Dramatis Scocie – The Effective Use of the Scottish Landscape in Film

Did you know there is going to be a sequel to Braveheart (1995)? I know! If ever there was a movie which needed a sequel. So many questions were left unanswered. Did Scotland’s nobles universally accept Robert Bruce? How did the writing of the ‘Declaration of Arbroath’ effect the legal position of the Scottish royal family? Did Bruce’s propaganda campaign following the success at Bannockburn shape the modern idea of Scottish Nationalism? Did the invasion of Ireland negatively effect Scottish/Irish relations? If you are one of the many people who enjoyed Mel Gibson’s medieval Scottish epic you can look forward to (presumably) none of these questions being answered in the upcoming film, Robert the Bruce, due to be released next year. This should not be confused with the 1996 film The Bruce, which was a clear cash-in on the success of Braveheart, included Oliver Reed and Brian Blessed among the cast and had a budget of about £3.95 (5.14 in US dollars). Okay, okay, Braveheart was a good film. It won five Oscars, gave us the ‘hand held in your face’ battle scene three years before Saving Private Ryan (1998) and brought back the cinematic historical epic five years before Gladiator (2000). Whatever you think of Mel Gibson personally, Braveheart was an impressive and ambitious success considering he was a first time director. The only member of Braveheart’s cast to return in Robert the Bruce is Angus Macfadyen (pictured below), so this movie is probably focused on King Robert years after the William Wallace uprising. The cast includes Zach McGowan, Emma Kenney and Jared Harris with director Richard Gray. A strange and varied mix of talent. Perhaps this is an attempt to create a Medieval Scottish Cinematic Universe (let’s call it the MSCU).

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As if this wasn’t exciting enough there is to be a competitor in the Robert Bruce movie biopic battle next year – Sigma Films is planning to release Outlaw King, starring Chris Pine as his royal Bruceness (pictured below). Yep, that’s right, Captain Kirk Jr. will be playing Scotland’s most iconic king. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is playing James Douglas and Stephen Dillane is playing Edward I. Outlaw King is likely to include some really interesting accents. Of the films mentioned above (Braveheart, The Bruce, Outlaw King and Robert the Bruce) were filmed, or are being filmed, using genuine on-location Scottish scenery as part of the backdrop. And this is the main subject of this post because if the accents are awful and the historical accuracy is off, then at least there might be some nice mountains to look at.

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Over the last decade (or there about), which movies have shot Scottish scenery really well? Back in the mid-90s there was a fashion for Scottish historical dramas being brought to the screen with gritty realism and, from the perspective of Scottish natives, an eclectic collection of accents. In contrast to the historical-action-epic of Braveheart there was the slower, more lyrical drama that was Rob Roy (1995), starring Liam Neeson in the title role (pictured below). Lyrical is right because if there is one other thing to remember from Rob Roy it is the dialogue. Screenwriter Alan Sharp conceived the movie as a Western but set it in 1700s Scotland. This is interesting because in many ways the plot and dialogue have more in common with things like Unforgiven (1992) and Deadwood (2004-2006) than with other historical epics. The lines are both poetic and earthy. Evoking another age but suggesting savagery rather than nostalgia. At one point Jessica Lange spits hatred at Tim Roth saying, “I will think on you dead, until my husband makes you so. And then I will think on you no more.” Not a pleasant time to be alive. The gritty dialogue and setting are much harsher than the plot which is a fairly standard honour versus dishonour, revenge story.

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Perhaps also in contrast to the romanticism of the plot is the setting. Scotland is described in the title card, “famine, disease and the greed of great Noblemen were changing Scotland forever.” Although Glen Coe, Glen Nevis, Loch Leven and Loch Morar look undeniably beautiful there is a bleak harshness to the landscape. This is no longer a Scotland which is populated by farmers, crofters and market towns but a Highlands which has been largely cleared of people to make way for the financial ambitions of richer men. The ornate gardens at Drummond Castle stand in contrast to the marginal existence eked out by Rob and his fellow clansmen. From the opening shot of Glen Tarbert, the world of Rob Roy is one of harsh extremes and Scotland is presented as a threatening wilderness. This is very different to the style of old Disney movies like Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue (1953) which portray Scotland as a primitive paradise and Rob as a half clothed, hairy-arsed Robin Hood.

