“Neither asked nor given” | Rob Roy (1995)

Robert Roy MacGregor was born in 1671 near Loch Katrine in Scotland’s Perthshire. As a young man, like many Scottish patriots, he was drawn to the 1689 Jacobite uprising – an armed rebellion to restore Stuart dynasty rule to the country. The uprising failed following the death of its leader, and Robert’s father was imprisoned for treason as a result.

In 1716 Robert gained the protection of Duke of Argyll, although he and his clansmen were excluded from a government amnesty of the 1689 Jacobites. Later in life he became a respected cattle driver – during which time he defaulted on a loan from the Duke of Montrose, who seized Robert’s lands and had him declared an outlaw.

Much of Robert’s life evolved into folklore over the ensuing years, and he was immortalised in Sir Walter Scott’s 1817 novel Rob Roy. Another century on, and his life was adapted for cinema: in W.P. Kellino’s Rob Roy (1922), Harold French’s Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue (1953), and most recently in Michael Caton-Jones’ exceptional action film Rob Roy (1995)

Caton-Jones’ film is a marvellous one not only because of its strong production values, effective direction, and superb performances. 1995 saw the release of two historical action films. Mel Gibson’s medieval epic Braveheart took the lion’s share of the box office, critical acclaim, and awards. Rob Roy, produced for less than half the money, remains in almost every respect the superior work.

This Rob Roy adaptation came from British film producers Peter Broughan and Richard Jackson. Broughan, himself a Scot, said ‘I wanted to do a very Scottish story, but naturally one that would also work for a wide international audience.’[1] After settling on the historical icon, the producers approached screenwriter Alan Sharp about developing the script.

Broughan and Jackson’s first choice for director was Michael Caton-Jones, in part due to his solid track record of successful films (including Scandal, Doc Hollywood, and This Boy’s Life) and also because he was a Scot. While interested in the project, Caton-Jones was initially unavailable. It was only when touring This Boy’s Life at the Edinburgh Film Festival six months later that he bumped into the producers again and found himself available to take on the job. ‘The story was great,’ he later remarked, ‘containing depth, integrity and strong commercial appeal – and Alan Sharp is probably the best writer with whom I’ve ever worked. Both of us being Scottish helped enormously because we had a shared culture, and he could understand my accent!’[2]

It was Caton-Jones that brought the project to United Artists via its President John Calley. Charmed by the period setting and strong action, Calley picked up the film for the studio with a US$20 million budget – provided the appropriate lead could be found.

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That lead ultimately came not from Scotland or the USA, but Ireland – in the form of Liam Neeson. At the time the actor was a hot commodity in Hollywood, having scored an Academy Award nomination for his lead performance in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). The casting was announced in late April 1994, ahead of photography that August. ‘He’s much in demand,’ UA President John Calley enthused at the time. ‘He’s actually perfect for it and he’s been very interested in the script.’[3]

Neeson’s first experience as Rob Roy came as a child, role-playing the character with his best friend. ‘I don’t know where we got Rob Roy from,’ he recalled, ‘I must’ve seen it. It was an early Disney film, I think.’[4] The film to which Neeson refers is the 1953 Walt Disney feature Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue, starring Richard Todd and directed by Harold French.

Caton-Jones seemed heavily invested in his new star: ‘Liam has a deep romanticism, mixed with a real hardness of being. You can’t invent that stuff on people; he understands it in his bones. It’s a million tiny little things: the bracing cold winds, the way the clouds go, what you get taught as a kid, the way the Scottish people or the Irish people talk to each other. You start off with “Fuck you” and get warmer. To other people, that seems a very extreme way of behaving. But Liam understands it innately.’[5]

While Michael Caton-Jones initially pursued Miranda Richardson, the role of Rob’s wife Mary MacGregor was given to two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange. Lange was particularly impressed with the screenplay. ‘I thought the writer had done an extraordinary job in capturing the time and the place, and the characters and the voices of those characters and the language.’[6]

