The outstanding 1995 movie Rob Roy was released recently on Blu-ray. Directed by Michael Caton-Jones, it stars Liam Neeson as the early 18th century Scottish Highland hero Robert Roy MacGregor. The transfer to Blu-ray is excellent, doing full justice to the film’s magnificent cinematographic rendering of the Scottish Highlands. For that reason alone it is worth buying, even if you own the DVD.
But the new release also provides an opportunity to watch this historical epic in a high-quality format that enhances the imaginative experience it offers. Since Rob Roy has already been reviewed at Atlasphere, I shall restrict myself to appraising what I see as one of the film’s greatest virtues: its probing exploration of the theme of honor.
Since Rob Roy’s premiere in 1995, many other movies have been released that depict historical epic heroes as well as comic book heroes and thriller action heroes. So for anyone who loves to watch heroic dramas, there is no shortage of films to satisfy a craving for larger-than-life heroes. Rob Roy, however, is distinct in giving us a heroic tale in which the events and characters are presented from a clear and incisive moral perspective.
Drawing on the real life of Robert Roy MacGregor (1671–1734), the screenwriter Alan Sharp skillfully adapts the historical material to fashion a hero who, in his resistance to the corrupt and violent society in which he finds himself, not only displays exceptional heroic qualities but also emerges as a man of deep moral convictions. According to Sharp, Rob Roy was conceived as a Western set in the Scottish Highlands.
Like the Old West, the Scottish Highlands in the early 18th century was a lawless country, resisting the imposition of the legal system that governed the Lowlands. This setting thus forms a suitable background for the portrayal of a hero who, in the absence of law, acts according to a personal code of honor. But Rob Roy goes further than any Western I know of by presenting a hero who is not just guided by an ideal of honor, but is passionately committed to this ideal, making it the ruling principle of his life.
In its portrayal of a distinctly moral hero, Rob Roy conforms to Ayn Rand’s Romantic credo that the highest purpose of a fictional work is to project a moral ideal, or, as she liked to phrase it, to hold up an image of “man as he might be and ought to be.” But whereas Rand, in her own fiction, aimed to present a universal moral ideal — personified in heroes who possess virtues she regarded as essential to human flourishing at any time or in any place — Rob Roy gives us a hero whose virtues are intimately bound up with the time and place in which he lives.
The prefatory text at the beginning of the movie alerts us to the special significance of honor during this time period. In the early 1700s, it notes, the centuries-old clan system in Scotland was slowly being extinguished due to “famine, disease and the greed of great Noblemen” and the fact that many Scots, as a result, were emigrating to the Americas. Further, it states that the film’s story “symbolises the attempt of the individual to withstand these processes and, even in defeat, retain respect and honor.”
This emphasis on honor as the individual’s effort to hold on to his values in a time of historical upheaval makes Rob Roy a moving lament on a vanishing way of life, represented by Rob and the Highlanders. But it is also a celebration of the moral ideals peculiar to this way of life.
It is worth noting that the representation of honor in Rob Roy reflects codes of conduct widely current during the 18th century. The standard view was that honor is a quality of moral nobleness and integrity, residing in a person’s character. In Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755), for example, honor is defined as “nobility of soul, magnanimity, and a scorn of meanness.” This dates back to Aristotle, who similarly linked honor to the virtue of magnanimity.
For Aristotle, however, honor was primarily an attitude of esteem or admiration bestowed, by others, on a man of great worthiness. This notion of honor also gained currency during the 18th century. But, under the influence of a decadent aristocracy, it often lost its moral import and decayed into a claim to worthiness derived from nobility of class rather than nobility of soul, something a person of high rank saw as his rightful due by virtue of his superior social position, regardless of moral merit.
In the figure of Rob Roy, we see an honor that fully accords with the conception of honor as a moral quality. Interestingly, it also accords with Ayn Rand’s statement in her West Point address in 1974 that “Honor is self-esteem made visible in action.”
For Rob, honor is above all a matter of self-respect, grounded in his own sense of moral worth, independent of class or how he is judged by other people. This is reflected in his words to his sons that “All men that have honor are kings, but not all kings have honor.... Honor is what no man can give you and none can take away. Honor is a man’s gift to himself.” His words also indicate that he sees honor as an essentially selfish virtue, marked by a person’s unswerving loyalty to his own principles of right conduct.
What follows includes some mild spoilers, but nothing that should ruin the experience for most first-time viewers.
An important aspect of Rob’s dedication to honor is that it is an integral part of his role as clan-chief. This is demonstrated in the opening scene, where Rob and some of his men hunt down a band of Highland thieves who have stolen cattle owned by the powerful Marquis of Montrose and protected by Rob, working for Montrose. Singling out the leader of the band, Rob kills him in a man-to-man fight, an act that shows him as a leader of decisive, even ruthless, action. But it also shows him as a leader unwilling to resort to unnecessary violence as he lets the rest of the band go free, recognizing that they are stealing because of famine and poverty, not because they are bad people.
This humane quality of Rob’s honor is accentuated in the following scene. Here we see him as a man capable of deep compassion, disturbed by the sight of women and children in his own clan suffering from hunger, ill health, and coldness. Feeling, as a leader, responsibility for the well-being of his clan members, he decides to try and alleviate their plight by taking up a loan from Montrose in order to buy and sell cattle at a profit — a plan that fails because of the successful scheme to rob him of that loan by two of Montrose’s henchmen: the thoroughly debased English fop Archibald Cunningham and the sly and conniving factor Killearn.
