Rob Roy: How Great Films Are Made

Looking for a movie that offers excellent direction, superb acting, outstanding writing, and a theme that is important, timeless, and well-dramatized? Rob Roy does all of that — and more.

[Because of the age of this film, there are more than the usual number of spoilers below. Caveat lector.]

It’s unusual for films to offer excellent direction. It’s rare for them to feature superb acting, and even less often are they built from outstanding writing. To do that while offering a theme that is important, timeless, and dramatized without preaching is almost never found. To find all these aspects in a film raised to a high pinnacle of art is nearly without precedent.

That is what the 1995 film Rob Roy achieves. The net result is a combination of fine entertainment and superb portrayal of artistic values.

Rob Roy, starring Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange
At bottom, it is a straightforward story. Rob Roy, an early 18th century Scottish leader is seeking to better his lot in life and that of his clansman. He borrows a thousand pounds (about $1 million in today’s currency) from a local Scottish Lord, Montrose, in order to invest in and herd cattle to market.

In short order, conniving Killearn (his ‘factor’ or accountant) and bastard whoremonger and wastrel gambler, the foppish Archie, cook up a scheme to steal the money and blame the theft on Rob’s close friend, Alan McDonald.

Their plan succeeds and Alan is secretly dispatched in one of the many dramatic scenes of the film. Unable to find him, Rob asks Montrose for an additional loan, promising to turn over all profits. Instead, offended by Rob’s refusal to bear false witness against his political enemy, the Duke of Argyll, Montrose orders Rob jailed in the toll booth.

Rob escapes at once and Montrose orders Archie to capture the “too-proud Highlander.” What follows is a series of events that that will see Rob’s home burned, his wife raped, and his friends slaughtered. In the final sequence, Rob and Archie battle it out in a sword fight that is one of the more unusually choreographed in the cinematic history of such scenes.

Written by Alan Sharp, the screenplay is among the most well crafted ever. A large claim, true. But watch the film and you will discover how it never flags. You will see, too, how it seamlessly weaves together its fairly simple main plot with a half-dozen smaller ones and contains dozens of sharply drawn, quick character sketches. You will hear witty, insightful, and historically well-informed dialog that sounds neither faux-historical stagey nor anachronistically modern.

For example, Archie is bedding one of Montrose’s serving wenches, an apparently unconnected subplot of a few scenes that serve to reveal Archie’s callous character and Killearn’s servile and calculating nature. Yet this relationship is later used to provide Rob with information that leads to the climactic sequence involving all those characters and others.

The dialog is witty, moves the plot forward while clearly drawing its distinct and interesting characters, and even reaches artistic depth without being heavy handed or preachy. There are literally dozens of examples.

In the opening sequence Rob and his men are chasing cattle thieves who have stolen from Montrose, Rob’s ‘employer’. Instead of slaughtering the thieves outright, Rob goes to talk to them. He confronts the scurvy leader, yet treats him with dignity offering to let the band go if Tom will agree to one-on-one combat. “There’s a price to pay for being a leader of men, Tom,” Rob tells him.

Liam Neeson as Rob Roy
When Montrose meets his rival during a swordmatch, the honorable Argyll tells him with contempt in his voice, “I forget how much you dislike me, until I’m in your presence.” Later, at a card game, Montrose defends his lies about Argyll’s Jacobite favoritism saying “Great men draw rumors like shite draws flies.” Argyle responds with, “You are the shite, Montrose, and the flies upon it. I know you in my nose.”

When Killearn tries to discuss his plan with Archie, on whom he’s just informed to Montrose about his gambling debts, Archie chokes the factor, saying, “You are a carbuncle and I will squeeze the pus out of you.” We cheer even for the villain Archie because we see that it’s true.

In the scene when the servant reveals to Archie that she is pregnant and that she loves him, he tells her, “Love is but a dung heap, Betty, and I am but a cock that climbs upon it to crow.”

After Archie rapes Rob’s wife and asks her to think of him when she next sees her husband, she tells him, “I will think of you dead, until my husband makes you so.” Pause. “Then I will think of you no more.”

The direction helmed by Michael Caton-Jones matches and makes first-rate use of the writing.

For example, the film opens with a sweet and melancholy Gaelic tune by Carter Burwell, composer of the film’s superb score. The filmmaker takes us right to the sweep of Scotland’s majestic Highlands and zeros in on Rob and his men. We know at once when we are, where we are, and who we are with. And the director makes us glad to be there.

Scene setting immediately gives way to plot, character development, and theme. We know the kind of man Rob is by his interactions with his men and the thieves. Soon we see an excellently staged swordplay contest between Archie and Guthrie, a local lout.

Within the the first ten minutes we know the film’s world and main characters, and have hints of what is to come.

There is foreshadowing of the final scene in the form of a well-staged contest between Archie and Guthrie, both blades for hire. More foreshadowing of an important moment at the film’s end comes when Guthrie challenges Rob to a duel in a pub, pretending it is for having killed Tom. “Kin of your’n?” Rob asks. “Near enough,” says Guthrie. “I shagged his sister once.”

