Old age, Bette Davis said, ‘ain’t no place for sissies’. Neither was the Middle Ages. They were the Dark Ages, a world lit only by fire, in part because you had thrown the innards of your enemy onto the flames. The roads were terrible, and the primeval forest had recovered the farmland once worked by retired Roman legionaries. No wonder Dante’s traveler got lost in the woods in middle age.
In Britain, civilization collapsed when the Romans went south. A long night of Scandinavian noir ensued, as raiders with names like Erik Bloodaxe set the social tone. For nearly a millennium, no one in England built a flushing lavatory, because there were no drains to hook it up to. Everyone stank. The peasants were especially revolting, and the nobles were notably ignoble. It is said that, during the siege of Jerusalem, Richard the Lionheart ate his prisoners’ sweetmeats, presumably in a pita bread. It is also said that in 1327, the English nobles despatched Edward II of England by inserting a red-hot poker up his fundament. All this is hearsay. But that’s what you get when no one knows how to read or write.
The medieval vocabulary is a warning from history: plague, crusade, serfdom, vassalage. When was the last time you heard ‘medieval’ as a compliment? Consider the two most popular modern usages. How we all laughed in the carefree Nineties at the bit in Pulp Fiction when Ving Rhames says, ‘I’mma get medieval on yo’ ass.’ These days, no one laughs when the Islamists get medieval, and no one, apart from Islamists, disputes that medieval is what they’re getting.
On the bright side, the Middle Ages were a great age for faith, architecture and nationalism. We’re told one of the problems with young people nowadays, and especially young men, is that they have no purpose in life. The medievals didn’t have that problem. Jordan Peterson would have liked the Middle Ages, providing his king hadn’t cut his tongue out with a dagger for base temerity before his anointed monarch and most heinous heresies before the lords of the church.
The medievals believed enough to redeem Jerusalem from the Saracens. Their kings and princes believed enough to spend their money and everyone else’s on magnificent cathedrals, testimony to the endurance of the human spirit even when the body is knee-deep in blood. They also established Europe’s first nation states. Admittedly, these were a bit ragged and bloody around the edges, if not to the core. But from that core there came Magna Carta and, eventually, laws restricting the rule of church and throne.
The symbolic core of David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King belongs to an apple. Outlaw King is the story of Robert the Bruce, the Scottish lord who rebelled against Edward I, smashed Edward II’s army at Bannockburn, and re-established an independent Scottish kingdom. The apple core is left on a stone window sill in a Scottish castle after Edward II’s soldiers have arrested the eater of said apple, Robert’s young daughter Margaret, along with his second wife, Elizabeth.
Robert, a moody widower, was ordered to marry Elizabeth, who is English, as part of the terms of Scottish surrender to a previous rebellion. ‘Time to rut!,’ Edward II roars at the wedding banquet, as he jams a candelabra up the fundament of a roasted piglet. But Robert refrains, and allows Elizabeth’s love to grow in the manner of a flowering fruit that is usually farmed in orchards. One day, Elizabeth bites into a crisp Scottish apple and realizes deep in her English heart that she loves Robert. Soon afterwards, she strips off and stiffens his resolve against the English. How d’ye like them apples?
Bruce takes the the hills with a small band of followers, and, judging from the soundtrack, a small band equipped with synthesizers and bagpipes. Oaths are plighted, castles sacked, innards eviscerated, and crosses doubled as Bruce rallies the clans. The action is muddy and bloody, especially when the axe-wielding MacDougalls attack the Bruce party on the water. The longeurs between slaughters are enlivened by anthropological interludes in which salmon are salted and smoked, chickens are stolen, and folk dirges keened by emancipated Highland women.
As the Bruce, Chris Pine smolders like a castle the morning after its sacking, but rises to the occasion when Florence Pugh, as the wife, tickles him with a sprig of thistle. The film, but not the Scottish kingdom, is stolen by Billy Howle as the future Edward II, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as Bruce’s warlord pal James Douglas. Taylor-Johnson, with a flowing mullet and hipster beard, is so crazed with bloodlust that he enjoys burning down his own castle.
Howle, wearing a simpleton’s pudding-bowl cut, quivers and rages as he commits effete and moist-lipped acts of princely sadism. He manhandles Elizabeth then imprisons her in a cage, and he even abuses the royal bird too. ‘By these swans I swear to avenge this murderous insult to God!’ Edward roars at a banquet, waving a live swan in each hand. Cut to two dead swans on a silver platter. The bastard.
You know the battle to end all battles is coming when a peasant is hauling a cart of apples along a muddy track and Douglas thunders past on horseback, shouting, ‘The English are coming!’ More than the apple cart gets upset when the Bruce’s men welcome the English cavalry with a hidden trench full of spiked palings, probably cut from a nearby orchard. The English horses grind the apples into the mud, but Edward the pervert prince ends up writhing on all fours and drooling vomit. Perhaps he is nauseated by the hypocrisy of a film which indulges in a gratuitously gory mudbath-bloodbath, then disavows its sadism by soundtracking the slaughter with poignantly synthesized strings.
Outlaw King tries to be politically correct. Bruce’s band of mullet-wearing patriots are sensitive lovers, but the English are fascists with no respect for fruit. But you can’t take the medieval out of the Middle Ages. Outlaw King inadvertently demonstrates the least politically incorrect idea in modern politics. This story of how a small people banded together against foreign oppression in order to recover their freedom is a splendid advert for nationalism.
After watching Outlaw King, you too will wonder why the modern Scots, who fought off the English so bravely and suffered so much, recently voted not just to continue living under the English yoke, but to remain vassals of the feudal tyrants of the European Union. There is much political meat on this roasted swan of a movie, as well as satisfying amounts of fol-de-rol and murder. If you’re looking for Christmas presents for your favorite incel, slip this in his Christmas stocking. Then stuff the stocking in his mouth so he looks like a roasted piglet.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.