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Shot primarily around Livingston and focused on a period of hardship in the life of one of Scotland’s most important historical figures, the 2019 movie “Robert The Bruce” will have its North American premiere Sunday at the Babcock Theater in downtown Billings.

The movie screening will take place as part of the Montana International Film Festival, a multi-day film festival based out of Billings that began in 2018. 

Robert the Bruce was a Scottish king credited with successfully fighting for the country’s independence from England in the 14th century.

Starring in the titular role is Scottish actor Angus Macfadyen, who also played Robert the Bruce in the 1995 movie ”Braveheart,” which focused on the life of Scottish warrior William Wallace and his battles with the English.

Angus Macfadyen in "Robert The Bruce"

Angus Macfadyen stars in the movie "Robert The Bruce." 

Mel Gibson directed “Braveheart” and also played the role of Wallace. The movie took home five Oscars, including the Academy Award for Best Picture, and was nominated for an additional five.

“Braveheart” is a violent movie and features numerous bloody battle scenes. Just three minutes into the film William Wallace's father opens the door to a hut and finds it filled with dead Scots hanging from the rafters.

Macfadyen reprising his role as Robert the Bruce has drawn comparisons, and in some cases confusion about the relationship, between the new movie and “Braveheart.”

“Robert The Bruce” is not a sequel to "Braveheart."

In interviews Macfadyen has described the different tone the new movie has from “Braveheart.”

There is violence in “Robert the Bruce,” but Macfadyen told BBC News the movie “does not glorify war.” He went on to say, “The film I wanted to tell was about the consequences of violence and what it does to entire clans and families. It tears them apart. This movie is about the Scots versus Scots. There is not an Englishman in sight.”

Director and producer Richard Gray said that “Robert the Bruce in the film is struggling to understand war and the need for war when he’s looking at how many soldiers have been lost.”

Bruce is on the run in the movie, hiding with a widow and her orphaned children. Their father died fighting in Bruce’s war, Gray said.

About 80% of the movie was shot around Livingston and the Paradise Valley during the winter of 2017, Gray said. The rest of the movie was shot in Scotland.

Gray said before he began “Robert the Bruce” he had been working on making a Western. Anna Hutchison knew Macfadyen and knew that Gray was a huge “Braveheart” fan, so she told him he should read the script, the director said. He got his hands on it in the summer of 2017.

“I read the script and I just fell in love with it,” Gray said. “We had to go quickly because the film had to be in winter, and that’s what forced our hand. We knew that we had to film in November 2017 or we’d have to wait another year.”

Gray is originally from Australia but now resides with his wife and children in Livingston. The executive producer on the movie, Carter Boehm, is also from Livingston.

“It was the hardest shoot I’ve ever been involved in,” Gray said of filming “Robert the Bruce.”

The Internet Movie Database lists him with 13 film credits.

Transforming the setting

Sets built to resemble medieval stone dwellings were built. On a typical day, cast and crew would wake up between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. and drive to the top of Cokedale Road for filming, Gray said. In the dark the convoy of cast and crew vehicles would be fixed with tire chains in order to make it up the snowy roads. The average temperature was about 9 degrees, Gray said.

And of course, as Gray noted, filming around Livingston comes with no shortage of the harsh winds for which the town is known. 

When filming began in Scotland, the island nation was dealing with one of the worst periods of cold and snow in recent memory; it was dubbed “Beast from the East.”

With actors playing peasants dressed in rags, Gray said they had to be careful not to leave actors exposed to the cold for too long. Despite the discomfort and hardship, Gray says all the snow and cold, from Livingston to Scotland, benefited the movie.

“What made it worthwhile, there’s so much snow falling and so much beauty in the winter and the breath coming from their mouths. You can’t buy that,” he said. “It made it look difficult. You can imagine living in that time period how hard it would have been. I think the elements really add to the film.”

Filming concluded in Scotland in April 2018. The movie debuted at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on June 23. June 23 is the same day 705 years ago that Robert the Bruce began fighting the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 during the First War of Scottish Independence.

