At the heart of the Netflix mud-and-chain-mail epic Outlaw King is a bald juxtaposition of hero and villain. The Scottish leader Robert the Bruce (played by a soft-spoken Chris Pine) is made king in an open-air ceremony at twilight on the shores of a loch. It is a somber and subdued coronation, with the struggle against the invading English still to come. Down in London, Robert’s adversary Edward, the prince of Wales (played by Billy Howle as a frat boy with a bowl cut), rallies an English army by strangling a pair of swans.
The contrast could not be more stark. “My title is king of Scots,” Robert says almost apologetically to the assembled nobles and peasants, “not of the land, but of the people.” Meanwhile, Edward performs a poultry sacrifice. “By these swans,” he shrieks, holding two dead, bejeweled swans by the neck, “I vow to avenge this murderous insult to God!”
The reticent patriot finds his foil in a manic swan-savager. These mingled scenes conjure the obligatory binary of many historical-epic films. Braveheart (1995) dramatized an earlier phase of the same conflict in which Mel Gibson’s character William Wallace led a Scottish rebellion against the English. That film chose to make the prince of Wales weak, effete, and implicitly homosexual, a dandy in continental silks and hose in contrast to Gibson’s kilted übermensch. But the films share the same moral universe. The English aggressors are decadent, perverse, often sadistic, and insensible to modern reason. The Scottish resisters, on the other hand, achieve a kind of grace in their gruff austerity. Where the English lust for domination and taxes, the Scottish have a cause that 21st-century viewers can get behind: the striving of a “people” for freedom.
But who are “the people,” the general mass of the country in whose name Robert so earnestly fights? Outlaw King offers rather little proof of their existence: In one early scene, a peasant nods and accepts Robert’s father’s explanation as to why their feudal taxes remain so high (blame the English); a small mob forms after the news of Wallace’s capture and execution (the man made famous by Braveheart appears in the Netflix film only in the form of a severed limb and decapitated head). That aside, the Scottish as a people remain a vague presence throughout Outlaw King, far vaguer than Scotland as a land, its rugged coastlines and dark green moraines and hills shot in lavish and loving 4K HD. They can remain vague because Outlaw King, like so many other historical epics, takes for granted the idea that today’s nations were self-evident since time immemorial.
As Pine’s character wearily surveyed the Scottish landscape, I couldn’t help but recall a scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)—the British comedy sketch group’s medieval spoof—in which King Arthur tries to ask a few peasants for directions. He gets tangled in an unexpected conversation. “I’m Arthur, king of the Britons,” he says by way of introduction. “King of the who?” one peasant responds. “The Britons.” “Who are the Britons?” Flummoxed, Arthur has to explain facts of the world he took for granted. “We all are, we all are Britons, and I am your king.” The peasant looks at another incredulously. “I didn’t know we had a king.”
The scene is probably more famous for what follows, a Marxist jargon–strewn dismantling of the legend of the Lady of the Lake and Excalibur as a basis for Arthur’s kingship (“You can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you.”). But there is a poignant truth in the earlier bit of dialogue. Looking through the lens of the present, we have a way of projecting modern national identities into the deep past, assuming they have an almost eternal coherence. Who indeed were the Britons, or the Scots, or for that matter the Chinese, the Kazakhs, the Turks? Why would it have been so obvious to people in fragmented, often feudal and decentralized societies that they were part of a nation?
The Holy Grail parodied the Hollywood genre of medieval epics like Camelot and El Cid, soaring fantasies that evoked the travails of kings and queens, princesses and princes, nobles and knights, the upper crust of old hierarchies. The people, whose fates might be determined on gory battlefields or in the drafty chambers of castles, came across as even more mythical than their overlords, at best playing supporting roles in such movies, but more often absent, their existence taken for granted. What mattered were broadswords and plate-mail, corsets and veils, castle keeps and audience halls, not the rags and crofts of serfs.
