I rewatched Rob Roy (1995) yesterday for the first time in about twenty years. As readers of this blog will know, I recently went on a trip to the Highlands and toured the Highland Folk Museum, as well as Culloden Battlefield. During this trip, one of my friends kept bringing up the film Rob Roy. She insisted that it was full of gorgeous Highland scenery and that it touched on a lot of the topics that we’d been learning about during our museum explorations – the Jacobite uprisings, the dissolution of the Highland Clans etc. I’d seen Rob Roy as a kid, but couldn’t remember much about it.
After returning from our trip, I hesitated, at first, to re-watch this film because the only thing that I did remember about it was that it contained a very hard-to-watch rape scene. This particular scene has really stuck with me since I first viewed it, perhaps because it was one of the earliest depictions of sexual violence that I saw on screen. (I’m honestly not sure why my dad let me watch Rob Roy – I think he had probably forgotten this scene was in it!) But, in any case, I was missing the Highlands and I was curious to see how all these topics that we’d been learning about played out in the film. So I watched it.
The best and the worst thing that I can say about Rob Roy is that it does what it says on the tin. It’s a sweeping adventure story about a Robin Hood-like figure who fights to retain his family’s ‘honor’ in the changing landscape of early 18th century Scotland. The film even begins with effectively a thesis statement that explains exactly that to the viewer. The opening text reads:
At the dawn of the 1700’s famine, disease and the greed of great Noblemen was changing Scotland forever.
With many emigrating to the Americas, the centuries-old Clan system was slowly being extinguished.
This story symbolizes the attempt of the individual to withstand these processes and, even in defeat, retain respect and honor.
Not many films start out with such a precise thesis statement, or baldly admit that their story ‘symbolizes’ anything. I don’t actually think that this explanation was necessary either, because all of that becomes quite clear as the film transpires.
This is a story (based on stories about a historical figure turned folk hero) where wider societal change is, in a sense, embodied in the struggles of one ‘traditional’ Highland man (Rob Roy aka Liam Neeson) who refuses to cope with the ‘modern’ avarice, corruption and greed of those around him (as if greed was a new thing haha!).
This film is all about ‘honor’, which was quite an important concept to 18th century men -remember that the signers of the Declaration of Independences pledge their ‘lives, fortunes and sacred honor‘ to the cause. ‘Honor’ is actually the last word of the Declaration of Independence. (There’s a very interesting article here on Mount Vernon’s website exploring the changing concepts of honor in Colonial America, from something that was linked explicitly to upper classes, to something that ordinary citizens could have, as well).
In writing this blog post, I’ve realized that ‘honor’ is actually a rather tricky concept to explain or to define. In the 18th century, I think it sort of equates to ‘reputation’. But the way that it was defined also depends a lot on gender. When we think of a woman’s ‘honor’ there’s a sexual connotation and we think of chastity, ‘purity’.
‘Honor’ is defined by Rob Roy in the film as something like morality and ethical conduct. Rob Roy explains to his sons that his ‘honor’ prevents him from ever ‘mistreat(ing) a woman or malign(ing) a man’. It is ‘what no man can give you and none can take away’. It is, in short, his moral compass and system of personal ethics.
Throughout the film, Rob Roy’s code of honor is set against the dishonorable behavior of the nobles who effectively cheat him out of quite a lot of money and engage in other sneaky and also violent actions against him, most notably the aforementioned rape of Rob’s wife Mary MacGregor (Jessica Lange). Yet even that horrific act is part of this larger narrative of ‘honor’. The principal reason that the glib aristocrat Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth) rapes Mary is to drag Rob Roy out of hiding. Now that his wife has been assaulted, Rob Roy’s ‘Highland honor will have to be satisfied,’ Cunningham remarks.
I actually quite liked this emphasis on ‘honor’ as a theme and how, at every turn, Mary MacGregor’s approach to life is much more sensible and pragmatic. In a way, she’s the foil to Rob and his obsession with honor, even more so than the amoral Cunningham. She sees that Rob’s inability to do or say anything bad about anyone ever, or to do anything sneaky or under-handed at all, will get their family into trouble one day. And, indeed, it does.
Lange gives a dignified and emotive performance as Mary – I really believed that she was a sturdy lady who had borne several children, survived rough Scottish winters and was more than capable of stabbing people in the throat (no spoilers, but she may or may not stab someone in the throat).
When the film succeeds, it does so based on the performances of Lange and also Roth, whose despicable character of Cunningham is far more interesting to watch than Rob Roy ever is, because – unlike Rob – he has flaws (quite a lot of flaws – he’s a murderer, rapist, thief, abandons his pregnant girlfriend, only cares about money etc.). Rob seems to already BE a folk hero – always doing good, always caring for others – not someone whose actions inspired legend.
Another area in which the film succeeds is the choice to show extended sword fighting sequences which were really marvelous to watch. Roger Ebert apparently called one of these sword fighting scenes ‘one of the great action sequences in movie history’ and I’d buy that. The final climactic sword fight is long (ten minutes?) and tense – lots of intricate choreography.
The landscape is also, of course, breathtaking and it gets plenty of screen time. The whole thing was shot on location in the Highlands and you can absolutely tell. I can’t fault Michael Caton-Jones on the direction – he gets good performances out of his cast and really lets the setting shine.
So would I recommend it? Well, if you’re a fan of Braveheart or Outlander or be-kilted dudes, you’ll certainly like this. And if you’re someone, like me, who enjoys 18th century history and sweeping period dramas, in general, then there’s plenty here to like. It’s just nothing special, largely because of the lack of humanity in the central character. When someone is such a good person, a righteous person, a caring person, they eventually stop seeming like a person, at all.
Let me know what you think of this movie, if you’ve seen it. If not, let me know if it sounds like your cup of tea (or dram of whisky)!
- This post by Frock Flicks about the fabulous costumes of Rob Roy
- My review of The Patriot (A similar type of film, set during the American Revolutionary War)
- Background info about the real Rob Roy and his treatment in fiction
- ‘Honor in Colonial America’ from George Washington’s Mount Vernon
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!