Thousands fought in the battle. Bruce and his forces won. It’s probably the best known battle in Scottish history, according to Michael H. Brown, a professor of Scottish history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

“Although it didn’t end the war, Bruce’s victory secured his control over Scotland and expelled the last English troops from almost all of the kingdom. It was also a symbolic victory. It could be used as proof of God’s favour on his efforts,” Brown said by email.

A controversial release

Macfadyen is an outspoken proponent of Scottish independence, and the film has created some controversy as a result. At one point Cineworld, a large movie theater chain with properties in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, did not plan on showing the movie in Scotland. A signature campaign and public pressure eventually persuaded Cineworld to show the movie in Scotland.

“Thank you everyone,” Macfadyen wrote on Twitter after Cineworld announced it would show the movie. “A well orchestrated campaign which reminded me of Bannockburn.”

Macfadyen wrote the script for the movie along with writer Eric Belgau. A previous version of the script was written 13 years ago, according to Scottish newspaper The Herald.

“I’m so glad that I didn’t get the film made in 2007,” Macfadyen told The Herald. “The timing right now with what is happening in the United Kingdom and Scotland, with the Brexit shambles and everything going on for independence, I feel like I couldn’t have done it better myself.”

Another Scottish newspaper, The Scotsman, quoted Macfadyen saying “I hope so,” when asked if he hoped the movie would boost support for Scottish independence.

The movie takes place in 1306. The period of 1306 to 1307 was a difficult one for Bruce.

During the summer of 1306 Bruce and his Scottish forces were defeated at the Battle of Methven and then his army dispersed in the face of conflict with another Scottish clan, according to a 2018 Smithsonian.com article “The True Story of Robert the Bruce, Scotland’s ‘Outlaw King.’”

The article was published around the time Netflix released its 2018 movie “Outlaw King” in which actor Chris Pine plays Robert the Bruce.

The Smithsonian article goes on to describe how during the several months that followed, “Three of his four brothers fell into English hands and were hung, drawn and quartered.” The English captured his wife, daughter  and sisters and held them until 1315 according to the Smithsonian article.

The string of defeats and tragedies was preceded by Bruce’s murder of political rival John Comyn. Political murder wasn’t unheard of during Bruce’s lifetime, but the manner which Bruce killed Comyn, inside a church, was far from typical, according to Brown.

“Comyn was killed in a church and his blood sprayed onto the high alter,” Brown said by email. “This made the crime not simply political, but an assault on the church. To have killed Comyn in a fight elsewhere might have been defensible but the place in which the act occurred led to Bruce being excommunicated from the church (cut off from contact with Christians).”

Bruce was crowned a month after killing Comyn, but the string of defeats and the murder of Comyn sent him into exile.

In "Robert the Bruce," the character of John Comyn is played by the actor Jared Harris, known for his role in the AMC TV shows "Mad Men" and "The Terror" and more recently for his star role in the HBO limited series "Chernobyl."

Both Chris Pine and Macfadyen have now portrayed Bruce on the screen in the past two years. Asked if there are any reliable accounts of what the historical figure looked like, Brown said that a skeleton presumed to be Bruce's was found in the early 19th century and a reconstruction has been made. 

"It shows a man died of a long illness (leprosy perhaps) and does not suggest an attractive man," Brown said. 

Though Bruce's significance in Scottish history is undeniable, Brown said that since the 1800s Bruce has not always been portrayed positively. One interpretation of events, which "Braveheart" subscribes to, depicts Wallace as a common man who led a rebellion and stayed true to the cause, whereas Bruce and other nobles made peace, according to Brown.

But in Bruce's time the Scottish were increasingly developing a national identity. Brown said Bruce was "both an ambitious noble man taking the throne by force and the leader of a people fighting to defend its existence against foreign conquest."

English contemporary accounts of Bruce seem to show "a grudging appreciation of their enemy," Brown said. "He makes jokes — he says he is more afraid of Edward I dead than Edward II alive, and that it was harder to gain 6 inches from the old king than the whole kingdom from his son. He also respects the enemy dead after Bannockburn, standing vigil over them."

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