“Honor is what no man can give you. And none can take away. Honor is a man’s gift to himself.”
Rob Roy’s a great flick. It’s a weird mix of hard realism (mostly faithful period costumes, and shot entirely on location with castle scenes inside actual castles, etc) with absurdly broad Hollywood archetypes, and the end result is a good ol’ fashioned historical romp filled with its fair share of’ graphic content. It is in fact a bit of a difficult movie to re-watch, featuring some deplorably nasty on-screen activities by the villains and noble heroes suffering through seemingly endless degradations; heck, if it weren’t for the last-second happy ending, the movie would have been a trial run for Game of Thrones.
There’s a lot of bits of minor action here & there, but only two genuine fights of any note, one of which in particular has gone down in film history. That’s not this one, but we’ll get there.
1) Cunningham vs Guthrie
- Archibald Cunningham, a minor noble from England whose foppish appearance belies his lethal fencing prowess and a cruelty bordering on sociopathy. His shenanigans at home have gotten him sent abroad into the care/service of the vile Duke of Montrose (John Hurt, rarely in more need of having an alien burst from his chest). Played by Tim Roth with malicious glee.
- Armed with: Rapier.
- Will Guthrie, an obnoxious fighter favored by Montrose’s rival, the Duke of Argyll (Andrew Keir). Talented but ultimately dishonorable and more of a brawler than a fencer. Played by Gilbert Martin.
- Armed with: Claymore.
The Setup: We’ve already spent considerable time with the titular hero, so this scene, set in Argyll’s castle, acts our introduction to the villain Cunningham as well as the two Dukes (and Guthrie, though he’ll mostly be a minor player in the film). The scene opens up with Guthrie triumphing over a fellow Scot in a sort of informal fencing match with several dozen rowdy highlanders cheering on.
Argyll and Montrose snipe quietly at each other, but when Cunningham and Guthrie exchange some insults (Archie has little respect for the traditional Scottish claymore), a challenge is laid down between the two, as is a wager between their respective benefactors. The two swordsmen take their marks, and as Cunningham takes too long doing his pre-fight show-offs, Guthrie interrupts him in mid-flourish with a casual swing, kicking things off immediately.
The Fight: Archibald is surprised a bit at Guthrie’s dick move but he quickly regains his composure and defends himself well. In fact, Cunningham really wastes no time gaining control of the fight, constantly pressing Guthrie and nimbly moving about. Guthrie’s overt lunges and swings are clearly strong but clumsy in comparison; Cunningham easily avoids them all.
Interestingly, almost as soon as the fight starts Montrose conspicuously turns his back on the proceedings. Not because he doesn’t care, but because he has enough confidence in Archie’s abilities that he’s sure of its outcome, and turning away from it while calmly conversing with Argyll (who’s watching anxiously) is a way to poke his metaphorical finger in his rival’s eye.
Meanwhile, Cunningham’s swordsmanship is consistently superior, leaving him cocky enough to play up to the crowd (who hates his dandy English ass) with exaggerated gestures, making him resemble nothing so much as a Heel in professional wrestling. Which come to think of it is exactly what he is in the movie, as well: colorful & flamboyant outfit, willful immorality, dishonorable tactics, etc. All he’s missing is a metal folding chair.
After scoring some light wounds on Guthrie and tiring him out, Cunningham soon corners his opponent with a series of blows, and deliberately walks away without looking in order to provoke a sneak attack. He deftly sidesteps it and knocks Guthrie to the ground with a thwack on the back from his rapier. The brutish highlander is left defenseless on the ground, and Archie puts a rapier up against his neck to stand him up slowly, but ultimately lets him live– it’s just a “friendly” match, after all.
Low stakes here, and nothing too fancy cinematically, though the choreography is impeccable. The real purpose of the fight is to sell Cunningham’s abilities as well as cement his character, which it does wonderfully. This fight provides a much-needed foundation for what’s to come.
Coming Attractions: The main event.