Rob Roy
Man in the middle

by Brian Woolland

from Jump Cut, no. 43, July 2000, pp. 31-37
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 2000, 2006

When Michael Caton-Jones' ROB ROY was released in 1995 it was enthusiastically received by critics and had initial success with the general public before rapidly fading from view In many ways it is a fine film: rugged, harsh, good to look at, boasting a mighty strong cast in excellent form and, in particular, two remarkable but very different performances from Jessica Lange as Mary McGregor and Tim Roth as Archibald Cunningham. It is distinguished by Alan Sharp's witty, elegant script that at its best achieves a strong sense of period through specificity of metaphor, articulating the sensibilities of its characters in close relation both to the rugged Scottish landscape and to a changing social context. Unfortunately, however, like the character Robert Roy McGregor (Liam Neeson), the film itself is caught in a compromise — torn between what it appears to want to do and what its director can deliver. In short, it hovers between a reworked Western that uses the genre to examine resistance to colonialism and a grand romantic fantasy that is given a historical setting.

The specific references to the U.S. West in the film include Killearn's (Brian Cox) directly comparing the Highlanders to Native Americans and Man McDonald's (Eric Stoltz) fascination with emigration to the United States. Killearn's comparison is especially significant because the film so clearly positions its audience alongside an indigenous population being ousted from its traditional lands and ways of life. ROB ROY's landscape potentially has a role as a major player in the film. As in the mythic West, on this ancient wilderness, a new repression is being imposed in the name of order but really in the interests of a colonial power. This postcolonial shift of perspective should let the film avoid the paternalistic sentimentality found in other Westerns which seek to dramatize the colonization of the West from a Native American point of view, such as SOLDIER BLUE, LITTLE BIG MAN and DANCES WITH WOLVES. The strategy also has the potential to create a complex and ambiguous relation to the indigenous people among contemporary white U.S. viewers, many of whom might justifiably consider themselves descended from the McGregors and their ilk. The traditional Western is set at a point in history where whites are ousting cohesive, nonwhite social groups from their lands in the name of order.

Although the concept of Manifest Destiny is anachronistic in terms of ROB ROY's early eighteenth century setting and nowhere mentioned specifically by name, it is certainly implied and alluded to in Montrose's righteous indignation. As Richard Dyer has argued in White, the concept of manifest destiny

"signals a border between established and unestablished order, a border that is not crossed but pushed endlessly back" (31).

The film inhabits this kind of shifting borderland in a way that is both richly complex and troublingly evasive. The film invokes interconnecting discourses
around racism, colonialism and transgressive sexuality — which are tightly woven into the film's structure yet ultimately not realized with any degree of conviction.

The narrative's bare bones are as follows: Rob Roy, chieftain of the McGregor Clan, borrows a thousand pounds from the Duke of Montrose (played by John Hurt) to invest in cattle with the intention of making a substantial profit and thereby keeping the clan "warm this winter — within and without." He asks his friend McDonald to collect the note of credit from Montrose's factor, Killearn. Killearn tells Archibald Cunningham, Montrose's English houseguest, that he will force McDonald to collect the money in cash. Once McDonald has collected the money, Cunningham ambushes him in the woods, kills him and steals the thousand pounds — to pay his debts to a tailor. Killearn spreads a rumor that McDonald has emigrated to America with the money; and Rob Roy finds himself in debt to the tune of a thousand pounds to the Duke of Montrose.

Montrose offers to cancel the debt if Rob will malign the Duke of Argyll (Andrew Weir). Although Rob owes no special allegiance to Argyll, he refuses and turns outlaw, vowing to reduce Montrose to penury through stealing his cattle and taking his rents. Montrose sends Cunningham to arrest Rob and bring him back "broken, but not dead." For a while Rob avoids capture, but at a price. Rob's wife, Mary, is raped, the crofts of the McGregor Clan are burned, and their cattle are slaughtered. Eventually Cunningham catches Rob and drags him to confront Montrose. Rob effects a thrilling escape and seeks protection from the Duke of Argyll, who gives the family a croft in a valley.

