Cowboys in Kilts: The Failure of the Scenic in Rob Roy & Braveheart

Cowboys in Kilts: The Failure of the Scenic in Rob Roy & Braveheart

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Cowboys in Kilts: The Failure of the Scenic in Rob Roy & Braveheart

There was recently a cartoon in the New Yorker magazine.The cartoon shows a group of kilt-clad Highlands charging up a hill, claymore swords drawn and waving, as one of them says to another, "You know, if we didn't wear this damn skirtsmaybe we wouldn't have to defend our manhood every five minutes."

My analysis begins, as it will end, where most cowboy movies begin and end, with the landscape.Western heroes are essentially synedoches for that landscape, and are identifiable by three primary traits: first, they represent one side of an opposition between the supposed purity of the frontier and the degeneracy of the city, and so are separated even alienated from civilization; second, they insist on conducting themselves according to a personal code, to which they stubbornly cling despite all opposition or hardship to themselves or others; and third, they seek to shape their psyches and even their bodies in imitation of the leanness, sparseness, hardness, infinite calm and merciless majesty of the western landscape in which their narratives unfold.All of these three traits are present in the figures of Rob Roy and William Wallace--especially their insistence on conducting themselves according to a purely personal definition of honor--which would seem to suggest that the films built around them and their exploits could be read as transplanted westerns.However, the transplantation is the problem for, while the protagonists of these films want to be figures from a classic western, the landscape with which they are surrounded is so demonstrably not western that it forces their narratives into shapes which in fact resist and finally contradict key heroic tropes of the classic western.

Howard Hawkes' 1948 Red River will serve as our example of the western model.The opening credits rise literally out of the landscape, and we're told in the opening narration that this is a story of the landscape, in that it recounts the first major cattle drive along the Chisholm trail from Texas to Abeline, Kansas.In the 1st scene we see a vastly open prairie with a small wagon train almost lost in its expanse.We discover immediately that Dunson (John Wayne) is leaving the wagon train to strike out on his own.The signature trait of Dunson is the first of the western hero's trademarks: once he's made up his mind, "nothing anyone says or does can change it"; despite the entreaties of the wagon master and his putative girlfriend, Dunson sets out south with only his friend, Tom Groot (played by Walter Brennan).

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And thus he in short order enacts the 2nd heroic trait, insisting on a separation between himself and all community.

The third trait of the western hero is a "hard" man, reflecting or perhaps celebrating the hardness of the land around him.This hardness is often expressed through violence, which the hero uses to exercise his will over the landscape.Thus, in true form, Dunson first kills the same Indians who massacred the wagon train and his girlfriend, and then kills the emissary of a Mexican landowner who attempts to chase him away.But that is not enough.In her book West of Everything, Jane Tompkins observes that the desert often serves for the hero as a blank sheet of paper, upon which he can write his identity; and in a remarkable incarnation of Tompkin's description, Dunson draws a design for his cattle brand in the dirt, literally branding the land.

We then jump fifteen years into the future and the cattle drive which forms the bulk of the film.And it is here that we discover the most concrete pronouncement of Dunson's personal code.Throughout Red River the "hero's code" is unshakable; but it is not a code based on the laws of communities or of institutions; it is an entirely and fiercely personal code, and it is absolute, without caveats or loopholes.This creed is embodied in the verbal contract Dunson makes with his men: if they start the drive, they must finish it; no quitting halfway through.He kills several men who try, and threatens to hang two others--a threat which leads to the rebellion of his adopted son, Matthew Garth (played by Montgomery Clift).The landscape supplies the model for the conflicts which develop and display this code.All confrontations are out in the open, face to face, with no recourse to disguise or deceit.There are in fact only three scenes in the entire film which occur indoors.The first is the eve of the cattle drive and takes place in the bunkhouse, and has all the arrangement and activity of a saloon: a poker game, smoking, laughter, horseplay, a brief fistfight.Another is at the end of the film, when the cowboys conclude the drive and do business--clearly not something meant for the purity of the outdoors.The third scene takes place at a wagon train the drovers encounter on their way to Abeline, a wagon train where people have erected temporary roofs of canvas and hide, thus transforming it into an oasis in the desert where the drovers partake of coffee and gambling and women--but mostly coffee.Thus throughout the film the indoors is associated with gambling, drinking, business, trickery--and women, or domesticity; that is, all the things banished from the outdoors.

