When people say “They don’t make movies the way they used to,” Rob Roy is the kind of movie they’re talking about. It’s also the kind of movie that makes you see they have a point. It’s a deeply satisfying adventure story, and not the least of its resolutely old fashioned virtues is a pair of swordfights that remain unmatched in film.
They are the masterworks of fight choreographer and swordsman William Hobbs, whose name has been praised throughout the first two installments of this series, and if you don’t want to take my word for it, listen to Roger Ebert, who called the final duel “one of the great action sequences in movie history.” Hobbs himself thought so highly of it that he made a chart plotting out all of the scene’s emotional beats the centerpiece of his book Fight Direction for Stage and Screen, and you can see the fight for yourself up top via the magic of YouTube.
The story, which is decidedly not drawn from Walter Scott’s novel of the same name, takes place in Scotland during the early 18th century, when the Scots-Catholic Jacobites were seething under the rule of Protestant England. The hero, Rob Roy MacGregor, incurs an unpayable debt to the local Marquis of Montrose and must contend with Montrose’s henchman, Archibald Cunningham, a smirking dandy who also happens to be a supremely dangerous swordsman.
Having seen John Hurt’s performance as the viperish Montrose several times now, I’d lay odds that this was the most fun he’d had since playing Caligula in I, Claudius, and Alan Sharp’s script gives him some great lines. (“We must never underestimate the healing power of hatred” is a particular fave.) But the top villain honors go to Tim Roth’s lethal fop, and it is the special glory of Hobbs’ work here that he gives Cunningham a pair of duels that combine dazzling bladework with character revelation, all while advancing the story and generating an impressive amount of suspense.
Our first glimpse of what’s in store comes during the first duel, a tavern exhibition match between Cunningham and the loutish Guthrie, champion of the local Duke of Argyll. During the pre-fight badinage we have already been given hints that there is more to Cunningham than meets the eye, and the duel proves it. Guthrie catches Cunningham off guard as he’s bowing to the presiding nobles, but from that moment forward Cunningham is in complete control of the situation. Hobbs gives us a preview of Cunningham’s tactical skill, in which he uses the bigger man’s size against him by dancing inside his reach, steadily wearing him down and always keeping him on the defensive — even smacking him upside the head with the flat of his blade when Guthrie tries an underhanded move. We also get a glimpse of the taunting core of sadism beneath Cunningham’s finery. A quick kill (or, in this case, a swift victory) is the last thing Cunningham wants. His pleasure is to see fear, and the helpless awareness of defeat, in the other man’s eyes before he delivers the final blow. In an interesting twist, Guthrie rubs salt in his own wounds by trying to backstab Cunningham, dishonoring himself in front of his former patron and friends.
The bout with Guthrie gives us a framework for watching the climactic duel with MacGregor, with the added awareness that this is a fight to the death, with Cunningham administering extra doses of pain and humilation along the way: tricking MacGregor into swiping at thin air, slashing his torso and limbs as punctuation for each encounter.
Though Hobbs choreographed the fights, credit goes to director Michael Caton-Jones for the way it was shot and edited. When I saw Rob Roy in the cineplex, I left the film convinced Caton-Jones must be an Old Hollywood veteran, some old-timer from the studio era who knew how to shoot an action scene without attention-deficit-disorder editing. Imagine my surprise when he turned out to be a relatively young (in 1995, anyway) filmmaker with a television background and a highly variable catalogue: Scandal, Memphis Belle and This Boy’s Life on the high end, Doc Hollywood and Basic Instinct 2 on the low. I don’t know if Caton-Jones spent quality time with Errol Flynn movies before he shot Rob Roy, but his framing and editing of the fight scenes is impeccable. Take another look at that fight scene. We are always aware of each character’s position within the space, the framing is always correct — no unnecessary closeups or shock cuts — and the action unfolds in what feels like real time. Very often, Caton-Jones holds the camera still and lets the action speak for itself, an extremely rare virtue in modern filmmaking, and vital to a sequence in which the emotions of the combatants have been so carefully worked out.
No detail is wasted here. Even the choice of swords — a rapier for Cunningham, a broadsword for MacGregor — speaks to each man’s character and fighting style. Though MacGregor is bigger and stronger (Liam Neeson towers over Roth in their scenes together) Cunningham is in command of the situation right from the start. And when he starts holding his rapier tip directly in MacGregor’s face, we know what is about to happen. I can’t say the outcome of the bout was a big surprise, but the means that bring it about are, once again, fully in keeping with the personality of the winner.
Hobbs has gone on to choreograph fights for other films, most recently Lasse Hallstrom’s slapstick comedy about Casanova, but he has never topped his work for Rob Roy, and no swordplay in any other film I’ve seen comes close to matching Rob Roy. This, quite simply, is the way to do it right.