubt, Scott's ability to imaginatively recreate the physical beauty of Scotland for readers who had never been there attracted the armchair traveler of the early nineteenth century. Few authors have ever described a landscape more beautifully or lovingly in poetry or prose. Scott's portraits of Scotland's "fair and fertile land" have drawn visitors for two centuries. In Rob Roy, he describes "The lofty peak of Ben Lomond, here the predominant monarch of the mountains...this noble lake, boasting innumerable beautiful islands of every varying form and outline...its northern extremity narrowing until it is lost among dusky and retreating mountain." Loch Lomond affords, Scott concludes, "... one of the most surprising, beautiful, and sublime spectacles in nature." In a burst of poetry near the end of the novel, Scott declares a

Without question, the film, Rob Roy, does justice to the atmosphere and romance of a Scott novel, even though it takes great liberties with the story line, just as Scott did with the title of his novel. This freedom is reinforced by excellent casting and costume design, two areas in which contemporary film is proving adroit. The cast assembled in Rob Roy is impressive for a period piece, and their performances are of high quality, which moves Rob Roy from the usual swashbuckler to a realm of historical interpretation. Liam Neeson, an actor of imposing stature, imparts the requisite dignity and presence to MacGregor, while Jessica Lange makes his wife Mary MacGregor, actually named Helen in the novel and a somewhat narrowly drawn figure, arguably the film's most sympathetic character. In fact, Mary MacGregor in the film version is as much a heroine as her husband is a hero. Furthermore, with a sound nod toward feminist history, she possesses the same high sense of resolve and integrity as her husband. The romantic scenes between the two are believable and sincere, without overt sentimentality. Tim Roth succeeds in making the foppish character of Archibald Cunningham an eminently repulsive, but fascinating, villain, while high-profile actors John Hurt and Eric Stolz give to smaller but stylish roles the force of the considerable abilities. As a result, the cast of Rob Roy acts as an ensemble to create a historically based film of value.

Adding strength to the performances are the sets and the costumes. In recent decades, films gained increasing historical accuracy from excellent period research. Rob Roy is no exception. From the humble homestead of the MacGregors to the inns, the law courts and the palace hall of the final clever, dangerous, and amusing duel, the background is impeccably created. In a similar fashion, the costumes of the various characters also richly enhance the film and add to its verisimilitude. Early Hollywood's historical films often presented peasants in cleanly-pressed and spotless attire, and female characters, even the lowest and poorest, typically had perfectly coifed hair and magnificently manicured nails. These types of nonsense are fortunately absent from Rob Roy. The social standing of the Duke of Argyll and the Marquis of Montrose are nicely expressed through their finery, while the status of MacGregor and his companions is subtly conveyed through their simple, understated dress. Again, the perceptions and interpretations of the historian add depth and texture to the dramatic story provided by Scott.

The numerous action sequences are also well done. These scenes are always relevant to the plot, rather than gratuitous, and the climactic sword fight between MacGregor and the sinister Cunningham is particularly noteworthy. MacGregor's unlikely triumph over a superior swordsman makes sense and satisfies the viewer's yearning for a favorable outcome without seeming mawkish or totally contrived.

The film's portrayal of a seventeenth century world simultaneously more brutal and more refined than the viewer expects may stir some viewers to learn more about the era it depicts. Sir Walter Scott's Rob Roy is a natural place to start and Eric Anderson's introduction to the novel in the 1995 reprint in Everyman's Library Series is short but interesting and includes a chronology of Scott's life and publications as well as Scott's original preface to the novel. In addition, Fiction Against History: Scott as Storyteller by James Kerr in 1989 is an interesting analysis of Scott's historical novels while, on a more general but readable note, an excellent resource book for all Scottish history buffs is Ian Donnachie and George Hewitt's A Companion to Scottish History (1989) which provides a wealth of material, including genealogical tables, maps, and chronologies, as well as concise definitions of terms and short biographies of important historical figures.