I caught up with Professor Tony Pollard near his University of Glasgow office to talk about his work in film & television and his role as historical advisor on Netflix’s big new release, Outlaw King.
GC: Perhaps you could tell me about your roles as a historical advisor and how you got started.
TP: I think the role varies from production to production. My two experiences have been Outlander, where I was historical advisor for the first two seasons, and Outlaw King. They differed in that Outlander was a finished product based on a series of novels, which I discovered meant I had to remain loyal to the original material. That made the job quite hard as I had to go through the scripts for each episode to provide notes and say “That wouldn’t have happened quite that way” or “You wouldn’t fire a musket in that fashion” or “Wolves have been extinct in Scotland for 50 years”, but they had to stay as they were an important element of the plot! I was hired because one of my specialisms is the Jacobite period, which was key for them, but I’m also a published historical fiction novelist so I know how to play with history, which I think was attractive to them. I wasn’t averse to tweaking history for entertainments sake. I think that’s the point – you can’t be too precious. You can offer advice but that advice doesn’t have to be taken, and in many cases won’t be.
How did you come to work on Outlaw King? You must’ve been attached from early on as it had sat in development for some time, right?
Well I thought it had died actually. I originally met David MacKenzie at a Burn’s Night party in the West End of Glasgow (as one does darling). He told me he was a director and I asked him what he’d directed, to which the reply was Young Adam and Hallam Foe. So I said “What? You’re David MacKenzie? I think Young Adam is in the top five movies ever to come out of Scotland.” And he said “Only the top five?” so I thought I had blown it early on. Then Sigma Films got in touch to say I’d been put forward to be the historical advisor on an upcoming project, which we knew was going to be “The Bruce Movie”. I’m only a bit player in this massive machine and one of several advisors but I think I was the first on board. I got to read it and thought it was really good stuff. It was a story that had been crying out to be told, as it had been tee’d up quite melodramatically by Braveheart. I had worked with Neil Oliver on a BBC production where we finally put a fix on the Bannockburn battlefield location. So David and I took an aircraft over the site and I was able to explain how things had played out. Then it all went quiet. I read about this thing called “Development Hell” and heard David was in America working on a pilot for a series. It wasn’t until I was returning from filming overseas I literally bumped into him in Glasgow airport and he said “It’s great that I’ve bumped in to you, because we’re back in business!”.
What happened next? You mentioned other historical advisors were attached to the project.
I knew from working on Outlander that it would be a big time commitment and I wouldn’t be an expert in every field they required, so I set about bringing together a team of historians. Key to which was Scott McMaster at the National Trust for Scotland, who the production were already speaking to, and Clan Ranald.
Hang on, Clan Ranald?!
Clan Ranald figure large in the movie. They’ve been involved in basically any movie in the last 10 years featuring anything medieval. They’ve built a dark age medieval timber fort outside of Stirling. You can’t even call them re-enactors because they’re above and beyond that. Charlie Allan, the leader, also runs Combat International. They’re very well respected combat stunt people and fight choreographers. They’re in battle scenes in numerous films, from Gladiator and Robin Hood to The Eagle of the Ninth and Thor. I worked with them before on Outlander.
And what was your main area?
My main input was the battles. When looking at Robert the Bruce, the battlefields are key. The one thing that signals his military genius is his use of terrain, his preparation. Getting there early, training on the ground and turning the landscape into an ally. Bringing down what on paper is a superior force, which he does really well at the Battle of Loudoun Hill, features big time in the movie. Loudoun Hill is the battle in Bruce’s career that brings all the elements together, working on a smaller scale what eventually plays out at Bannockburn.
So big set-piece battles play a big part in the movie?
There are two battles that feature large in the movie. And I’ll give you a spoiler: Bannockburn is not in the movie. The problem with a feature on Bruce is the long timeline. How do you turn decades into two and half hours without real problems where narrative is concerned? They made what I thought was a really brave decision to make the climax the Battle of Loudoun Hill. That kind of keys up a sequel that would obviously be Bannockburn, but that will all depend on how successful this one is. I climbed up Loudoun Hill with David in pre-production as I was involved in putting it on the inventory of Scottish battlefields a few years ago. The area suffered badly from quarrying but you can still get a good look at how the terrain would have been. I imagine that 95% of people will never have heard of the Battle of Loudoun Hill, and what was great for me as a historian was to see a battle never featured in any movie ever come alive on screen. The combat and the violence, par for the course these days, was really accurate.
What are the common mistakes when it comes to making a movie in such a period? Should we mention Braveheart?
The combat in Outlaw King is accurate in a way Braveheart wasn’t. I lecture on medieval warfare and force my students to watch Braveheart and we discuss it and pull it apart. I’ve spent a lot of time with Braveheart and in a way I’ve come to respect it. Outlaw King will play a little differently in the Scottish psyche, it’s more complicated. Those that are looking for their “Scotland the Brave” element will find it but it’s much more nuanced. I mean, Braveheart was such a clumsy cartoon of a portrayal. Where do you start? Stirling Bridge with no bridge. The way they charge at each other in a full tilt boogie, so fast they’re doing somersaults over one another. And in a way that set a standard for fight scenes in subsequent movies. In Outlaw King they strived to get everything correct. The weapons are used in the correct way, the armour is pretty much correct, there’s no tartan which was a big bugbear in Braveheart. Although there were times tartan would appear in the script. There was a scene with the heads of Scottish rebels on pikes with tartan bound around them so that had to be taken out. The history was taken really seriously and the designers took it really seriously.
Do you think filmmakers in recent years have taken historical accuracy more seriously?
Yes! I think the spectre of Braveheart looms large, and certainly over a project like Outlaw King. It’s always there as an issue but we took it very seriously. It’s not just lip service, it’s not just set dressing, and I think it shows on the screen. Really bad anachronisms are less common than they used to be, because we’ve all got Google now. But so much depends on budget, especially when it comes to costume. I mean, the stuff they made for Outlander was absolutely stunning! They had built a sound stage at their studio in Cumbernauld and had turned it into a faithful mock up of an 18th century street in Paris. I wandered into the apothecary and everything was in it, they had a herbalist as an advisor on the shoot. That is what I think is the amazing thing about the British film industry in particular- the craft that goes in to it, from Star Wars through to Outlaw King via Outlander.
What are you working on next?
Nothing from a film or television perspective right now. I would certainly love it if Outlaw King got a sequel because I’ve got all that Bannockburn stuff in the bank! The rest of that story deserves an airing I feel…