Rob, always reluctant to fight for no reason, asks “first cut?” without looking up from his table. “Aye,” Guthrie answers. Rob swipes his own hand over Guthrie’s drawn blade and declares, “Well done,” then stands to tower over the bully. “Some other time, when we’re both sober,” he announces, then leaves, stooping out the door of the crowded room. That is excellent use of setting combined with great staging and focus.

The director well understands the value of a good scene cut, too. When Mary, Rob’s staunch wife, visits Argyll, the Duke declares “He is indeed a man blessed by good fortune.” The camera cuts at once to a captive, purple-faced Rob being dragged along the road behind Archie’s horse.

The pacing is also first-rate. Often, between the major action sequences or scenes of dramatic dialog there are short, peaceful interludes. This technique, when well implemented, lets the audience rest its emotions before the next sequence and rise in tension. At the same time, they’re never so long as to let the film flag.

That tension comes in the form of a constant drive toward the climax. The director lets his actors carry the emotional burdens and speak their lines in a believable way. Nothing is forced. Yet, never does the camera relax and just show us scenery or costume or people for their own sake. Everything is used and used well.

Every performer delivers in the movie, too, and almost all are outstanding.

John Hurt’s Montrose is by turns vain, cold, touchy, and outraged. Little-known Andrew Keir’s Argyll is dignified, zesty, and equally outraged, by the slimy Montrose and his machinations. Eric Stolz is fully convincing and masterful at portraying the frustrated Alan who wants to go the Americas but stands firmly by his friend, Rob. Brian Cox as Killearn is a master acting class study in obsequious evil. Tim Roth as Archie is a bantam cock of a callous “bastard abroad, seeking his fortune” and never misses a step in expression or movement.

Even the weakest member of the cast, Jessica Lange, does a fine job. She is clearly uncomfortable with the Scottish burr and, at 46, is at least 10 years too old for the part and looks it. But her considerable acting skill largely compensates.

She portrays well the strong realist partner of Rob, the man driven by honor. She is superb in the post-rape scene when she harangues Rob’s young brother not to reveal her violation to avoid his falling into Archie’s baited trap. She tells him, “If I can bear it to be done, you can bear to remain silent,” and we feel every ounce of her immense pain and inner conflict.

But the centerpiece of the film and the finest performance is unquestionably Liam Neeson as Robert Roy MacGregor. In the classic mold of film heroes he completely embodies the sense of honor that is the movie’s basic theme. This is a man of thoughtful intelligence, heartfelt compassion, immense integrity, earned pride, and an unquenchable sense of justice. Each of these qualities is brought out deftly, but unmistakably in scene after scene.

Best of all, the film rises far above stellar entertainment, important as that is. It is one of only a handful of films to provide that while exploring a deep theme: the value of honor. That theme is seamlessly combined with the depiction, and ultimate triumph of justice over evil. It does both without a trace of apologetic saccharine or cynical snigger of the “it’s just a movie” attitude so common in films today.

That it manages the feat in a film not yet 15 years old is all the more remarkable. It will continue to appear just as remarkable as the film is seen 50 years from now.

Jeffrey Perren is a professional writer. His current novel (in progress), The Power of Civilization, is the story of an entrepreneur struggling to build a revolutionary new type of nuclear power plant. He maintains a blog at where he discusses contemporary culture and politics from a pro-reason perspective.

12 comments from readers  

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Well stated. I have valued this movie since it's release. I remember watching it with my 12 year old son at the time and attempting to explain to him the importance of honor in a man's life. He remembers it today as one of the best movies he ever watched.
It is superb to see this great film receiving its due through Mr. Perren's review. This is a "sleeper" movie that I hope will eventually be recognized as in the top 10 of all films ever made, and probably the best film ever made in the special category of a psychologically real portrayal of adult benevolent romantic love.

My only two niggles with the review are:

a) that Mr. Perren doesn't make significant note about the intense portrait of the romance between Rob Roy and his wife Mary. While it's not the main focus of the movie, it is a crucially integral component of the script. The writer and director make clear that this story is about two leaders of their community: intelligent, hard-working people who share a deep worldview and a palpable romantic love (made very clear in the opening scenes, in their first love scene). This is romantic love presented -- in the script, in the performances, in the directing, -- in a way that you psychologically understand *why* they are in love. Unlike most movies and novels, where there is just a blind hormonal assumption by the author that so and so loves so and so -- meaning that you have to just accept the romantic love without psychological evidence. Here the reasons are made real throughout the movie, through their characters and actions. A thrilling psychological portrayal.