‘I loved that the writer, Alan Sharp, had created a female character in a predominantly male film that was every bit as interesting as the male characters. She has a wonderful sensuality, vulnerability, strength and intelligence. In the relationship with her husband, she’s on equal footing. And it’s such a purely female/male relationship. That’s rare in films today. There’s nothing modern or neurotic about their marriage.’[7]

Lange performed her role without makeup, spare for some foundation. ‘The one thing that drives me insane in these period pieces,’ she explained, ‘and they’re in their bouffant designer hairdos and their Ralph Lauren buckskin designer outfits.’[8]

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As the Earl of Montrose, Caton-Jones cast English actor John Hurt, with whom he had previously worked on Scandal. ‘What’s great about John’ said Caton-Jones, ‘and what isn’t particularly obvious, is he is probably the greatest actor we have. I’ve called him before probably the British De Niro. Physically or stylistically they are not the same, but one thing they do share is this complete bravery in how they attack a character. They are not afraid to do anything because they are searching for the truth.’[9]

‘Michael called me and asked me if I wanted to play the nastiest man in Scotland,’ joked Hurt. ‘He’s a salon animal, a sophisticate of the Scottish court. He’s described as having 20 faces, none of which are human. But, really, he’s just a great believer that everyone should know and keep their place. That, in itself, is a code of honour… as opposed to his henchman, Cunningham, who is the picture of amorality.’[10]

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The character of Archibald Cunningham was entirely invented by Alan Sharp, since his screenplay needed a strong villain – a requirement that the more political and mercurial Earl of Montrose was not able to satisfy. The role was played by English actor Tim Roth. ‘When I read it,’ Roth said, ‘he just made me laugh – it was a chance to tear up the scenery.’[11]

‘My whole aim,’ he explained, ‘was underneath the powdered wig, and foppish exterior, is a skinhead. Underneath the wig is a psychopath, and all the rest is dress-up. My wife was showing me books with portraits of these 18th century guys, who just looked like the worst transvestites, almost comical. But these guys were also deadly with a sword, and they used it, and they enjoyed it. They were slave owners, up in Scotland. The aim was to get to the place where the wig comes off, and his character changes, and you reveal the real guy.’[12]

Cunningham is aided and abetted in his crimes by Montrose’s odious secretary Killearn. The character was in part based on the real-life John Grahame, who served as factor to the Earl of Montrose during the time of his feud with Rob Roy. The role was offered to Scottish actor Brian Cox – an offer that was almost rescinded when Michael Caton-Jones learned Cox was also negotiating to perform a role in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.

Rob Roy’s people didn’t want me to appear in Braveheart,’ said Cox. ‘The director, Michael Caton-Jones, is an oik. He was very paranoid about Braveheart – and stupidly so. I said, “Michael, there’s 400 years of history between the two pictures.” These films weren’t going to clash. I think Rob Roy was a wonderful film. It had a much better script than Braveheart.’[13] When it appeared that Cox would not be permitted to perform in both films, he elected to play Killearn – later explaining ‘I just infinitely preferred Rob Roy.’[14] Ultimately, however, he gained permission to play both movies by persuading Mel Gibson to let him play his Braveheart role – Argyll Wallace – with long grey hair and one eye missing. Cox looked sufficiently different in each film for Caton-Jones to be satisfied with the arrangement. He was the only actor to perform in both Rob Roy and Braveheart.

Despite vastly preferring Rob Roy’s screenplay, Cox wasn’t altogether impressed with the final film. ‘You can’t blame Liam Neeson. He had loads of ideas and Michael would just say “No, I don’t want that. I want to do it like this.” Jim Sheridan is a great director. Michael Caton-Jones is not yet a great director. He won’t be told. He’s talented, but he’s got a long way to go.’[15]

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Rob Roy condenses historical events considerably. In the film it seems the story occurs over a series of weeks or months, whereas for the actual Robert MacGregor it took a full decade from 1712 to 1722. A Jacobite uprising in 1719 was ignored to ensure a simpler, more streamlined story.