Rob persuades Argyll to arrange a duel between himself and Cunningham. Rob, however, is not a match for Cunningham's speed and agility. With Rob at his feet and his rapier on his throat, Cunningham looks to Montrose for approval. Rob takes advantage here of his opponent's momentary distraction. Grasping Cunningham's rapier with his bare hand, Rob reaches for his broadsword, and kills the Englishman with one mighty blow. Rob is then reunited with his family.

Told like this, the story mythologizes Rob Roy as a man of Honor (a highly problematic notion to which I shall return shortly) who gets inadvertently caught up in a personal feud with Archibald Cunningham, the effete and unscrupulously self-serving English houseguest of the Duke of Montrose. But, as Sir Walter Scott, the writer on whose novel the film is very loosely based,[1][open notes in new window] well knew, everything is in the telling. Although I am writing here about Caton-Jones' film, I think it worth noting that Scott's novel is as much about the telling of tales and the construction of myths and their functions as it is about Rob Roy. In Scott's novel the teller of tales is Frank Osbaldistone, an Englishman who undertakes a journey from London through Northumberland and Glasgow before eventually reaching the Scottish Highlands, where he finally encounters Rob Roy, having already heard much about him.

Each of these locations represents a specific relation to a new Britain struggling to establish its identity through various forms of colonialism or resistance to it. London is centre of the new, expanding British Empire. Osbaldistone Hall is in Northumberland, where rustic feudalism is the crucible of Jacobite intrigue. Glasgow is a city in the process of becoming a great commercial centre (to evoke the Western again, it is a border town, an outpost of the Empire). And the Highlands themselves are a primitive, pre-feudal society which London via Glasgow is in the process of colonizing. One of the key differences, then, between Scott's novel and Caton-Jones' film is that while the latter unashamedly makes Rob Roy into a Romantic hero, Scott's method was fundamentally opposed to Romanticism. As Lukács observed, Scott

"never explains the age from the position of its great representative, as do the Romantic hero worshippers..."

Instead, he "lets them grow out of the being of the age (Lukács: 394)" Scott constructs his "great historical personalit(ies)" as representatives and products of sociopolitical circumstances.

Whilst the film of ROB ROY may purport to be about notions of Honor, and Robert Roy McGregor may be a man of iron integrity, personal Honor is inextricably connected to social conventions and political contexts and Rob is a man whose world is being torn apart. Like so many good liberals, he blindly co-operates with the powerful political agents irrevocably destroying his world's social structures, preferring to see the threats to the Clan as personal.

And where is McGregor's notion of personal Honor situated? "What is Honor?" Rob Roy asks his children, rhetorically. "What no man can give you," he himself answers enigmatically. "It grows in you and speaks to you." The conversation is significant both for what it reveals of Rob Roy's individualism and of the film's attempts to articulate this. The language sounds profound but means little (it is reminiscent of Kahil Gilbran's The Prophet). It smacks of New Age mysticism, which is echoed in the film's eclectic use of music — including traditional arrangements of old Scottish laments and grand stirring Romantic Hollywood strings. More charitably, McGregor's riddle might signify a refusal to be tied down by definitions and a sense that his own notion of Honor is rooted in a fundamentally oral culture.

When he goes to the Duke of Montrose to borrow a thousand pounds (to buy cattle, which he and his clansmen will drive across the Highlands and sell at a substantial profit), he offers nothing more than his oath as security. Unsurprisingly, Montrose is scornful. Rob insists, "When my word is given it is good," to which Montrose replies disdainfully,

"Well, you are to be congratulated on having such cheaply bought nobility."

Rob's approach to Montrose is also significant because it marks his attempt to buy his way into the world of entrepreneurial capitalism.

"A man of property, intent on growing richer. We have more in common than I would have suspected,"

comments Montrose. That Rob wants to borrow the money in order to protect his Clan — "I'm weary of seeing children hungry and old folk cold" — does not reduce the significance of the shift of his economic status from Clan Chieftain through wage earner (watching cattle for Montrose, and having to summarily execute a fellow Highlander who must also be weary of seeing his people suffer the effects of Scottish winters) to the gullible small businessman who borrows money from a loan shark.