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Scotland as a landscape of harsh beauty is a visual theme which has been carried through several movies in the last few years. Valhalla Rising (2009) is an arty Viking film shot entirely on location in Scotland (pictured above). Starring Mads Mikkelsen as a mute, one-eyed warrior and directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Valhalla Rising follows a collection of Christian Norsemen on an ill-conceived crusade which leads them to a violent end on the shores of North America. Spoilers are unavoidable here because there is so little to the story that merely to mention it is to give the game away. With almost no dialogue and a glacial plot Valhalla Rising split critics and made back only a fraction of its costs. What it does have, however, is scenery. Impressive, dominating, harsh, rugged, imposing and terrifying Scottish scenery. In fact at many times the landscape seems to be imposing some kind of malevolent will on the characters. Even more than Rob Roy, Valhalla Rising uses Scotland as a wilderness on the edge of something terrible. A land of mists, ghosts and threatening natives.

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This representation of Scotland in film has developed from earlier movies. You can see a hint of ‘Scotland, the dangerous wilderness’ in the historical battle scene from Highlander (1986). The mists clear on a bleak hillside and about twenty hairy highlanders start beating lumps out of each other with huge swords (pictured above). However, the rest of the scenes which were shot in Scotland are done in a much more conventional, picture-postcard way using locations like Eilean Donan Castle in beautiful sunshine. Going back even further, Brigadoon (1954), a musical about a fanciful Scottish town which magically appears once every 100 years, was so desperate to show a colourful land of purple heather and jolly natives that they shot the whole thing in an MGM studio. Scotland itself, it was decided, was to be too expensive to shoot in and had too unpredictable a climate. In 1960, Disney adapted the Robert Louis Stevenson novel Kidnapped into a motion picture. The director, Robert Stevenson, had just come off of the production of Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1958) (nod to any Irish friends out there) and approached Kidnapped with a desire for authenticity. Where possible the film was shot on location in Scotland. Despite its mixed critical reception it remains a watchable and faithful adaption (all be it one with some really crazy accents). The landscape, however, is represented in fairly conventional terms: green grass, sunshine, rolling hills. The audience is only given the vaguest sense of the hardships faced by those living through the aftermath of the ’45 uprising and the oppression of the Hanoverian government. After all, it was a Disney film. The Wicker Man (1973) and Local Hero (1983) both use locations from around Scotland to great effect too but for very different moods. Both create an almost magical sense of isolation and unspoiled beauty but where Local Hero builds to a warm sense of community, The Wicker Man corrupts the feeling into something frightening. That sense of corruption in the midst of Scotland’s beauty is wonderfully handled in a few scenes in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) – pictured below.

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One director who has repeatedly captured the harsh beauty of Scottish landscapes is Neil Marshall. His films are worth checking out. Dog Soldiers (2002) is a fun action/horror where a squad of British solders fight werewolves in the Scottish Highlands. The Descent (2005) is an award winning caving horror with a cosmopolitan all female cast. Doomsday (2008) takes elements of Mad Max (1979), Escape from New York (1981) and 28 Days Later (2002) and remakes them for post-apocalyptic Glasgow. Where Marshall really shows a flair for shooting the Scottish landscape is with the film Centurion (2010) – pictured below. Centurion takes the legend of the disappearance of the 9th Legion and uses it as background for a story which is a cross between First Blood (1982) and Cross of Iron (1977). After a defeat at the hands of the Picts, a small squad of Roman solders have to get back to the Wall while being hunted by angry locals. Michael Fassbender proves to be one of Scotland’s greatest actors (except that he’s Irish), Dominic West continues the Hollywood tradition that Roman soldiers speak with English accents and Olga Kurylenko looks good, says nothing and kills a lot of people. As with the other movies discussed here it is the landscape which is the most interesting. Scotland is on the Roman frontier. As far as the Romans were concerned it was too far north for civilised people to survive. From the opening shot till the end credits Scotland is portrayed as a wild, snow-covered landscape of rolling hills, jagged mountains and icy rivers. This is necessary to carry the plot of the film because it is the environment as much as the locals which threatens the survival of the heroes. It is interesting that Centurion outperformed the similarly themed movie The Eagle (2011) which was also set in Scotland, had twice the budget but shoots Scotland in a more conventionally picturesque way.

