Year Released: 1995
Directed by; Michael Caton-Jones
Starring: Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange, John Hurt, Tim Roth, Eric Stoltz
(R, 139 min.)
Genre: Action and Adventure, Documentary, Drama
“Honor made him a man. Courage made him a hero. History made him a Legend.” Tagline for Rob Roy
Almost a quarter of a century old, this epic film reminds us of man’s innate corruption and villainy as well as that always rare quality, honor. And the sword fights are to die for.
Liam Neeson stars as Rob Roy MacGregor, a struggling Scottish clan leader in the early 1700s who makes a bargain with the devil to buy some cattle. The borrowed money is stolen before he even sees it, ushering in a series of betrayals, tragedies and debauched villainy of monumental proportions.
The plot is rather straightforward in some ways, but what distinguishes it are the multifaceted characters and the sharp, sardonic dialogue. Even the most fetid acts are described with bawdy wit.
At the core of it all is perhaps the most vile creature of all cinema, Archibald Cunningham, “…the most frightening fop you ever laid eyes on.” (Quentin Curtis). Played exquisitely by Tim Roth, he is an ever-loathsome creature in every respect.
Like a pool hustler of the first order, this excessively dressed effete poseur seems hardly able to hold a sword, less able to defeat the Scottish Goliath of a champion he challenges. But defeat him he does with a skill belied by his yellowed teeth and priggish wig of curled locks.
But Cunningham doesn’t limit his destruction to sword wielding Scotsman alone. He preys on the vulnerable of all sorts; in particular, women.
The besotted servant girl Betty, is particularly ill-used:
Betty: But I love you, Archie!
Cunningham: Love is a dunghill, Betty, and I am but a cock who climbs upon it to crow.
Even more ill-used is Mary MacGregor (a radiant Jessica Lange), who is violated by him. It is not just the violation, but his delight in inflicting it that is so repulsive. But Mary is no besotted girl, and she stands up to him after he ravishes her:
Archibald Cunningham: Think of yourself a scabbard, Mistress McGregor, and I the sword. And a fine fit you were, too.
Mary: I will think on you dead, until my husband makes you so. And then I will think on you no more.
Yet Cunningham imbues his character with enough self-loathing – he is the bastard son of a woman who would only limit his possible father to 3 individuals – that we understand some of his wretchedness, though we are never tempted to forgive him even a little.
But alas, our titular hero, Rob Roy MacGregor, at first seems no match for the vicious rogue. He is perhaps too devoted to honor to understand such utter corruption, as evidenced in his idealistic conversation with his son:
Son:"What is honor?"
Macgregor: "Honor is what no man can give ya. And none can take away. Honor is man's gift to himself."
Son: "Do women have it?"
Macgregor: "Women have a heart of honor, and we cherish and protect it in 'em. We must never mistreat a woman or malign a man, or standby and see another do so."
Son: "How do you know you have it?"
MacGregor: "Never worry on the gift of it. It grows in ya' and speaks to ya'. All ya' need do is listen".
Yet running off the hills to hide after he becomes a fugitive, even if by no fault of his own, while leaving his wife and children at home under the protection of his clansmen is beyond idealistic. it is naïve and perhaps self-serving.
But sometimes a man must be brought down low before he can rise again. And so it is with MacGregor, whose pride keeps him from asking for help. It is due to the quiet strength of Mary that redemption is at least possible.:
Mary MacGregor: Your Grace, Robert finds himself in this position for taking Your Grace's part.
Duke of Argyll: My part? What cause had he to do that? And in what manner?
Mary MacGregor: He refused to bear false witness against you, when the Marquis asked him to say that you were a Jacobite, to slander your name at court.
Duke of Argyll: Montrose asked this of him?
Mary MacGregor: In remission of this debt. But Robert refused.
Duke of Argyll: I did not know your husband bore me such goodwill.
Mary MacGregor: Indeed, Your Grace, I think he favors you no more than any other great man. "As wolves at lambing," that is his word for you all. Robert refused, not for Your Grace, but for his own honor, which he values above his own family, his kin and his clan, and for which I have oft chided him. But were he otherwise, he would not be Robert Roy MacGregor. Robert would not approve of my coming here to ask you for help, nor come himself if he were here. [stands] But I have no choice, unless I give him up entire to his enemies. And though I love his honor, it is but a moon-cast shadow to the love I bear him. By the grace of God, I have his child inside me and I will have a father for it.
Duke of Argyll: You do your man no dishonor, Mary. Faith, he is a man much blessed by fortune.
Hear the sheer poetry in her words, especially, “And though I love his honor, it is but a moon-cast shadow to the love I bear him.” Which leads to us perhaps the crux of the film – the love between husband and wife, a subject often ignored in cinema as perhaps being too dull. Infidelity, extra marital sex is all the rage in film and television now.
But the sensuous love between Mary and Rob Roy MacGregor is on full display here, as well as their sparring wits, reminiscent, perhaps of John Wayne and Maureen O ‘Hara in The Quiet Man.
It is the strength of that love that helps Rob Roy rise to his full manhood and take on those who have all but destroyed his family. The lean clan leader is no match for the sophisticated swordsman Cunningham, but Rob Roy MacGregor will face him down or die trying.
The final swordfight beween the two is exquisite, slow and painful as each man wears down. Whatever the end, we know Rob Roy has reclaimed his honor and shrewdly bargained for the care of his family should he not return.
We are as prepared for his death as are his wife and his sponsor, the relatively honorable Duke of Argyll (Andrew Keir), who pragmatically puts his wager down for Cunningham.
Yes, we do not have to go back 300 years to find villainy and corruption as so deeply entrenched in the status quo, nor to see the powerful wield the sword against the poor and powerless.
But in Rob Roy we do see a man refusing to be a victim of those egregious assaults, and that makes all the difference.
Not to be missed by discriminating viewers.
Okay, the origin of today’s great recipe is a bit fuzzy. Called “Bresslin Balls” in the original recipe with no story behind the name, this is really a Scotch Egg, though, the so-called Scotch Egg may not, in fact, be Scotch, but really English, getting its name from an eatery in Yorkshire named William J Scott and Sons. “Bresslin,” I conclude after as much research as I am willing to do, is possibly from The Breslin, a New York pub located in the Ace Hotel in New York, which serves a variation of the Scotch Egg.
But, what the heck! This Scotch Egg, even if it isn’t really Scotch and is now is served in New York City at some trendy pub, is still delicious. And most important, it references something that the courageous Rob Roy MacGregor had in abundance, if you get my drift.
1 16 oz. package ground sausage
12 hard-boiled eggs
1 cup bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Divide sausage into 12 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball the size of an egg.
Flatten each ball of sausage and wrap around a hard-boiled egg, covering it completely.
Pour bread crumbs into a shallow bowl. Roll sausage-wrapped egg in bread crumbs until coated; transfer to the prepared baking sheet.
Bake in the preheated oven, turning every 10 minutes, until golden brown and crispy, about 40 minutes.