And what a story it is: a former outlaw-turned-cattle driver bets big on the money-making opportunity of a lifetime, only to be betrayed by the local cattle baron’s villainous lieutenant and then by the baron himself. Riding into the hills with his posse, the hero runs a guerilla war against his enemies until – in a one-on-one showdown – he kills the lieutenant who stole his money, raped his wife, and destroyed his reputation.

I honestly think this is the secret to Rob Roy’s success. While the attention in 1995 fell broadly on Mel Gibson’s epic-scale, extravagant Braveheart – which revolutionised the visual treatment of medieval warfare in cinema – Caton-Jones’ modest effort is not even attempting to compete. It is because despite their common geographical and period settings, Rob Roy is not a historical epic at all. Rob Roy is a western.

Every key story convention of the western is replicated point-for-point in Caton-Jones’ film. 18th century Scotland stands in for America’s 19th century ‘old west’. Both settings convey a sense of isolation and of a rugged frontier land. Rich land-owners effectively rule over working-class people. The cattle trade looms over all.

Fights between soldiers and outlaws break out across the film. There are desperate getaways, tense shoot-outs, buildings burned down and livestock destroyed in revenge. The good characters are inherently noble, while the villains are genuinely ‘hissable’ monsters. It even ends with an effective showdown between hero and villain in the centre of town. It is one of the best adaptations of genre ever made. A straightforward and deliberately archetypal narrative is renewed essentially by changing the furniture. It seems cynically simple, and yet is the heart of why the film works as well as it does.

Shooting on Rob Roy commenced on location in Scotland on 25 July 1994. The film begins with Rob, a former rustler turned legitimate driver, tracking down a band of thieves to retrieve stolen cattle. When the band’s leader refuses to surrender, Rob quickly kills him before sparing the lives of his remaining gang. It is a particularly effective opening scene, one that introduces the cold, misty setting of 18th century Scotland and which immediately establishes Rob as a confident leader, a reformed criminal, and an honourable man.

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The scene was shot at Glen Coe in northern county Argyll. While this was an easily accessible location for the film crew, other scenes in the film – due to the need to hide any sign of 20th century architecture – necessitated long traipses on foot by cast and crew in rugged terrain to reach their intended locations. Co-star Eric Stoltz recalled that ‘it rained almost every day. We had to slog up the bogs to our set. On the very first day we had to hike a mile up a mountain before running around for the shots.’[16]

Rob returns home with his men, with the film introducing various MacGregor clan characters in the process – including his wife Mary and younger brother Alasdair. The latter was played by Scottish actor Brian McCardie. Prior to Rob Roy he had appeared in a number of British television productions including Taggart, Waterfront Beat, and Doctor Finlay.

A standing set of the village was built on location at Glen Nevis close to the town of Fort William, which acted as the production’s base of operations. Fort William had also hosted Mel Gibson’s Braveheart prior to Rob Roy commencing photography, and there were some tensions among residents over hosting another Hollywood production so soon. ‘They reacted to this Hollywood invasion like scavengers,’ said Stoltz. ‘They were like vultures over bodies. They took us for a ride. Prices were tripled.’[17]

Liam Neeson was similarly unimpressed: ‘Mel Gibson’s people had $60 million to spend and we had $22 million. I paid Central Park West prices to stay in a tiny house. It still galls me to think about it. I was hoping that the landlord would come round on the last day and ask for my autograph because I was going to put him up against the wall and say “remember this”. It still galls me when I get taken like that.’[18]

Rob travels to see the Earl of Montrose, to negotiate a loan of a thousand pounds to drive a herd of cattle cross-country. While the two men do not see eye-to-eye, the Earl clearly recognises a bargain when he sees one. Also taking note is the Earl’s secretary Killearn, who conspires with Archie Cunningham to intercept and steal the money for themselves.

It is a particularly strong scene because it firmly establishes the differing moral codes between Rob and the Earl. The Earl is an aristocrat, gripping firmly to a class system and refusing to accept or appreciate Rob’s personal code of honour. At the same time Rob demonstrates a keen personal sense of justice – it is acceptable to rob cattle from bad people, but a man’s word is sacrosanct. Establishing the gap between each character’s outlook at this early stage allows the central conflict of the film to be established.

