So I recently watched The Bruce (1996, dir. Bob Carruthers and David McWhinnie, with additional scenes by Brian Blessed). It’s available for free on YouTube. As I watched it, I realized why it’s available for free. It’s dreadful. It’s a low-budget labor of love, but it’s the sort of child only a mother could muster affection for. It feels very much like some enthusiastic Scottish history re-enactor wanted to prove that it was possible to make an historically-accurate movie about Scottish history that was still a really good film, and then only managed to get the first half of the job done.
So I’m a bit conflicted about this film. You’ve all read my posts where I lament about how badly most historical movies deviate from the facts, and I insist that the actual events are often more interesting than the nonsense that Hollywood screenwriters churn out. But now I’ve gotten what I wished for. The film tries adhere to the actual events in the life of Robert the Bruce, and it succeeds far more in accomplishing that than, for example, The Scottish Movie does. But it’s just an awful film.
So Who’s This Bruce Guy?
For those who don’t know, Robert the Bruce (d.1329) was a claimant to the Scottish throne during the period when Edward I and Edward II of England were trying to conquer Scotland. (And to address any confusion about his name, it’s an Anglicization of the French family name de Brus; the ‘the’ doesn’t really signify anything special.)
He supported William Wallace’s rebellion and after Wallace resigned his office of Guardian of Scotland (after his defeat at the battle of Falkirk), he and a rival claimaint to the throne, John Comyn, were appointed to the post, but they couldn’t agree and eventually Bruce resigned as well. In 1304, Bruce and all of the other major nobles in Scotland surrendered to Edward I.
In 1305, Comyn made an agreement with Bruce that if Bruce rebelled, Comyn was exchange his claim to the throne for all of Bruce’s lands in Scotland. Exactly what happened is unclear, but it appears that Comyn then revealed the deal to Edward, prompting Edward to order Bruce’s arrest. But Bruce was warned and fled the English court. A year later, Bruce and Comyn met up in a monastery church in Dumfries; a quarrel ensued and Bruce either stabbed Comyn to death before the altar or gravely wounded him and left him to be finished off by one of his men.
After that, Bruce claimed the throne of Scotland and underwent coronation by Bishop Wishart of Glasgow. The next seven years saw Bruce waging a series of campaigns to secure his control of Scotland (including slaughtered most of the supporters of the Comyn family) as well as to force out the English, who were now ruled by Edward II. In 1306, one of surviving the Comyn supporters seized Bruce’s wife Elizabeth (as well as a female cousin of his) and sent her to Edward, who held her as a capture until 1314.
Eventually in 1314, Bruce’s brother laid siege to the English-held castle at Stirling. The commander of the castle, in a fairly typical maneuver for the period, agreed that if Edward did not relieve the siege by midsummer, he would surrender the castle to Bruce. This forced Edward II to move to relieve the siege. The result was the Battle of Bannockburn.
The Bannock Burn is a tributary of the River Forth, which runs past Stirling Castle. The swampiness of the Burn made it a good defensible position for the Scots, who took up a position on the northwest side of the stream with a forest at their backs, while the English approached from the south and east.
On the first day of battle, the English cavalry crossed the Burn, only to be repulsed by the Scots, who had formed up pikemen in a formation known as a schiltrom. Wallace had successfully employed this formation at the battle of Stirling Bridge, and unsuccessfully at the battle of Falkirk. Here is proved successful; the English cavalry were turned back. One English knight, Sir Henry de Bohun, made a lance charge at Bruce, who side-stepped the attack and split de Bohun’s head open with an axe.
During the night, the English crossed the Burn and took up a new position closer to Bruce’s forces. The next morning, Bruce took an enormous risk and ordered his pikemen to advance, and was able to start forcing the English back. An attempt by the English longbowmen to break up the schiltroms failed when the Scottish cavalry charged them. Caught between the Burn and the advancing schiltroms, the English forces broke ranks. Edward II’s bodyguard, realizing he was in danger, grabbed the reins of the king’s horse and literally forced the king off the battlefield. But the king’s departure panicked his men and the English army routed.
At this point, Bruce was aided by another group of people who charged into the battle. Traditionally, the sources are read to suggest that this group was the Scottish camp followers, meaning the servants, cooks, laundresses, and other non-combattants who travel with an army, the idea being that they wanted to participate in the rout of the English forces. Recent historians, however, have suggested this group was actually a unit of Highland foot soldiers, too undisciplined to fight in a schiltrom but ideal for a shock attack. Regardless, the arrival of this group was the final straw. The shattered English army was slaughtered trying to get back across the stream. Edward was forced to pull out of Scotland and Bruce established (through his daughter Marjorie) a new dynasty that ruled Scotland down into the 16th century.