The final confrontation between Dunson and Garth makes incarnate all the character points the film has raised: Dunson is indomitable and undeceitful, simply walking a hundred yards straight toward him to shoot Garth; and Garth is utterly open to Dunson's will, merely standing and waiting for him, refusing to draw on him.But if violence is necessitated by the land, so is the male bonding it supposedly engenders, as at the end of the movie Dunson and Garth are not only friends again but partners, jointly lords of the land, as Dunson makes explicit by drawing the plan for a new brand in the dirt, one which now includes Garth's initial.

To turn now to Rob Roy, we might first take note of its similarities with Red River.There is, for instance, the use of an opening narration, which describes Roy's story as that of resistance to encroaching modern civilization and the resultant disintegration of the Scottish clans.This, too, then is a story of heroic accomplishment; however, the fact that the accomplishment here is figured as a resistance to change rather than the construction of progress, as it was in Red River, might hint to us of how the films must inevitably differ.The opening shot here, too, is of landscape--but it is the mountainous and complicated landscape of the Scottish Highlands, not the flat and unadorned landscape of the American west.The frame is busy with crags and boulders, lakes and rivers, and a vast, all-covering greenery; the immediate effect of that landscape is to confuse and distract us.It is in fact only with difficulty that we discern the small human figures making their way across it.The landscape's primary utility--concealment rather than exposure--is thus made clear, especially as here and throughout the film much of that landscape is shrouded with low clouds, mists, veiling rows of trees--all forms of disguise.

What we see of the Highlanders in this scene also complicates comparison, as they are more aligned with tropes associated with the Indians in westerns, rather than the cowboys.They are on foot, they use stealth as a weapon, they clearly live very close to the land.But if the Highlanders are filling the traditional role of "savages," Roy makes it clear he personally is no savage by sparing the lives of the cattle thieves he is pursuing.This is the first hint that in Roy the film's makers are attempting to construct a hero in the mold of Dunson; for Roy's code of honor is as personal, as idiosyncratic, as unshakable, even as unreasonable as is Dunson's.Roy's definition of honor is "the gift a man gives himself," meaning that it cannot be consigned by or even communicated to others--distinctly reminiscent of Dunson's code, as well as that of countless other taciturn western heroes.

The next scene of the film is indoors, and shares the tropic qualities of the indoors in Red River, for the men are wagering on a sword fight, drinking, smoking; and, more significantly, the indoors is the domain of the effete "lairds" and the primary villain of the film, Archibald Cunningham (played by Tim Roth)--a hyperbolically foppish ne're-do'well.Everything about Cunningham is set in opposition to Roy: his effeminate manners, his dress and speech, even his small size.But especially we take note of Cunningham's willingness--nay, eagerness--to employ deceit in his applications of violence, such as when he murders Roy's courier by stringing a rope across the road.

The key moment which drives the plot and brings these two together comes when Roy sees his clan living in hovels--dirty, sick, hungry--and feels a responsibility to better their lot.Again, these hovels remind us more of the teepees of American Indians than the ranches of cowboys; though even here the landscape thwarts simple comparison, as it makes the hovels seem particularly hovel-ish, rather than granting them a certain horizontal majesty, as is typical with shots of Indian villages.In any case, Roy can only buy more cattle by borrowing money from the local Marquis, who is Cunningham's host.(By the way, cattle are theoretically as central to Rob Roy as they are to Red River--yet, curiously, we only see a few of them at a time, never what we could by any stretch of the imagination call a herd.In fact, a stampede is unimaginable in Rob Roy, as there simply isn't enough room for one.)Roy must immediately go into debt to begin building his clan's better life, whereas Dunson and his like owe no one.And, while Dunson's ranch must be built up literally from nothing, Roy's home by the loch seems already too crowded to require--or accommodate--any additions.Abundance is already present in the Highland landscape.We remember for instance Dunson drawing his brand on the land; but no such mark can be made on the Highlands, as it would simply be lost in the profusion of surfaces.

Unlike the conflicts in Red River, nearly all the confrontations in Rob Roy revole around some form of stealth, disguise, or deceit: the trapping of Roy's man alone in the woods, the gun that mysteriously misfires, the sword master disguised as a fop, the bodies sunk in the loch.Only Roy confronts his adversaries openly, without guile.Brute strength and sheer indomitable will reminiscent of Dunson's seem his only weapons; except, significantly, at the end of the film, when Roy betters Cunningham in the climactic sword fight through an act which is a curious a mix of brute strength and deceit: after convincing Cunningham to come within reach, he grasps Cunningham's thin blade and holds it while he smites Cunningham in half with his claymore.The holding of Cunningham's blade in his bare hand is an endurance of pain we might expect from Dunson; but the trick of luring him close enough to do this is completely incompatible with the openness of both Dunson and his western landscape.Roy's victory depends on a "sleight of hand," literally, and is a trick worthy of a landscape whose main purpose is concealment, not exposure.It is also significant that this final confrontation occurs indoors, not out in the open.In its continuing employment of deceit and disguise, the movie comes closest to representing Scott's version of the legend of Rob Roy, for, not only does the Highland outlaw not appear until two-thirds of the way into the novel--a novel, incidentally, primarily about credit and its various disguises--but when he does appear he appears frequently in disguise.