Robert Roy McGregor, then, is a Middle Man, a man who is caught:

  • between the new colonizing English aristocracy, who are intent on parceling out the Highlands for themselves, and the old clan system;
  • between new entrepreneurial systems of social organization and traditional arrangements based on the collective;
  • between new systems of financial exchange (literacy and credit) and older, more traditional systems of barter (orality and Honor);
  • between late twentieth century notions of the small family unit and a much broader sense of the Clan as the central unit of social coherence;
  • between the benevolent patriarchy of Argyll and the manipulative exploitation of Montrose (each representing a different version of colonial patronage);
  • between romantic notions that the individual can triumph against a corrupt and repressive state and notions of collective responsibility for land;
  • between pagan beliefs, Christian orthodoxy and a humanist faith in self determination (it is worth noting, for example, the apparent contradiction between his use of the language of the King James Bible — when he refuses to "bear false witness" against Argyll — and his and Mary's belief that having sex in the shadow of an ancient standing stone will assure them another child);
  • between his idealized view of himself as a proud and Honorable leader of men, and his social construction as a go-between whose judgments of others are frequently inept because they do not take account of changing social circumstances.

The opening sequences set up these tensions with forceful economy. At the end of the credits we are told (not by a spoken narrative, but through the written word — with its appeal to the viewer of authenticity by historical association:

"At the dawn of the 1700s, famine, disease and the greed of great Noblemen were changing Scotland forever. With many emigrating to the Americas, the centuries old Clan system was slowly being extinguished. This story symbolises the attempt of the individual to withstand those processes and even in defeat, maintain respect and Honour."

The vocabulary here is revealing: the story is about the individual, not an individual. Robert McGregor is to be seen as a symbol, a representative of his kind. The Clan system is being extinguished — implying that what was once fiery and passionate is being deliberately wiped out. The rather polite and slightly archaic wording begs the question as to what respect and Honor might mean in the face of ethnic cleansing — that term for extinguishing Clan systems horrifyingly familiar in the late twentieth century.

The opening shot shows a wild Highland landscape of mountains, moors and a loch. We see no sign of human habitation. The caption over this landscape reads,

"The Scottish Highlands 1713."

McGregor and his band, five in all, appear from over a hill-tiny in this magnificent landscape. One of them picks up a piece of cow pat and tastes it, "How long?" "A day. Maybe two." To late twentieth century, western, urban sensibilities the action of tasting cow shit is disgusting, but it serves to place these men firmly in their environment. They know it and can read it skillfully. Alan Sharp, the scriptwriter of ROB ROY also wrote the Westerns THE HIRED HAND (Peter Fonda 1971), BILLY Two FIATS (Ted Kotcheff 1974) and perhaps most notably ULZANA'S RAID (Robert Aldrich 1972). In the latter, the Indian scout Ke-Ni-Tay can "read" "horse apples" in exactly the same way. The incident each film serves similar functions, placing the indigenous Highlander/ Native American at one with his environment. They both have esoteric knowledge, which enables them to read signs in an apparently hostile landscape. Given that "the old Clan system was slowly being extinguished," the reference to Westerns is particularly resonant. The audience is positioned in sympathy with those who are being driven from the land.

The sequence fades, and then the action cuts to another slightly larger band of men and a woman sitting round a fire — Tam Sibbald's (David Hayman) band of cattle thieves — and then back to Rob Roy and his men watching them from the hills. Rob knows how to use the land to his advantage, echoing the articulation of landscape in the Western, where the exploitation of such knowledge is so often crucial. "How are you going to take them Rob?" asks Alistair (Brian McArdie). "I'll go and talk to them in the morning…I know one of them."

Given that "the greed of great noblemen" has just been characterized as destroying the Highlands, McGregor is in an uncomfortable position since he and his men are retrieving stolen cattle on behalf of James Graham, Marquise of Montrose. When morning comes, Rob tells Tam Sibbald,

"If you steal cattle under my protection, you're not stealing from the owners, you're stealing from me, Robert Roy McGregor."