The Bruce in The Bruce
The Bruce follows the story of Robert the Bruce (Sandy Welch) from about 1305 down to the battle of Bannockburn. It gets the politics and the major events basically correct, although it makes up a battle in 1305 in which John Comyn (Pavel Douglas) lures Bruce into a battle with Edward I (Brian Blessed, being his Brian Blessedest) and knocks him unconscious on the battlefield. Luck for Bruce, his brother Nigel drags him off and hides him in a pigsty, only to get killed himself afterward. This seems to be the film’s way to explaining Bruce’s decision to kill Comyn, perhaps because it doesn’t want to admit that the real Bruce submitted to Edward I. But after the confrontation with Comyn, the film basically adheres to fact.
The film includes a famous story that early on in his wars, Bruce was on the run from the English and hid in a cave, where he saw a spider trying repeatedly to make a web. After numerous failures, the spider eventually succeeded and Bruce learned a lesson in determination from the spider that helped him continue his struggle for years until he succeeded. The story, however, was not originally told of Bruce, but of Sir James Douglas, one of Bruce’s allies. In 1828, Sir Walter Scott repurposed the story and applied it to Bruce.
The film simplifies the battle of Bannockburn down to one day, and employs the traditional camp followers, who make a most unconvincing attack on the English. And de Bohun gets killed late in the battle, after Edward II has been dragged off the field. (But, to the film’s credit, they correctly pronounce his name as ‘day Boon’ and not ‘day Bow-hun’.)
So What’s Wrong with the Film?
I think most of the problems with the film stem from the fact that it was made on an extremely tight budget, reportedly £500,000, and a lot of that money was raised from the historical re-enactors who comprise the extras. The list of ‘Associate Producers’ at the end of the film is almost as long as the rest of the credits put together. I think that the donors must have been contractually promised 3 seconds of screen time each, because that would explain the agonizingly long scenes in which peasant extras wander around leading lives of virtuous simplicity and Scottishness.
Apparently the budget didn’t allow for some things we normally get with movies. Among the things the production of The Bruce couldn’t afford:
A film editor. The film easily has half an hour of footage in which no one with a speaking role does anything important.
Stunt men. The fight scenes look like the director told the extras “just go in there and wave your sword around and look like you’re fighting.” It didn’t work.
A fight co-ordinator. The credits say they had one, but I think it was Angus from down at the end of the bar, who spends his time fixing motorcycles and who knows a few things about throwing a punch. But only a few. I’ve seen third grade productions of Little Red Riding Hood with more engaging violence. The climactic Battle of Bannockburn scene is therefore boringly staged, incompetently executed, and not really edited at all. And it NEVER ENDS, because all the extras had to get their 3 seconds of screen time.
A historical consultant. Instead, they just invited re-enactors to show up with their gear. As a result, we get lots of highlanders in kilts three hundred years too early. And guys playing bodhrans, which won’t be invented for about half a millennium. Oh, and brace yourself for gratuitous modern bagpipes. They had a piper, and they were gonna get damn good use out of him.
A hair dresser. No one looks good in this film. I mean No One. Well, ok, Oliver Reed and Brian Blessed look decent. Everyone else looks like they ran out of shampoo about a week ago and just decided to let it air dry.
A decent script. Most of the scenes consist of long-winded conversations during which you can easily get up, go to the bathroom, make some more popcorn, and catch up on your email before the end of the scene.
Charisma. I’m unclear why anyone would want to watch this cast. Except Brian Blessed, who is always a pleasure to watch, because you get to relive the best moments of Flash Gordon. All two of them.
But, in the film’s favor, it did have one heck of a good Spider Wrangler. He was so good, they used that spider twice, just in case you didn’t get the message the first time.
Oh, and There’s This Little Gem of a Prop
Want to Know More?
You could watch this film on Amazon, but honestly, if you’re really in need of curing your insomnia, do it for free at Youtube.
If you want to know more about Robert the Bruce, a good place to start is Michael Penman’s Robert the Bruce: King of the Scots. It’s a bit long, and some readers find it a little too academic. If you want something more readable, consider Ronald MacNair Scott’s Robert the Bruce. Scott isn’t a scholar, but a novelist, and tells the story well with a minimum of mistakes.