Rob’s concern with honor is also exhibited in his caring and loving devotion to his wife, Mary MacGregor, herself a woman of great honor. As he tells his sons, “Women are the heart of honor, and we cherish and protect it in them.” Rob here reveals an idealizing attitude towards women that harks back to chivalric ideals of courtly love. But in the non-courtly world of the Scottish Highlands, his chivalric sentiment is manifested in a warm and sensual love relationship with his wife rather than knightly idolization of a lady from afar. “Do you know how fine you are to me, Mary MacGregor?” Rob asks his wife, expressing a love that in its revering affection contrasts starkly with the derisive view of love presented in the rakish Cunningham, who, after having made a servant girl pregnant, responds to the girl’s declaration of love with the remark: “Love is a dunghill, Betty, and I am but a cock that climbs upon it to crow.”
But the most salient feature of Rob’s honor is his integrity, his pride in being a man who cannot be bought or made to compromise. This is highlighted in the pivotal scene with Rob and Montrose, where Rob, having defaulted on the loan from Montrose after the money has been stolen from him, declines Montrose’s offer to acquit him of his debt if he is willing to bear false witness against another prominent nobleman, the Duke of Argyll. In doing so, however, Rob insults Montrose, stating that “What you have asked is below me as it should be beneath Your Lordship.” Stunned by this disrespectful affront to his lordly superiority, Montrose orders Rob’s arrest. Although Rob is able to escape, the result is that he is declared an outlaw and his family brutally driven from their home.
This confrontation between Rob and Montrose brilliantly dramatizes the opposed views of honor as nobility of soul versus nobility of class. In the pointed clash of values between the two men, we see, demonstrated in action, the contrast between the principled nature of Rob’s honor and the perverted sense of honor cultivated by a corrupt aristocracy represented by men like Montrose. For a vain and cunning cynic like Montrose, nobility of soul has no psychological reality and no practical value, only the nobility of rank, with its unfounded claim to worthiness.
At the same time, the scene marks the major turning point of the plot, as it launches Rob on his career as an outlaw thief, earning legendary fame as the “Robin Hood of the Highlands” who steals from the rich to give to the poor. But even this is presented as consistent with Rob’s honor, since his decision to steal from Montrose is to harm him economically, in retaliation against the harm Montrose has done to him and his family and thus to ensure, as he tells his outraged clan, that “Honor will be satisfied.”
It cannot be denied that much of the dramatic color of Rob Roy derives from its coterie of several intriguing villains. Greatly contributing to this are supreme performances from Tim Roth as Cunningham and John Hurt as Montrose. Tim Roth, especially, excels in his portrayal of foppish decadence. Yet unlike many other movies that pit noble goodness against depraved villainy, the villains do not steal the show. In Rob Roy, it is — at least for this viewer — the hero that takes center stage.
One reason for this is the sheer power of Liam Neeson’s performance in the lead role. With his special ability to convey rugged strength softened by a gentle and sensitive demeanor, he makes Rob Roy a commanding presence throughout the movie.
But most of all, this Highland hero captures our interest because of the moral depth of his characterization. In Rob Roy, we get a larger-than-life hero we can actually believe in as a real human being. Unlike the many comic book heroes that dominate the screen today, his heroic stature does not derive from any superhuman qualities, but from his profound commitment to his moral values. At the same time, he is no paragon of flawless virtue. While the film invites us to admire him for his unyielding dedication to his honor, it also makes us see him in a more critical light as a man whose intransigence exacts a terrible cost through the suffering it brings upon himself, his family, and his clan.
Yet the flawed aspects of Rob’s honor are substantially toned down. In fact, through his wife Mary we are urged to view his flaws with some mildness, as an ineliminable part of his virtue. Despite the dire consequences of her husband’s unbending nature, she concedes on several occasions that it is what makes him the noble man he is and the man she loves.
Especially poignant is the scene with Mary and the Duke of Argyll where Mary, after Rob has been captured by Montrose, visits the Duke to plead for help in obtaining Rob’s release. She reveals to him that the original reason for Rob’s capture was his refusal to denounce the Duke to Montrose. When the Duke wonders why he would do this, Mary replies that he did it “not for Your Grace, but for his own honor, which he holds dearer than myself or his sons, his clan or kin, and for which I have oft chided him. But it is him and his way, and were he other, he would not be Robert Roy MacGregor.”
Still less would he be a man worthy of our highest admiration.
In her aesthetic theory, Ayn Rand stressed that the primary purpose of fictional projections of a moral ideal is, not moral instruction, but contemplation, viewed as an end in itself. What the portrayal of a moral ideal gives us, she urged, is first of all the pleasure of looking up to a hero, of contemplating a concretized image of man at his best, as he might be and ought to be, irrespective of what we may learn from it.
Rob Roy is a film that offers such pleasure. To some, the ideal its hero represents may seem quaint and irrelevant in our modern world. But this should not prevent one from taking pleasure in watching this noble Highlander, and to admire him as an exemplar of a dedication to moral values that, in its heroic grandeur, transcends the limits of his particular historical context.
Kirsti Minsaas is a Norwegian literary scholar. She has a Doctoral Degree in Literature from the University of Oslo, where she also has taught British literature. Her dissertation was on Aristotle’s Poetics and Shakespearean tragedy, and she has published several articles on Renaissance literature and poetics. She has, in addition, given lectures on Ayn Rand’s fiction and aesthetic theory, both in Europe and the US. Her articles on Ayn Rand have been published in the essay-collection The Literary Art of Ayn Rand (The Objectivist Center, 2005) and The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. Now retired, she is currently working on a book about the Romantic vision of Ayn Rand’s fiction.