His loyalty to the "owners" of the cattle is so strong that he will not distinguish between the owners and himself. McGregor kills Sibbald, having offered the robber a choice:

"Would you rather be dead this morning after a good hump and a bellyful of stolen beef, or would you have me march you back to Montrose so you can shit yourself on the gallows a month hence."

The choice — no choice — reveals McGregor's acquiescence to the newly imposed social structures that create famine. Such an example of Rob Roy's Honor encourages us to consider the notions of respect and Honor with irony if not suspicion.

This opening sequence sets Highlander against Highlander, Rob's policing the wilderness on behalf of the Marquise of Montrose. The film then cuts from the wild open moorland to a very brief long-shot of people flocking to a medieval hall, cutting to a close up of a skull, a memento mori attached to the keystone of a massive stone arch inside the hall. The camera tilts down to show a cheering crowd — mostly men but some women, dressed in wigs and fine clothes, connoting aristocracy. The camera pulls back and only then do we discover the nature of the performance the crowd is watching: two Highlanders fighting a duel. The first close up is of the Duke of Argyll, looking satisfied with proceedings. Montrose arrives, accompanied by Cunningham and a black servant boy (Valentine Nwanze) who silently attends upon Montrose throughout the film, appearing in almost every medium- and longshot of Montrose, but never speaking. Montrose introduces Archibald Cunningham to Argyll; Cunningham fights and humiliates Guthrie, the winner of the earlier duel; and Argyll loses his wager on the match with Montrose. The sequence contextualizes Sibbald's execution (Montrose and Argyll are two of the "great Noblemen" on whose behalf Rob Roy kills his fellow Highlander) and provides a neat allegory for the apparatus of colonial repression. These great noblemen, who prey on the Highlands, cheer as Highlander fights Highlander. When Guthrie fights Cunningham, the effete Englishman, the Highlander is no match for the Englishman. Keep the tribes distracted by getting them to fight each other; then when you introduce your Englishman, the native will be exhausted.

This reading of the duels as metonymic of colonialism is highlighted by the presence of the black servant boy beside Montrose, who is never acknowledged nor remarked upon by any of the characters. His very "invisibility" acts as a potent reminder that the colonial project centrally involves the commodification and control of human beings, and that two of the crucial means by which it operates are through denial of voice and masquerades of "civilizing." Although the fiction does not remark on the boy's presence, the mise en scene focuses attention on the details of his appearance. His elegantly tailored dark coat with its exquisite braid fastenings, brass buttons, deep red cummerbund, white neckerchief and red turban nearly parodies Montrose and Cunningham's outfits. Because he never speaks and is never spoken about, the boy is defined and constrained by the clothes he wears. He is always contained by and within the clothes he wears — unlike Montrose and Cunningham, each of whom we see at some point in the film without their wigs and formal dress. The boy is less servant than trophy, a conspicuous display of racial superiority. Only once does he do anything for Montrose; he raises a parasol to shield the master as Cunningham takes his leave and then the boy sets out to bring in McGregor.

At the time of the film's English release in May 1995, Kim Newman wrote,

"Tim Roth's Cunningham is a startling creation, pitched somewhere between Pee Wee Herman, Marius Goring in A MATTER OF LIFE Am DEATH and Rupert of Henzau, mincing through sword fights and making the most of acid lines and pained expressions."[5]

Although most of the film's screen time is taken up with Rob and Mary (of whom more shortly) Roth plays Cunningham as an extraordinary villain, a love-to-loathe-him character who upstages every other member of the cast whenever he appears.