(One sub-niggle re the review: I don't agree that Jessica Lange was too old for the part -- how can an actress who convinces you she is having erotic dreams about her husband be wrong for the part! Plus her portrayal has the gravitas to express genuine hero-worship for her lover-husband)

b) Another aspect of the plot, almost as rare as the romantic love component, is the portrayal of Rob Roy as an honorable entrepreneur. A key cause of all the conflict in the movie arises from Rob Roy's decision to borrow from the local "banker", aka the rich nobleman, Montrose. You see Rob Roy as sort of a proto-rough-and-ready CEO of his extended family/clan/village. They are portrayed as having a dire set of existential circumstances, which impels Rob Roy to take the carefully calculated risk to post his land as collateral for his loan from Montrose. He did this in order to buy cattle, fatten them up and give them added value, then sell them at a substantial profit at market, in order to have a surplus for his "company" -- his clan/family/village.

Neither of these aspects (romantic love, or entrepreneurship) are thrown at you in explicit statements or philosophy -- but entirely entwined in the characters and plot, and thus there is no sense of these ideas being "pasted" onto a story. They are integral, and natural, and thus quite powerful in the hands of this once-in-a-lifetime high quality collaboration of director-writer-actors-etc.

A great portrayal of heroism that never gives up, even in the face of many awful and deadly evil people.
Mr. Perren: You assuredly watch a movie, don't you? How many times did you see it to achieve such a grasp of it? I saw it when It first came out, and barely remember it. Was there not some old man afflicted with the Pox who spurs Rob on? Might be a different Scottish movie. Possibly Braveheart with Mel Gibson. Oh well. Keep up the good work, Frank Toplin
How wonderful to see this truly great movie reviewed so favorably at last. While the movie is classed as historical fiction, in fact as a work of art is is more accurately described as a rare piece of Romantic Realism.

When I am watching it I forget (or more accurately, I don't care) that Rob Roy was a real person. And like any work of Romantic Realism it is about the person.

For me, the first breath-catching moment in this movie, was Rob Roy's return to his wife and children after successfully retrieving his employer's cattle from thieves. While obviously eager to see his family, the first thing he does is bathe in the lake. Then clean and naked, he gently wakes his wife by making love to her. This is possibly the finest love scene in film; a love scene with no prurient interest, yet so compelling that it is one of two scenes in this movie that stay with me. This scene tells me about his love for his wife, his view of her -- and of himself -- by the simple means of having him bathe before coming to bed with her.

The other scene that stays with me is his final swordfight with Archie. The resolution of the fight -- and climax of the movie -- is so shocking that despite having seen the movie perhaps 6 times, and knowing what is going to happen, I still feel astonished every time. Like any Romantic climax, it not only resolves the plot, it ties together everything we know about the character. It tell us about his courage. His love for his family. His great intelligence. His original mind and way of solving problems. And his sense of justice. All in one great scene.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to think about this movie again. I think I will watch it this evening.

P.S. have a hypothesis that the reason this film did not receive the honors it deserves is timing: it came out at the same time as Braveheart, another work of historical fiction about Scottish history. And Braveheart had Mel Gibson, lots of blood and gore and grautitous violence. And lots of shouting 'Freedom', without meaning. (As you can tell I detest that movie).
My thanks to those who commented (and rated), especially John Gillis. I agree with John's comments (all but the age issue), particularly about the romantic relationship, which the review gives short shrift.
Wonderfully written review.

And one of the top pieces Iâ??ve read at the Atlasphere.

This is how you are supposed to write a movie review - very thorough, lots of detail. Not merely vague and unexemplified abstractions. The quotes make it more real as well.

(I saw the movie and basically agree with Jeff Perren's assessment.)
One of my favorite movies. Thanks for bringing it to the attention of more people!

On the subject of Lange's age: this never bothered me at all; men don't always marry younger women. In real life, Lange is just 3 years older than Neeson.
A great review! If this doesn't make someone want to watch this movie, I can't think of anything else that would.

As always, I immensely enjoyed reading it. Thanks!
Here, here! My feelings exactly. Some day I'm going to put together a list of films like Rob Rob that are great films regardless of the level of critical aclaim they may have gotten.
They are films that are enjoyed year after year by millions of people and long outlast many of the more acclaimed films that came out when they did.
Many are not intellectual (probably a good thing) and some are.
They often focus on character, honor and personal intergrity and then reveal those qualities in action.

"Shane", "A Man for All Seasons", "Ride the High Country", "They Came from Cordura", "Rob Roy", "To Kill a Mockingbird", "The Lives of Others", "12 Angry Men" and "Z" to mention a few off the top of my head.

They all enlarge us and remind us of the power and inspiration one man of intergrity can bring to the world.
My favorite line in the movie comes just after Mary learns she is pregnant. She does not know if the father is her husband, Rob, or the rapist, Archie.

When she offers to procure an abortion, Rob tells her "It's not the child that needs killing".

That statement alone is worth the price of admission.
The greatest line in the film is spoken by Rob Roy to Montrose, in response to Robâ??s refusal to bear false witness against Montrose's political enemy, the Duke of Argyll.

Montrose indicts Roy Roy for seeking praise and honor from his men by remaining virtuous to his own principals.

Rob Roy answers that Honor is not a medal bestowed upon him by others but a virtue one gifts oneself.

Rob Roy is one of my favourite movies. To read it here in such fantastic detail just reminds me clearly why it is so. Wonderful words about a wonderful movie.
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