Scotland on Screen: The Bruce

Robert Bruce, known as the warrior king after his resounding victory over English forces at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, is undoubtedly Scotland’s most famous male monarch. Despite his fame however, very little has been made of Bruce and his rise to power on the big or small screens, apart from his animated likeness making a very brief appearance in Disney’s So Dear To My Heart (1949). In the same month as the release of the new Mary Queen of Scots biopic, in November 2018 Netflix will air their adaptation of the tale of the Bruce in their original drama Outlaw King. Starring Chris Pine as Bruce and a veteran Scottish cast including Tony Curran and James Cosmo who, after hanging up the black cloak of the Night’s Watch, will play Robert Bruce the elder, this big-budget action feature promises some big thrills.

In light of the new Netflix release, I’d like to introduce you to the first and only film to  date which depicts Bruce’s story on the big screen. Most of my readers will surely have encountered Braveheart, but have you ever heard of The Bruce? Released just six months after Mel Gibson’s epic on a measly budget of $500,000, The Bruce was overshadowed by its elder sibling and failed to make a lasting impression.

The second in a line of Scottish historical dramas by independent film company Cromwell productions, released between Chasing the Deer (1994) and Macbeth (1997), the film follows the rise of the eponymous would-be king Robert, earl of Carrick, from his betrayal by fellow claimant to the Scottish crown Robert Comyn, to his seizure of the throne and victory at Bannockburn.

With a gripping plot and seasoned theatre actors Brian Blessed and Oliver Reed on board in starring roles, The Bruce seems to have a recipe for success. However, a lack of funding and strong supporting cast left Blessed and Reed delivering strong performances in a two-hour cringe-fest of poorly choreographed fight scenes and terrifically bad overacting. In the title role as the warrior king is the lesser known Sandy Welch, who went on to star in Scottish television dramas Rebus and River City. At one point, kneeling over the dead body of his nephew Nigel Bruce, the would-be king throws his head back and cries out in anguish in such a cheesy 90’s boyband fashion it would make a Backstreet Boy blush.

On a more positive note, what I do like about this adaptation is how the film has incorporated the legends of Bruce which still persevere in Scottish culture today. The first is that his heart was taken to Spain by the Black Douglas and thrown into the vanguard of the oncoming enemy. The second is that of Bruce and the spider, a myth first penned in Tales of a Grandfather (1828) by Sir Walter Scotta series of stories embellishing upon Scottish history. The legend has it that, whilst on the run in 1306-7 from English forces seeking his capture, Bruce hid in a cave off the coast of northern Scotland and there encountered a spider attempting, and failing, to spin a web across a great distance. However, after watching the tiny creature persevere and eventually succeed in its task, Bruce was inspired to take up arms again and fight for the freedom of his country.

“Six times I’ve tried, six times I’ve failed.”

“He’ll try again, so should you.”

Admittedly, the two spiders are better actors than some of the cast, and the fact they are not listed in the credits is a disappointing case of prejudice against non-human actors. However the film does have other merits, in particular its admirable use of real Scottish sites for filming. Craigmillar Castle in Edinburgh provided the backdrop for Bruce’s residence, whilst Blackness, Neidpath, Drummond and Doune castles were used for other locations, adding a sense of authenticity to the story and overall feel of the film.

But despite its use of historical locations, in general The Bruce comes across as silly and unconvincing. The dialogue is wordy and occasionally dull, and even with Gladiators star Michael van Wijk on board as English nobleman Humphrey de Bohun, the action remains slow, clunky and unrealistic. Although, my biggest pet peeve with the movie is undoubtedly how the writers conflate the historical figures of William Lamberton, bishop of St Andrews, and Bishop Robert Wishart, bishop of Glasgow, into the same character; Bishop Wisharton. Perhaps one of the reasons for Braveheart’s monumental success was that it kept its two main protagonists distinct, and its audience was spared  watching the adventures of Willert Wallruce.

Recommend? Impressive locations and a few strong performances fail to make up for the poor direction and obvious lack of funding in this ambitious but disappointing film. If you would like to check it out, you can find the entire thing on YouTube here. 5/10

Have you seen The Bruce? What do you think of the legends and fame surrounding Robert Bruce and his path to the throne? Please share and leave me a comment below!

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