In its aggressive verbal, physical agility, and strangely unpredictable vulnerability, Roth's performance is so modern (reprising his roles in RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION) that Cunningham's dress has to be read with reference to both the historical period in which the film is set, in which case it is foppish and ostentatiously effete — Scott referred to his Cunningham as an "exquisite" (23) — and across time in contemporary terms, in which case Roth plays this role as camp and sexually transgressive. Rob Roy is personally offended by Cunningham's physical appearance in a way that suggests homophobia, and Rob echoes the Duke of Argyll's suggestion that Cunningham "can't tell arse from quim." Cunningham's response to Argyll is,

"I haven't buggered a boy for some years now; and, truth to tell, I thought it a girl until the moment of entry."

In fact, Cunningham's words here do not in any way diminish the ambiguity of his sexuality, for what he says is undermined by a silky, flirtatious smile which almost dares Argyll, "Try me, I'm Archie."

McGregor subsequently drastically underestimates Cunningham, and this misjudgment indicates that he homophobically equates "effete" with "ineffectual." Significantly, Rob's judgment in this respect, as elsewhere, is unreliable. Here, he cannot believe that anyone who dresses in this way can be a threat. Cunningham represents a new social phenomenon and is extremely dangerous. He is a stateless bastard who does not know his origins and sees survival as a game. His means of asserting his identity is through ruthlessness as a fighter, as a manipulator and as a pleasure seeker. In a rare moment of tenderness (with Betty) Cunningham confides that his father could be one of three men:

"I am but a bastard abroad seeking my fortune and the favors of Great Men, as big a whore as my mother ever was."

The key difference between him and Rob Roy is that whereas Cunningham is an astute judge of his own and others' social situations, McGregor can muster only eccentric and inconsistent insights into the political and economic situation. Cunningham can defeat McGregor because the Englishman understands the Highlander and his culture better than Rob understands himself. Cunningham rapes Mary as a callous and carefully considered act, calculated to force McGregor to break cover and reveal himself in an act of passionate revenge. I use the word "defeat" advisedly. Cunningham destroys the Clan, captures Rob Roy, lies Rob behind his horse on the end of a rope and drags the Highlander as requested, "broken but not dead," to Montrose. At this point Rob Roy and the Clan are most certainly defeated…

…except that Rob wraps the rope around Cunningham's neck and leaps from the bridge. The rope pulls Cunningham to the bridge parapet — where he will be garroted if one of the redcoats doesn't act quickly. The rope is cut, Cunningham survives, and Rob Roy falls into the fast-flowing river below and effects his escape. Here the film plunges into fantasy. Although there are charitable ways of reading events from this point on, what has hitherto functioned as an intelligent, if not wholly consistent, script now becomes less and less coherent. From here on, romance takes precedence, and the storyline relies on the primacy of individual action.

The film cuts from the action sequence of Rob's escape, hiding in the belly of the rotting carcass of a Highland ox, to images of Mary and their children in a cart arriving at their idyllic new home. One of the sons asks, "Will this really be safe?" "Aye, by his Grace's goodness. Under his protection," replies Mary. But earlier in the film Rob has rejected Mary's suggestion that they go to Argyll for help: then he insists,

"You hold great store by wolves of different shades. They're all alike at lambing."

He does not want Argyll's patronage, yet, in the end, only that patronage saves him from Cunningham and Montrose's depredations. Argyll owns the croft in which the family settles so happily, but Argyll offers protection solely to Rob Roy and his immediate family.

However, Argyll offers nothing to any other members of the Clan. As if to emphasize this, in a cut from the sanctuary of Argyll's croft, we see Cunningham on horseback looking disgruntled with a Highland croft burning in the background and a woman screaming in horror among dead men and livestock lying on the ground. No dialogue. The scene ought to be profoundly disturbing, but is shot in a desultory fashion. The director has far more interest in Cunningham than in Clan McGregor's fate. Indeed, a close viewing of the scene reveals that while one woman wails over her butchered husband, a small group of "Clan women" in the background are laughing and chatting, apparently unaware that this is a take.

