Popular heroes make for great movies - this adage has held true since the days of Douglas Fairbanks's "Mark of Zorro" (1920) and "Robin Hood" (1922), and Errol Flynn's representation of the legendary Robin of Locksley 16 years later ("The Adventures of Robin Hood," 1938), and it has been reinforced again and again over the course of the years. And whenever we go to see yet another screen version of the life of such a hero, regardless whether based on historic fact or popular lore, we carry certain almost instinctive expectations: the hero is to be honorable and his true love virtuous, there is to be a truly evil villain, an abundance of sword play and other action, and good is to prevail in the end. "Rob Roy" delivers on all of these counts; yet, it manages to be much more than a colorful costume piece with a storyline in black and white, and it differs considerably from the type of movie coined ever since the adventures of history's great heroes were first brought to the silver screen.
To begin with, Liam Neeson, in the title role, is not the slim, agile hero with lightning-quick, supple movements we have come to expect after having seen leading men such as Fairbanks, Flynn and Robert Taylor ("Ivanhoe," 1952). No: here, the part of the dazzling and deadly fencing champion goes to Tim Roth, who has the calculating, conceited, blonde-wigged henchman Archibald Cunningham down to absolute perfection - you just love to hate him; yet, he never becomes the embodiment of an ueber-villain, and it is his utter fallibility as a human being which makes him all the more evil and despicable. The face-offs between Roth and Neeson (particularly their final duel) almost have something of an inverse David vs. Goliath feeling; making Neeson's much taller McGregor look occasionally more than just a bit disadvantaged vis-a-vis the cat-like Cunningham. Here is a hero whose greatest asset, in fencing as in other encounters with an enemy, is not his speed but his intelligence, his strength, and most of all, his undying tenacity.
Similarly, the love story between McGregor and wife Mary (Jessica Lange) is not one between two young lovers: the movie finds the couple well-settled into their marriage with several young sons. Yet, they are deeply in love with each other, and that love is only reinforced by the trials and tribulations they have to overcome. The portrayal of proud Mary McGregor, unbending even in utter disgrace, is one of Jessica Lange's strongest performances in all of her career, a match to Neeson's McGregor in acting skill as much as in tone, emotion and courage. And filming on location in Scotland brought an authenticity to the movie which even the best cinematography - and "Rob Roy" had excellent cinematographers in Karl Walter Lindenlaub and Roger Deakins - and costume design (Sandy Powell) alone could not have achieved. Musically, the Scottish highlands' rugged, windswept mountains and cliffs, deep lochs, and endless grey skies are matched perfectly by Carter Burwell's score and Karen Matheson's mournful ceilidhs. Strong supporting performances by John Hurt (Montrose), Andrew Keir (Argyll), Brian Cox (Killearn) and Eric Stoltz (MacDonald) round out an altogether remarkable production.
The movie takes poetic license with a number of key details; for example, the disappearance of the 1000 pounds lent to McGregor by the Marquis of Montrose (at its heart, a historic fact; McGregor and the Marquis had dealt with each other in this way a number of times before) was probably due to the fact that McGregor's agent really did abscond with the money; not due to Killearn's and Cunningham's scheming. But the major elements of McGregor's personal story, as well as the story's historical framework are represented truthfully, taking us back into a Scotland caught between English rule, Jacobites like the McGregors and the Duke of Argyll, and rivaling feudal lords. And Liam Neeson, director Michael Caton-Jones and script writer Alan Sharp do an excellent job in portraying the implications of Robert McGregor's personal sense of honor, which not only required him to keep his word once it was given, be it as part of a contract or otherwise, but also forbade him to bear false witness, even at great peril to himself and his family. Because the loss of the money borrowed from Montrose meant much more to the McGregors than a business deal gone bad: as Robert had given his land as security for the money, in 18th century feudal Scotland the loss of the land not only entailed the loss of the family's economic but also that of their tenuous personal freedom, forcing them right back into the outlaw life which their clan had known only too well throughout centuries of rivalry with a powerful clan aligned with the English kings.
1995 was not only the year when Hollywood discovered Scotland's popular heroes - this movie and "Braveheart" were released in the same year, much to "Rob Roy"'s undeserved disadvantage - it was a year of extremely strong movies overall. Between the in-your-face (or rather, in-your-gut) portrayal of Scotland's 13th century hero William Wallace on the one hand and such stunners as "The Usual Suspects," "Dead Man Walking," "Leaving Las Vegas," "Sense and Sensibility" and "Casino" on the other hand, and despite all critical acclaim, "Rob Roy" was not even nominated in most Oscar categories and other awards. Yet, this rustic, lyrical version of the story of Scotland's Robin Hood (like the outlaw of Sherwood Forest, McGregor hit Montrose where he knew he would hurt him most, by going after his money) has found an undying fan base over the course of the years. I hope it will continue to grow even stronger as the years go by.