ROB ROY: THE HIGHLAND ROGUE (1953)
Action and adventure in the Scottish Highlands! Directed by Harold French, Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue is the tale of Robert MacGregor (Richard Todd), the famous brigand who risks all to uphold the honor of his family name and wins the love of his bonny lass, Helen (Glynis Johns). Will Rob be subjugated by the dastardly Duke of Montrose (Michael Gough) or will he heed the advice of the Duke of Argyll (James Robertson Justice) and make peace?
The Scottish and the English are fighting, and unless you know the history of the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, you probably won’t know why. What is readily apparent is that the men in kilts are good guys, and everyone else is probably an asshole. The movie gets off to a relatively exciting start as the two armies clash. And while we don’t really know who anyone is or why we should care, it’s violent and fun.
There are many man-nips and hairy legs as well, if that sweetens the deal.
The battle ends, and we are finally introduced to our hero… who has just been taken as a prisoner of war. Things quickly get bogged down in convoluted, poorly articulated Scottish politics. I won’t get into the details, but it’s generally a bad sign when the characters in your kids’ movie spend over 6% of the runtime arguing whether or not someone should be extradited. It’s a big, somewhat boring mess. But just as you’re about to start drifting into a fitful sleep… POW! Someone gets punched into a pile of sheep!
Now that you have been woken up by a brief stint of action, it’s time for romance, and what may be comic relief. The recently escaped Rob pays a visit to the inn where his sweetheart Helen resides. We’re treated to some entirely unfunny shtick with Helen’s blowhard dad (Finlay Currie) before we can get down to serious courtship. In probably the only truly funny scene in the film, Rob attempts to flirt with Helen, only to be consistently interrupted by her dad making bizarre noises on a bagpipe reed from his seat in the corner.
“Toot toot! Don’t have sex!”
Somehow the couple overcomes the noisy cock-blocking attempts, and before you know it, they are married. Tame dancing ensues. The movie then settles into a dull pattern of people arguing, Rob Roy getting captured, and Rob Roy escaping again. By all accounts, the parts when he’s escaping tend to be the most fun.
Eventually, Rob Roy gets tired of fighting, so he does what his friend the Duke of Argyll has been asking him to do all along: he stops fighting. The End.
Behind all its shenanigans, Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue is a tale about how to handle defeat. Scotland is at war because George I, a German, took the throne, but some of the Scots wanted to crown James Stuart instead. By the end of the opening scene, the Highlanders have lost, Rob Roy is on the ground with a sword to his throat, and the only reason the English don’t murder the shit out of everyone is that the Duke of Argyll insists on sparing them.
He’s an alright dude.
So how do you respond once you’ve fought and lost? The film gives us two possible role models: Rob Roy wants to keep fighting, while the Duke of Argyll wants peaceful diplomacy. Already, it seems clear that Argyll’s stance is the more sensible. The end result is inevitable; it is time for everyone to embrace peace and just get on with their lives. But almost from the start, his calm course of action is ridiculed. Rob Roy’s mother (Jean Taylor Smith) dismisses Argyll, saying that his blood has gone cold: if you decide to cut your losses and strive for peace, you are a feckless coward.
On the other side of the coin we have Rob Roy. As a major figure in the rebellion (in the film at least, in reality he was distrusted by both sides), he is one of the final impediments to peace. One can hardly blame Rob for trying to escape captivity, but once he has his freedom, he does nothing but provoke further English action against the land he loves. By very publicly returning home, Rob is just asking for trouble. Yet when his house, his wedding, and a funeral he attends predictably get crashed by old timey cops, he has the gall to act surprised. Dude, you’re a fugitive; the SWAT team wouldn’t knock over your mom’s picnic table if you didn’t keep showing up at her barbecues.
By “knock over picnic table,” I meant “shoot in the chest.”
And remember, the Scottish started this fight in the first place. Hell, even when the English abolish the name “MacGregor” from the land, they really aren’t asking too much. A name change is a pretty light penalty for treason. King George wasn’t that bad a guy; when rebellious estates were seized after the insurrection, he used the funds to build Scottish schools!
From time to time, people chide Rob about not making peace, but never does the film make it seem as though he’s in the wrong by not doing so. In response to one such entreaty for peace, Rob retorts, “I’d rather be shot for a wolf than a sheep.” In other words, if he’s going down, he’s going down fighting. Eventually, after his wife gives him a hard time about it, Rob accepts Argyll’s proposed peace, and places himself before the mercy of King George. At this point, the king has heard about his Highland exploits, and is pleased as punch to meet the famous rogue. Rob’s got balls, so he gets a pardon! Never mind that he tried to overthrow the government, he’s too much of a badass to stay mad at.
The moral? Sometimes you’re just going to lose, but if you ignore the facts and stubbornly keep fighting, people will respect you when you finally throw in the towel.
WHY DON’T PEOPLE LIKE IT?:
Our first clue as to why this film failed to resonate comes when it opens on two full panels of exposition about kings and rebellions for which one can assume the audience has no real context. This trend of unexplained political complexity seeps throughout the entire film. With 20 minutes of runtime left, we are introduced to an entire room full of politicians we have never seen before, and are just left to watch them deliberate for minutes on end.
This is what the kids want to see!
Add in entirely unfunny comedy scenes and you’re in for a laborious time. To be fair, the movie has its share of thrills, many of which are legitimately exciting, but without any sense of why our main character is fighting, they are left somewhat hollow. Its high points are rollicking fun but its low points are miserably boring; Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue averages out to be an entirely lackluster movie, and it is no wonder it has failed to go down as a Disney classic.
- It may be worth noting that the DVD release looks like it was ripped straight from a VHS, complete with a vintage advertisement tacked onto the beginning. There are no special features (not even scene selection). It would seem that putting out a quality Rob Roy is not at the top of Disney’s priority list.
MOST REGRETTABLE MOMENT:
A full minute of King George trying to read about Rob Roy in broken English. Because remember, kids, nothing’s funnier than someone who, despite their best attempts, can’t speak your language as well as you can!*
*This fun at the expense of a German may be partially attributable to the fact that this film was released less than a decade after WWII.
There were enough awesome chunks in this film that I’d feel bad telling anyone to avoid it, but I cannot recommend trying to sit through it. If you’re ever having a Rob Roy-themed party (for unknown reasons), snag a copy and put it on in the background. Or don’t.
Westward Ho, The Wagons! (1956)