From here, a cross fade shows Mary waking in her comfortable bed to find Rob safely warming himself in front of the hearth. She gets out of bed and kneels before him, looking up adoringly at his still bloody face. They and the film make no mention of Cunningham's vengeful destruction of what remains of the Clan. In fact, the juxtaposition of the two scenes makes this absence highly visible — at least in theory. In reality the scene denies all those complex ideological tensions, which have hitherto given the film such an edge. Here the hearth-fire image is only cosy, reinforcing an illusion of no connection between the personal and the political. In the process, the film willfully refuses Scott's own narrative methodology, which always presents personality as metonymic of social forces. By refusing to engage at even the most basic level with issues surrounding the Clan's survival, the film seems to move toward just depicting Rob Roy's gradual shift from self-righteous "Honor" to accepting pragmatism as a modus vivendi.

The scene between Mary and Rob is as "beautifully" shot as the burning of the croft was sloppy. It is worth reproducing extended dialogue from the scene.

Rob: "You should have told me" (about Cunningham's raping her)
Mary: "Oh Robert, I should have, but I could not. Forgive me, my love. I was wrong."
Rob: "No. It was me who was wrong. You were right when you told me I must have it my way. It was that which brought all this on us…And what of the wrong done you? Wrong past bearing."
Mary: "No. Not past bearing…I have my Robert and he has himself…Honor is the gift a man gives himself…Would you have stolen from yourself that which makes you Robert McGregor?"
Rob: "How fine you are to me."
Mary: "And you to me…Oh, Robert, there is more…I am with child and I do not know who is the father. I could not kill it, husband."
Rob: "It is not the child that needs killing."

And as she says all this, Mary is gazing at Rob, loving, stroking, caressing, crying, pouring herself into him, tears falling gently down her cheeks, glowing in the warmth of the fire and his apparently unconditional love. Leaving aside the unsatisfactory reduction of the Clan's struggle to a personal feud between McGregor and Cunningham, the scene also greatly diminishes Mary. Her iteration of the word "husband" as a term of endearment acts as an assurance that she belongs to him, that she is one of his chattels (the word is etymologically the root of the word cattle). When she insists that she was wrong not to tell him of the rape, she denies her own autonomy as a woman who, like Cunningham, appears to know her man better than he knows himself.

Jessica Lange's performance as Mary is troubling throughout the film. Her appearance gives an impression of the natural, of fierce, free-thinking independence (she appears to wear no makeup and wears her hair in long, free-flowing red Celtic tresses). Her relationship with Rob appears initially as one of equals: she is sexually active, clambering astride him beside the mighty standing stone. She is powerful and self-possessed. Even after the horror of rape she terrifies Killearn, and later she tries to cut his throat to prevent him telling Rob about it. But, for all the strength of the character's playing and forcefulness, she is a male fantasy. Until Rob's homecoming and the scene by the fire, however, the performance has intriguing and productive ambiguities — does she stand by her man (in a way that would have Tammy Wynette wide-eyed with admiration) or by her Clan? Unfortunately, the scene by the fire dispels all doubts. This powerful, beautiful woman still desires Rob, forgives him everything, and supports him. She accepts that his identity ("that which makes you Robert McGregor") and "the gift a man gives himself" (his "Honor") are the most important things in all their lives. She becomes the ultimate male fantasy. And the film and the McGregors forget the Clan as the film retreats from provocative ambiguity to romantic individualism.

It may be Honorable of Rob to propose, "It is not the child that needs killing." But this begs the inevitable question — then who does? Rob goes to Argyll to ask the nobleman to arrange a duel between himself and Cunningham. So the enemy is not the "wolves of different shades," not famine nor those who cause it, not the English, not even Montrose. It is Archibald Cunningham, the fop, and this time the fight is personal. The ending of the film is so strong — in terms of narrative and action — that it tends to cast the whole film as a personal feud, to deny the film its own complexity.

Just as the fireside scene with Mary reduces her stature, so this kind of feud flattens Cunningham. The film's ending sets him up as Rob Roy's opposite. Rob's sexuality is as determinedly heterosexual as Archie's is equivocal. Rob is large, strong and lumbering, where Archie is wiry, agile and extremely skilful with a rapier. Rob's language tends to abstract New Age mysticism, whereas Archie's is razor sharp materialist. Interestingly there is a sense in which their common situation — each of them marginalized by changing social and political circumstances — makes them doppelgangers. Archie embodies the pragmatic materialist values that Rob Roy must adopt in order to survive. When, however, Cunningham's function in the film becomes limited to particularly vicious villainy, the script suppresses, even denies, these possibilities.