Forty years later, not a whole lot has changed. Big-budget historical-epic films and TV shows have proliferated around the world, and they could still be subject to Monty Python’s satire. After watching Outlaw King, you’ll likely be recommended one of the legion of action-filled historically themed movies that clutter Netflix. A lot of these films and TV shows are from East Asia (particularly from China and South Korea), and pivot around bloody moments in the making of the nation. The sumptuous progenitor of much of this genre was Hero (2002), by the Chinese director Zhang Yimou, in which an assassin bent on killing the Qin emperor decides to abort his mission at the last minute because he realizes it is better for the Chinese people to be united by an all-conquering leviathan than divided between kingdoms. It is a gorgeous film, kaleidoscopic in its stylized use of color, with extraordinary battle and martial-arts sequences, and stunning views of the landscape of western China. And it is entirely devoid of common people.
It’s hard not to stumble into historical epics that use the past to tell bludgeoning tales of nation-making. The popular Turkish series Ertugrul (also available on Netflix) dramatizes the life of the father of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish film Fetih 1453 (2012) celebrates the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, and in its climax a heroic soldier plants a conspicuously modern red Turkish flag on the ramparts of the city; under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has been turning more often to its Ottoman past to feel renewed purpose in the present. Yet 600 years is nothing compared to the 4,000 years traversed by the big-budget but drab Bollywood blockbuster Mohenjo Daro (2016). It takes viewers back to 2016 BCE and a great city of the Indus Valley civilization in what is now Pakistan. At the end of the film, the corrupted city is destroyed, and the hero leads its virtuous survivors east to the (unambiguously Indian) Ganges river to make a new world, an India that takes on the mantle of civilization.
Outlaw King is a much more understated film, with few of the histrionics of its predecessor Braveheart (expected to give a speech before battle, Robert demurs, refusing to offer the traditional pre-slaughter pep talk). Pine’s Robert the Bruce comes across as a kind of middle-class everyman, in love with his young wife, besotted with his daughter. He ably manages laddish banter in the army camp with his soldiers. Before the movie’s bloody denouement, he is so covered in mud as he helps dig a ditch that a messenger cannot identify him as king. His commitment to the Scottish people is unquestionable because he seems so ordinary.
There is much more myth in that portrayal than in the lurid, bird-mangling English Prince Edward. The historical Robert the Bruce was as cynical and ruthless an opportunist as you could find. One historian describes him as “Macbeth with a happy ending.” Far from the eternal patriot, he often allied with the English when it suited him, and was involved in chasing down Wallace after the latter’s defeat at Falkirk. There is no reason to believe his marriage to Elizabeth de Burgh—who was barely a teenager when they wed—was anything more than a cold, formal political arrangement typical of the times. And historians suspect that he took to the field against the English mostly to cement his position among the Scottish nobility; once better established, he left the fighting to others.
A lot of the obvious appeal of these films lies in their elements of action, cruelty, special effects, and melodramatic romance, and not in their tentative claims to truth. But the way they choose to take liberties with the historical record is still revealing. It seems almost a requirement of the genre itself that the modern nation find an echo—no matter how ahistorical—in the deep past. Outlaw King invites viewers to relate to Pine’s humble Robert, to sympathize with his melded love for family and nation. Dropped into the strangeness and foreignness of distant times, modern viewers can identify with the Robert’s motivations, his quiet patriotism. Nationalism becomes a kind of virtue that transcends time.
It is a pity that so many historical films feel so obliged to place the imagined nation at their emotional core. That not only distorts understandings of the past, but it suggests that the past can only be relevant and interesting if it supports conventions of the present. There are many examples of films that don’t do this, that make the past a backdrop for more searching, human exploration (think, for example, of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, which reinvents King Lear in the costume of medieval Japan), but they are vastly outnumbered by films that see history as a saga of nation-making.
Such films are invariably complicit in the false idea that nations are somehow natural, primordial creatures, an idea that animates recent debates about “nationalists” and “globalists.” We are told that it is more authentic to be a nationalist, to feel rooted in time and place, while attempts to look and act beyond the nation are the stuff of the modern arriviste. But nations and their accompanying nationalisms are just as much the product of particular historical moments as are the films that glorify them.