Drummond Castle, south of Crieff, stood in for the Earl’s estate.

Here is as good a place as any to discuss one of Rob Roy’s absolute finest elements, which is its villains. Briefly you have Killearn, an obsequious lackey – ambitious enough to act criminally behind his master’s back, but not so bold as to do the dirty work himself. He is not, and the film directly makes this clear, an evil man for his actions but rather for his passive enjoyment of the actions of others: namely, Cunningham’s.

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Archie Cunningham: he is almost without debate one of the finest villains ever to come from a motion picture. He is egotistical. He is deeply cruel. He is murderous. He is a rapist. He hides a vicious sense of violence beneath an unconvincing and effete veneer of high society. He does not pay his debts. He has one hell of a temper, and a deeply inappropriate sense of humour. He really does boast most of the film’s best lines of dialogue, and Tim Roth performs all of them in such a mannered and deliciously funny way. As viewers we despise him, but we love to watch him all the same. Nowhere is his specific kind of villainy as well-defined as it is in his murder of Alan MacDonald.

With an agreement signed for a thousand pounds, Rob sends his retainer Alan MacDonald to collect a note of credit from Killearn. When MacDonald arrives, Killearn has a thousand in coin and no note to give. A reluctant MacDonald takes the coin. While Rob and his clan party by the campfire in their village, MacDonald is run down on horseback by Cunningham and murdered. Cunningham takes the thousand pounds.

It is a remarkable scene. It cuts back and forth between the MacGregors at the fire and Cunningham in pursuit of MacDonald. A spirited cèilidh provides the soundtrack to the chase and then, as MacDonald is clothes-lined by a trap set across the road, it shifts to a mournful lament – a solo performance as Cunningham walks to the injured MacDonald and runs him through.

The first half of the chase establishes Cunningham’s talent: he is a strong rider and a competent marksman, and despite his aristocratic wig and general finery is clearly a man of action. This talent has already been set up in an early duelling scene, but it is the chase that seals the deal. The second half is a more effective demonstration of Cunningham’s character. He is calm and patient, slowly stalking behind a crawling MacDonald like a predator toying with its prey.

MacDonald was played by American actor Eric Stoltz. First rising to fame for his award-nominated performance in Mask (1985), he soon established himself as a constant presence in Hollywood – usually in supporting roles. Rob Roy came in the middle of a particularly busy period for Stoltz. In a two year period from 1994 to 1995 he appeared in nine separate feature films, including Pulp Fiction, Killing Zoe, The Prophecy, and Fluke.

By the time the production came to shoot the village campfire scene, constant rainfall had made the location too muddy to safely use. The village set was broken up and re-assembled inside a large hall in Perth. Karen Matheson, a singer from popular folk group Capercaillie, performed the song at the gathering.

When Rob goes to plead his case over the missing money, Montrose refuses to provide another loan. He does, however, give Rob an offer: openly confirm the Duke of Argyll is a Jacobite, and the debt will be cancelled. Such an offer upsets Rob, who has never met Argyll in his life, and on a point of honour he refuses to make such a confirmation. Montrose calls in Cunningham and the guards to take Rob captive and lock him in debtor’s prison, and Rob turns a knife on Cunningham before making his escape; Montrose’s soldiers are in pursuit.

While it does not overly affect an understanding of the story, it is worth pausing briefly to elaborate on what Montrose’s offer to Rob actually means. To fully explain the Scottish Reformation and the various monarchical successions in both Scotland and England would likely take an essay in itself, so it is perhaps easiest to lay out the backdrop to Rob Roy as follows.

18th century Scotland was a time and place where a reformed Protestant church had overtaken Catholicism – as it had in England. Since James VI of Scotland had succeeded Elizabeth I as monarch of England, all three countries of England, Scotland, and Wales had shared the same king. In 1688, however, James’ descendant James II – a Catholic – was overthrown by the English Parliament in favour of his Anglican daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange. While a turbulent turn of events in England, in Scotland it split the population along both political and religious lines. On one side, royalists supported by England – represented in Rob Roy by the Earl of Montrose, and on the other Catholic Scots still loyal to the “Jacobean” (a name derived from James) cause.