Making Cunningham the supreme enemy ideologically undermines the film's examination of the workings of colonialism. In his novel Walter Scott (by no stretch of the imagination a proto-Marxist) offers a clear account of the reasons that Rob Roy became an outlaw and an insightful analysis of the relation between the protagonist's changing social and economic situation and the new legal apparatus imposed by England as a colonial power. It seems that Caton-Jones prefers to see the conflict (at least in the film's ending) as a struggle between an Honorable individual and an unscrupulous fop who does not so much represent a colonial power as a disgraced parasite clinging desperately to it.

However, intelligent ironies still are conveyed by Cunningham's death at the end of the duel. Hitherto he has thrived because he has exploited his position on the margins. His precise position in Montrose's household is never made clear. But Roth plays him as relishing the independence allowed him by his ambiguous sexuality and his position as a social outcast from England. Like McGregor, Cunningham functions best in the margins, and the moment Cunningham falters is the moment he gives the tiniest hint that he gives a damn. In the duel, when he looks to Montrose for approval, McGregor strikes. However, McGregor's "triumph" over the fop is not particularly Honorable. As a swordsman, Rob's opponent is immeasurably more skillful. In order to defeat him, Rob has to not only fight on Argyll's ground (in the baronial hall) but to adopt Cunningham's cunning.

And as the two fight to the death, they are watched by Argyll and Montrose, a few attendants and Montrose's constant companion, the black servant boy. But the film continues to waste the dramatic potential of this character since the framing and lighting of those shots in which the boy is visible draw no attention to his presence. Throughout, the film hints at the racial agenda underpinning the colonial project but then avoids developing the theme of race. The black boy's presence reminds us that while colonizing the Scottish Highlands partly means appropriating and enclosing land, it also means bringing the wild Celts into the fold of Whiteness.[7]

Seen in these terms the key character opposition in the film is between the passionate Celt — as epitomized not by Rob but by his impetuous cousin Alistair — and the calculating, cunning, predatory Englishman, Montrose, whose only emotions appear to be righteous anger and indignation. Both Robert McGregor and Archibald Cunningham fall between these polarities. McGregor is a passionate Celt trying to learn economic strategies for survival and to acquire the emotional control which will enable him to undermine Cunningham's subterfuges. Cunningham is an emotionless and exploitative Englishman who is a ruthless sexual adventurer and proud of his own bastardy. In Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver writes,

"The ideal white man was one who knew how to use his head, who knew how to manage and control and get things done. The whites who were not in a position to perform these functions nevertheless aspired to them" (Cleaver 1969: 80).

Cunningham evidently aspires to the qualities embodied by Montrose. He rapes Mary as a symbolic act to assert his control over the Celts, the Clan, Mary and Robert, and his own emotions. Cunningham is exactly the kind of aspirational white who can act as an agent for the "true" white man, Montrose, enabling Montrose to keep his own hands clean throughout the mucky business of colonization.

I wonder if Sharp originally proposed the duel as the end of the film. It might not be as comfortable an ending, but it would certainly be more satisfying. In the film's release version, at the end of the duel Rob Roy is battered and broken. He might summon up one last superhuman effort to kill Cunningham, but his wounds seem far too serious for him to survive. If the film has become a battle of wills between the two men, then it would be appropriate (though harsh) for them to kill each other, leaving the way for Argyll and Montrose to struggle over how to parcel out the Highlands between themselves. My propose ending would very productively fit the model of the Western which the opening of the film sets up so powerfully (e.g., ULZANA'S RAID), where Macintosh must die once Ulzana is shot).

