Give me swords clashing and chail mail flashing. Bloody battles and medieval mystery have captivated my imagination ever since my grandmother refashioned Idylls of the King and Ivanhoe as bedtime stories for my brothers and me.
Remind me of history’s expanse and the struggle of each human heart to make a meaningful life. Take me back to Braveheart land.
So, of course: give me Netflix’ Outlaw King, released for the small screen last week.
Outlaw King is indeed set in Braveheart country, its tale taking off as news that William Wallace, the Scottish patriot who defeated the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, has been imprisoned and ultimately hanged and quartered for high treason by England’s King Edward I .
The king has also refused to honor his promise of returning land to the Scottish clans, and the tension mounts when Robert Bruce (Chris Pine) plans a revolt against Edward I (Stephen Dillane).
Bruce has a claim to the Scottish throne, as does John Comyn (Callan Mulvey), with whom he seeks alliance against Edward. Comyn not only refuses, but seeing an opportunity to ascend the throne himself, threatens to expose the plan to the English king, forcing Bruce to kill him and take up the fight with the few men he persuades to join him.
Within weeks of Comyn’s death, Bruce is crowned King of Scots. And that means war.
Some critics have panned this film for its abundance of muddy battles, but with Rotten Tomatoes’ high audience rating, I know I’m not alone in finding Outlaw King worth the warring.
The struggle (at least from the Scottish point of view) is just, the hero is both a good man and an underdog. And the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle) is a thoroughly unlikeable and ultimately pathetic villain. We see that the issue is complicated, but it’s easy to side with the Bruce.
We also side with the outlaw King of Scotts because we’re shown the unfolding of an intimate life with his new bride.
It’s the movie’s few moments of nudity that have everybody talking about Outlaw King, mostly in the snicker and snark to which we’ve become so accustomed that we sometimes fail to recognize how degrading it is.
My advice: ignore the raunchy tweets and judge for yourself.
Because I’ve been immersed in a study of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (as part of a team teaching it to 8th graders on Wednesday evenings) I was moved by director David McKenzie (Hell or High Water)’s ability to create an epic film complete with sex and violence yet without the dehumanizing display its rating might lead you to expect.
Here’s what I mean (spoiler ahead).
Outlaw King isn’t all blood and guts (and when it is, it doesn’t glorify war, but shows its horror). Its subplot, the arranged marriage of the widower Bruce to the virginal Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh) unfolds with tender grace.
When the two are left alone in the bedroom after their wedding feast, Bruce chooses not to consummate the marriage. Instead, as their life together begins he slowly takes appreciative note of Elizabeth as a person: her kindness to his daughter, her melancholy singing, her courage.
When Elizabeth overhears Robert and his brothers discussing their revolt against Edward (her father’s ally), she takes her husband’s side over the English king. “I choose you,” she plainly tells him.
Soon after, the real marriage begins.
The nudity in this film is a revelation of each spouse’s personhood and the gift they are making to each other. Fresh from reading John Paul II, this scene in The Outlaw King struck me as a perfect example of “precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and – through this gift – fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence” (TOB 15:1).
It’s sheer beauty.
The marriage of a king and queen can be fodder for fairy tales, but fables end with a sentence about “happily ever after,” while reality tests the quality of “ever after” love through painful strife.
Bruce leads his countrymen to their freedom while Elizabeth is captured and imprisoned. I won’t spoil how these story lines play out, and I’ll admit that some sequences lag.
I’ll also concede that Pine’s second nude scene is more gratuitous than necessary, creating most of the buzz you may have heard. However, the gigglers probably haven’t been reading JPII’s astounding contemplation on human sexuality. Because I have, I saw in that scene the vulnerability of the bridegroom’s body, revealing the man when stripped of the armor of which his legend is made.
Granted, I’m not going to recommend Outlaw King to the 8th graders at church, but I am recommending you it to you, dear Sparrowfare reader.
If you’re up for an epic, you’ll find this one solid. You may even find its nude scenes edifying.
That’s a rare thing these days.
And worth a bloody battle.
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This video discusses the history behind the Outlaw King’s storyline. But it gives away too much unless you’ve already seen the film, so watch first, then learn more.
The curriculum we’ve been teaching the 8th graders is the Ascension Press series, YOU: Life, Love and the Theology of the Body, and it’s not the old-school scoldy approach to sexuality at all. A youth-friendly presentation of JPII’s wondrously deep contemplation on human communion, each episode delivers a stirring meditation on every person’s call to love rather than use other people. Watch the trailer here and be inspired.
What’s your favorite epic film? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below or on Sparrowfare’s Facebook page.