The Jacobites rallied during the 17th and 18th centuries for James II and his subsequent heirs to return to Scotland from exile in France and to re-take the Scottish throne. After the Acts of Union in 1707 sealed together England, Scotland, and Wales as one “United Kingdom”, Jacobite sentiment boiled over to inspire domestic Scottish revolts in 1715, 1719, and 1746 – as well as attempted French invasions in 1708 and 1744. The 1746 revolt, which ended in disaster at the Battle of Culloden, effectively terminated the movement.

There remains a Jacobean heir at the time of writing, however: the 87-year-old Franz, Duke of Bavaria, who presently lives in Munich. He has confirmed that he has no intention to pursue his claims.

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Wanted by English redcoats for his loan default, Rob and his men hide in the hills while their wives remain home in the villages. With Rob hiding in the foothills, a group of redcoats are dispatched to burn down his house and kill his livestock. Cunningham decides to take matters one step further, dragging Mary inside the burning house and sexually assaulting her. It is a confronting and emotionally upsetting scene to say the least – particularly since Cunningham does not care about Mary one way or another. He simply rapes her to provoke Rob into coming for revenge.

Behind the scenes, the sequence was thankfully not so traumatic. ‘That was very campy,’ Roth claimed. ‘We couldn’t keep a straight face. She’s being raped by the ugliest drag queen you could ever possibly imagine. There’s a guy under the table holding the legs. And there’s a guy sleeping and another one having a sandwich. It’s an English film crew. It may be disturbing to watch, but to shoot it was just like, “Oh my God!”’[19]

‘It wasn’t the worst scene for me to do,’ said Lange. ‘It would be false to say, “That was a horrible scene. I had to stay in bed for a week afterward.” We just did it. We’re actors and between takes, we’d laugh.’[20]

Despite the light-hearted attitude, Tim Roth was particularly impressed with Lange’s performance. ‘She managed to give me goosebumps,’ said Roth. ‘She has the ability to make everything real, even if it’s surreal.’[21]

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Rob is, inevitably captured, and his younger brother shot dead by soldiers. A badly beaten Rob is dragged behind Cunningham’s horse back towards Montrose. They meet at a river crossing, where Montrose learns of Cunningham’s own treachery. Despite this, he still orders that Rob be hung from the bridge and executed. As indicated above by John Hurt, Montrose cares less for right and wrong than he does for maintaining social order: every class in their place.

In an unexpected act, Rob loops the rope that binds his hands around Cunningham’s own neck and jumps from the bridge. Soldiers cut the rope to save Cunningham’s life, allowing Rob to flee down the river rapids and escape. The scene was partly shot at the Eas Chia-aig waterfalls near Inverness, where there was a pre-existing stone bridge. As the water below was too shallow to accommodate the planned sequence, all shots depicting either the river or the bridge from above were captured at a completely different river and stone bridge – and the two shoots edited together during post-production.

Reunited with his wife, Rob finds she has approached the Duke of Argyll to seek sanctuary under his protection. While Rob is displeased – he thinks it dishonourable to beg for protection from a man he has not met – he accepts the hospitality. Through Argyll he arranges an end to his feud with Montrose and the cancellation of his debt, so long as he wins a sword duel against Cunningham.

Sean Connery was originally approached to play Argyll – an offer he immediately refused. In his place came fellow Scot Andrew Keir, a well-regarded character with a career dating back to the 1950s. In Keir’s hand Argyll becomes a deeply distinguished and principled man – a sharp contrast to the mercurial and amoral Montrose.