This version of the film ends with Rob reunited with Mary and his children. Unless we read that as an ironic pastoral fantasy and there are no indications that we should, then such a vision is surely proposed as triumphant and positive. This ending, however, indicates the film's fudged, inconsistent ideological position. Rob rejected Argyll's offer of permanent financial support but stays living in the croft that Argyll has provided. Most important, Rob may have reclaimed his "Honor" and reasserted his independence, but where is the Clan at the end of the film? The leader's private Honor seems satisfied in that he has killed his personal persecutor, but the Clan remains broken.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the dominant western notion of the "clan" is the small family unit, and that vision has become ever more restrictive and restricting. It is to this late twentieth century version of the clan that Robert McGregor returns. With his wife and two children, he settles in an idyllic homestead in the middle of a beautiful valley, but with no other human habitation visible. This vision might be of a city dweller's perfect rural getaway, but it offers little to the reduced Clan McGregor. McGregor and his immediate family are not what is significant in the final scene-but the absence of others. In its conclusion, the film indicates that Argyll and McGregor share notions of Honor which are past their sell-by-date. In particular, Argyll reminds us Prime Minister Ted Heath in his stand against Thatcherism's depredations, an "Honorable" Scottish Tory who cannot see that he is as much a part of the colonizing project as Montrose and Cunningham.

The film's opening set up many possibilities. It would be an unfair oversimplification to suggest that the film's tendency to romantic individualism overwhelmed it so much that it closed down the more interesting and intelligent of these possibilities. The script keeps many of them alive and active. The problem seems to be that Caton-Jones' direction becomes increasingly insensitive to the script's political and social implications. We hear and read about the Clan's succumbing to famine and disease, but the director shows us virtually nothing of famine and disease's effects. Although it outrages Montrose that McGregor has to resort to thieving cattle, we never see the briefest glimpse of Rob Roy as rustler outlaw. Presumably showing him as rustler would compromise his "Honor," yet to enhance such a contradiction would have made the film so much richer than it is.

Landscape's function in the film further demonstrates how Caton-Jones appears to lose grip of the material. In the opening sequences, landscape has some of the complexity that we might find in a Western — the mountains are forbidding, wild and dangerous, and knowledge of them is power. As the film develops, however, landscape serves as little more than a picturesque, albeit magnificent backdrop. There are notable exceptions to this — such as when Cunningham leads his redcoats to Rob Roy's croft, arriving under cover of a mist, demonstrating that he has acquired the very skills and knowledge that the Highlanders had thought their own (again echoing the battle of wits between Macintosh and Ulzana in Sharp's earlier film). As the narrative chive for romantic resolution gains strength, the mise-en-scène goes soggy.

In the middle of the road you get knocked down. In the middle of the road, Robert Roy McGregor gets roped to a horse and dragged until he can hardly stand. In the middle, Robert McGregor is stuffed. On the margins, when he jumps from the bridge, hides in the rotting carcass of an ox, takes advantage of one of Cunningham's momentary lapses of concentration — then he survives, but only just; and surviving is all he can do. And in the middle of the road, the film ROB ROY is similarly compromised.


1. ROB ROY - USA 1995. Director: Michael Caton-Jones. (English) Distributor: HIP. Production Company: Talisman Production for United Artists.

2. Dyer, Richard (1997) White. London and New York: Routledge.

3. Sir Walter Scott: 1771-1832. His novel, Rob Roy, was first published in 1818. The edition of 1829 contained a lengthy introduction by Scott offering a historical "back story," explaining how Rob Roy became an outlaw. Alan Sharp's script is loosely based on incidents collated mainly from Scott's introduction. The only incident in the film that originates in the novel itself is Rob Roy's escape down the river. The edition referred to in this article is: Sir Walter Scott, Rob Roy, edited by Ian Duncan (1998) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

4. Lukács, Georg (1960) The Historical Novel, English translation by Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. (1962) Merlin Press Ltd: London, England.

5. Sight and Sound, 5: 6 (June 1995), p. 52. London: British Film Institute

6. Dyer's White (1997) (op. cit.) offers a stimulating and provocative exploration of the issue of Whiteness.

7. Cleaver, Eldridge (1969) Soul on Ice, London: Jonathan Cape.