I need to briefly incorporate two other films into our discussion, Braveheart and, in a moment, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.To begin with Braveheart, I believe, like Rob Roy, attempts to use the classic western formula, but cannot successfully transplant it to the highlands of Scotland. William Wallace as a figure is represented much like Roy: a quiet man wishing to live aside from politics, someone wronged in the extreme who then becomes capable of violence in the extreme, someone shaped and controlled by a code of honor not unlike that of Dunson's.Also, both Roy and Wallace are driven by conflicts over how the land upon which they live will be defined; not, as in Red River, how that land will be developed.Rob Roy wishes his clan to be owners, not renters, and Wallace wishes his land to be a nation, not a vassalage, while the only name Dunson applies to the land is "his."

This later point is key.The landscape in classic westerns is something infinite, and the battles fought upon it are all about developing its infinite possibilities; yet when, inevitably, it is conquered, the battles seem diminished and become all about by what name it will be called.For instance, in the 1962 western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Wayne makes another appearance as a version of Dunson, this time called Tom Donovan; but he isn't the hero of the film; that role goes to Jimmy Stewart, who plays not a cowboy but a lawyer name Stoddard.The film is occasioned by Donovan's funeral, and it is a film about death--the death of landscape as open frontier, and the problematic triumph of the urban; in fact, the only outdoor scene in the entire film occurs when Donovan tries to show Stoddard how to use a gun.In the key scene which establishes Stewart as the hero of the film, someone in possession of a code as honorable and stubborn as Dunson's or Donovan's, Stewart nonetheless violates every tenet of classic western manhood by washing dishes, waiting tables, being literate, and even becoming the schoolmarm.The whole movie is about the death of the old western hero and the coming of the new, and the end of one definition of landscape--that is, as territory, which is wide open and subject only to the to law of the gun--and the advent of another definition, as state, where law exists as order and the land becomes only and merely a blank sheet of paper upon which to draw legalistic boundaries rather than honorable identities.For instance, when Stoddard wins the girl away from Donovan, Donovan responds by burning down the house he was expanding, thus utterly rejecting the civilized future of the landscape and everything Stoddard stands for.Liberty Valance represents the funeral over the corpse of the classic western; a corpse Rob Roy and Braveheart seek, unsuccessfully, to revive.

Of course, my entire argument is based on accepting that Rob Roy and Braveheart want to be Red River.But then we might ask, if one is going to make a film about a hero of the green highlands rather than the sparse desert, why not model him on the charming rogue of the forest, that is, Robin Hood?Why not, that is, make an Errol Flynn movie rather than a John Wayne movie?And it is precisely in the fact that neither Roy nor Wallace show much kinship with Flynn's Robin Hood that I believe my case is made.Perhaps the popularity of these two films represents the American audiences' desire for Dunson-like heroes and thus their willingness to ignore the flaws in these reconstituted westerns, a desire especially keen in an age when the classic western's credibility has been exhausted and the only westerns being made focus more on the hero's flaws than his honor.

The strongest link between Rob Roy and Dunson is their stubborn adherence to a personal code of honor, even in the face of entreaties, common sense, all anything else anyone can "do or say"; they demonstrate none of the cynicism, flexibility, or sheer vitality of a swashbuckler like Flynn's Robin Hood.They are hard, serious men, with hard, serious codes.But whereas Dunson's code results--albeit indirectly--in the implicit extension of his and thus the American empire, Roy's code results in no discernible progress for either he or his clan; quite the contrary, it costs several of his clansmen's lives and, in the last scene, we see Roy reunited with his family next to a house indistinguishable from that they occupied at the beginning of the story.Nothing is said of his clan's continuing plight, his scheme for buying cattle, or anything else that supposedly justified Roy's stubbornness, violence and suffering.The film ends exactly where it began.The message--if there is one--seems to be that Roy's mistake was in believing that there was any other way for his community to be constructed, and that he might, through hard work, risk and determination, enlarge his status and that of his clan. In other words, Roy's mistake seems to be believing that he was in the American west of the 19th century, rather than the Scottish highlands of the 18th.
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