The Bruce
directed by Bob Carruthers
& David McWhinnie
(Cromwell Productions, 1996)

OK, so the English and treasonous Scots are just a little too evil, while the Robert the Bruce and his followers are perhaps a bit too heroic. The dialogue is a trifle pompous and overly dramatic at times, and the transitions between scenes are less smooth than they could have been.

But for all that, The Bruce has the feel of authenticity in its depiction of ancient Scotland in the wake of William Wallace's failure and yet another attempt to wrest the Scottish crown away from Edward I of England. The despair, the blood, the political squabbles and the warfare all have the look and feel of true, if unpolished, history.

Comparisons to Braveheart, the big-budget epic starring Mel Gibson as William Wallace, filmed just one year before and telling a story from almost the same place and period in history, are inevitable. I'll admit upfront, I'd rather spend an evening with Gibson's Wallace, but this low-budget cousin is easily worth the 110 minutes it takes to watch it.

The Bruce tells the story that followed Wallace's death, as Robert the Bruce, a rightful claimant to the kingship of Scotland, rallied his followers in a series of attempts to break free of English rule. The Bruce spent most of his adult life pursuing that ambition, finally achieving it in the aftermath of his great victory at Bannockburn.

The movie compresses the story so it seems to happen within a single season. Some of the historical details could have been fleshed out a bit more, but perhaps I say that only because I'm somewhat of a history buff.

The acting is not Oscar material, but there are high points nonetheless. Sandy Welch is not on the same level of inspirational speech-making as Mel Gibson in Braveheart or Kenneth Branagh in Henry V, but still he serves as an admirable, stalwart king-to-be Robert the Bruce. Oliver Reed gives a good turn as Bishop Robert Wishart, the head of Scotland's church and the Bruce's vocal conscience. And Brian Blessed chews the scenery in delightful villainy as the vindictive Edward I.

The film is not entirely textbook, playing loosely with some aspects of history. For instance, the movie Bruce is given a more legitimate reason than a political feud for killing John "Red" Comyn, the opposing claimant to the Scottish throne, in a church. The Bruce's laughing brother is given a noble, self-sacrificing death, and Wishart is granted a glorious end on the battlefield instead of wasting away in an English jail.

The Bruce also sacrificed possibly the best moment in the would-be king's struggle for Scottish independence. History tells us how the Bruce had ridden out on his small Highland pony to survey the plain at Bannockburn when Sir Henry de Bohun, a young English knight, attacked him in single combat. The Bruce was unarmored and unarmed except for a long-handled axe; de Bohun was fully armored, astride a war charger and attacking with a 12-foot-long lance. But the Bruce sidestepped his pony and, with one blow, split the helmet and skull of his foe, breaking his axe handle in the process -- an act which inspired his men and greatly disheartened their English foes.

Why the filmmakers opted instead to go with an innocuous swordfight between the two men, unnoticed in the heat of raging battle around them, I cannot imagine.

But they got plenty right, too. The death of Edward I, for instance, who did not breathe his last when Wallace's head fell (as depicted in Braveheart), but which occurred within sight of Scotland during his ongoing campaign against the Bruce years later. They even included the burst of inspiration the Bruce derived from a simple spider spinning its web.

While lacking the sort of Hollywood budget that would make the battle at Bannockburn look truly as grand in scope and scale as the clash at Falkirk in Braveheart, they still marshalled a fairly impressive number of men on the field to fill out the vast English and tiny Scottish armies. It is, according to filmmakers, the "largest filmed reconstruction of medieval battle ever staged in the British Isles," and I can well believe their claim.

The battle is long and messy, ugly and not at all chivalrous ... which makes it even more realistic to watch. It shows the valor of leaders on both sides of the fight who actually led instead of lurking behind the lines. And it demonstrates what can be accomplished when the people themselves -- women, children and the elderly -- rise up in arms against a common foe.

The Bruce was filmed on location at Neidpath Castle in Pebbles, Houlgate Village in York, Blackness Castle in West Lothian, Doune Castle near Stirling and Dunfermline Abbey in Fife. It has the look and feel it needs to carry the story and, allowing for its failings and shortcomings, still does a convincing job.

[ by Tom Knapp ]