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The climactic duel was coordinated by choreographer Bill Hobbs, with whom Neeson had previously worked on the fantasy feature Excalibur (1981). For Roth the choreography was a new experience. Roth said: ‘His philosophy was “don’t learn to sword fight. It’s about your character. How does your character fight? You fight as an extension of yourself.” So he studied our performances, and then came up with a style that was in keeping with our characters. It was a very complicated fight. In reality, Liam would have been dead in a second, because it was brute strength versus finesse.’[22]

Rob Roy’s duel is remembered as one of cinema’s all-time finest for precisely the reasons Roth detailed: it is a beautiful expression of character. Rob fights bluntly and with passion; Cunningham with a cat-like sense of playfulness. It is a battle of force versus technique, with Rob visibly outmatched. That Rob finally wins by catching Cunningham’s blade and holding onto it, cutting one hand in order to deliver a killing blow with the other, is yet more expression of those two characters.

It is also a wonderful moment taken straight out of the western playbook: Rob wins because, in essence, he cheats. Just as Clint Eastwood’s nameless protagonist uses a stove door hidden about his person to survive a bullet to the chest, Rob’s grabbing of Cunnungham’s sword is simply not something people do when having a duel. He breaks the rules, voluntarily takes a hit and wins – not because he is smarter or more talented but because he cares more.

Rob Roy was released in the USA in April 1995; a limited one-week release sought to build critical acclaim and publicity, followed by a wide release nationally. It did not ultimately have the desired effect. During its domestic run the film grossed US$32 million, a slim profit margin that would have almost certainly been eaten up by distribution fees and marketing costs.

As with most films of this kind, the better profits were later made on television and home video, with positive word-of-mouth boosting its prospects. Today it remains a quiet favourite, well-regarded by its fans and more obscure than disliked by the broader audience. In terms of influence it most affected Liam Neeson’s career, shooting him from respected dramatic actor to mainstream popularity. A hugely successful run of action films followed in the ensuing decade.

There have been other historical Scottish films made since, including Neil Marshall’s Roman-era Centurion, Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots, David McKenzie’s Outlaw King (both 2018), and Richard Gray’s faulty Robert the Bruce (2019). None of them stand up as well as Rob Roy: the strongest Scottish saga for a generation.

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[1] Rob Roy production notes, MGM/UA, 1995.

[2] MGM/UA, 1995.

[3] Dan Cox, “UA gives Neeson shot at ‘Rob Roy’ title role”, Variety, 22 April 1994.

[4] Michael Hainey, “The GQ cover story: Liam Neeson”, GQ, 27 March 2014.

[5] Johanna Schneller, “Liam Neeson breaks out”, Vanity Fair, December 1994.

[6] Roald Rynning, “2 Oscars, 3 Kids and a Hangover”, Film Review, June 1995.

[7] Amy Longsdorf, “Jessica Lange sees Blue Skies ahead in her career”, The Morning Call, 2 April 1995.

[8] Maureen Dowd, “Segue to women who weren’t born yesterday”, The New York Times, 2 April 1995.

[9] Tom Seymour, “Interview: Michael Caton-Jones”, Little White Lies, 27 September 2009.

[10] MGM/UA, 1995.

[11] Anne Thompson, “Cool Transplant: Tim Roth”, Entertainment Weekly, 30 June 1995.

[12] Alex Simon, “Time Roth is telling no Lies”, Venice, March 2009.

[13] Siobhan Synnot, “I was Rob Roy’s arch-enemy one minute, Braveheart’s uncle the next”, Daily Record, 12 February 1998.

[14]  Jeffrey M. Anderson, “Acting Hard”, Combustible Celluloid, 16 September 2001.

[15] Synnot, 1998.

[16] Brian Pendreagh, “My declaration of independence from Hollywood”, The Daily Mail, 19 August 2000.

[17] Brian Pendreagh, 2000.

[18] Bill Mowat, “So Was Rob Roy really ripped off?’, The Daily Mail, 17 October 1996.

[19] Thelma Adams, “In the Zone: British character actor Tim Roth’s on a hot streak as he helms first feature”, New York Post, 9 December 1999.

[20] Amy Longsdorf, 1995.

[21] Maureen Dowd, 1995.

[22] Alex Simon, 2009.

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