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In 2015 Justin Kurzel made a visually stunning, dark and gritty version of Shakespeare’s famous Scottish play. Macbeth stars Michael Fassbender in the title role proving again that Scotland’s greatest heroes are best played by Irish actors! (Seriously, where are James McAvoy or Ewan McGregor when these movies are being cast? Gerard Butler even!) Fassbender is fantastically intense throughout the character’s emotional journey and Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine and Sean Harris are all great in supporting roles. The film adds and subtracts from Shakespeare’s text to create something all together more cinematic. The story begins with Macbeth and his Lady dealing with an unexpected loss. And just how “Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane” is spectacular but not as Shakespeare intended. It is the intensity of the imagery which makes Macbeth as much as the performances. As with Valhalla Rising and Centurion the landscape is both bleak and threatening. The impression is one that depicts people surviving at the edge of human civilisation. One minor scene (pictured below) where Fassbender takes a bath in what can only have been the freezing cold water of a mountain pool is impressive if only because he doesn’t die instantly of hypothermia. However, the Scotland depicted in Macbeth is also one of mists and dark forbidding Glens. Quiraing in Skye was among the locations used – one where you believe witches might actually exist. The world of 2nd century Scotland is ethereal, forbidding and, at the same time, terribly beautiful. The real tragedy of Macbeth is that despite critical praise and multiple award nominations it was a box office failure.

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There are two themes to consider here. The first is how are Scottish locations used and filmed effectively? And the second is how is Scotland (particularly historical Scotland) portrayed on screen? We have thankfully moved away from the shortbread-tin, picture-postcard Disney interpretation of oh-so purple heather and rolling hills to something more meaningful and complex. In movies like Valhalla Rising and Macbeth the landscape is used as an effective means of conveying the inner psychological turmoil of characters. Macbeth and Rob Roy used variations in the landscape and how it is filmed to make social distinctions and demonstrate the harsh realities of life. Valhalla Rising and Centurion use the landscape as something physically threatening to the characters in order to maintain suspense. Even in Braveheart, Mel Gibson was forced to embrace the relentless rain and incorporate it into the script rather than shoot around it. Other movies have effectively filmed Scotland for minor scenes, like one of the early scenes in Prometheus (2012) which was shot in Skye. Next year’s Bruce biopics are an opportunity to explore some of these themes further and it is hoped that, although the accents might be bad, the visuals could be spectacular. After all, David Lean made the west coast of Ireland look like something magical in Ryan’s Daughter (1970). We might imagine a fantastic future where world class directors and visual stylists draw out the magical brutality of the Scottish landscape while using it as something more than a picturesque backdrop. Perhaps Terrence Malick is planning a four-hour epic about the poetry of Robert Burns. Or perhaps Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s follow up to The Revenant (2015) will be about Charles Edward Stuart’s escape after Culloden! Unlikely, but there is always hope.

2 thoughts on “Dramatis Scocie – The Effective Use of the Scottish Landscape in Film

  1. JJ McDermott says:

    Alan, that was a great read. Combing the landscape, the history and the people of Scotland (sometimes the music too, as evidenced in James Horner’s score in Braveheart) as elements in film can make a truly powerful concoction. Of course it needs to be done well! But thankfully there are several good examples out there, as you’ve pointed out. Poor old Gerard Butler! They won’t even give him a role to play in the country of his own birth. I suppose it’s for the best. Kind of like Ireland’s relationship with Bono.

    Like

  2. Robin Stevens says:

    I only just got round to reading this (Sorry, been busy), and it is a good review. I think landscape is a great way to focus on mood and ideology.

    Like

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