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For all you Taken fans, if you squint real hard you can pretend that’s Liam Neeson on the cover – Walt Disney’s Rob Roy

September 23, 2012

When I think of cinematic Rob Roys, my first feeling is crushing disappointment. Remember the Liam Neeson film, from way back in the sepia-toned days of 1995? That movie killed me. Not because it was bad, mind you. It’s actually a taut, well-acted movie, with colorful characters and a villain — Tim Roth’s arrogantly belligerent Cunningham — that you want to see run through with a sword from the first moment he shows up on-screen. Neeson’s Roy is a pillar of virtue and strength, and he displays a level of magnanimity and honor that few persons, either real or imagined, could ever approach. Plus, there’s a tense, finely-staged duel with swords at the end, which does with blades what Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon did with pistols.

And yet left a sour taste in my mouth after the first viewing. Why? Because it wasn’t Braveheart, that’s why. Mind you, that’s as profoundly dumb a reason as you can have. I get that. Though they were released a month apart (Rob Roy first), and shared stirring “man in kilt fights for freedom and love in the Scottish highlands” trailers, to compare William Wallace’s giant action epic with the more personal arc of Roy is silly at best. But I saw Braveheart first, which didn’t help matters, and I was seventeen years old, which helped matters even less. I went into Roy expecting blue face paint and hollered speeches on horseback, and I did not get those things. Hence the disappointment. I craved mass-produced bloodletting, and was given none.

That’s my old reasoning, dumb as it is. So the old-timey Disney take on the character might send me into a deep dark, depression. And God only knows what the comic book adaptation of said take could do. HIDE THE SHARP OBJECTS.

The 1953 film (Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue) starred Richard Todd as Roy, and had that classic Disney sheen to it (see: Davy Crockett), which meant that it was competent, fairly entertaining, and unquestionably generic. Rob Roy, Scottish leader, embarks on his new married life while English overlords, supported by their occupying forces, the Fencibles, try to crush any incipient rebellion. There you have it. The comic, (Four Color Comics #544, for those of you keeping score at home) stayed very close to the what was seen on-screen, and hence both also shared many of the historical personages found in the later Neeson version. Here are the dramatis personae, organized quite handily on the inside front cover (art: Russ Manning):

The story (adapted for the comic by scripter Elizabeth Beecher) gets a bit too wordy, as such projects often do. There’s an understandable impulse to shoehorn in every twist and turn of the plot, and as a reader you find yourself wishing that someone could have taken the editing scalpel to much of the fat. A part of this is the conflict of the mediums. Film is constantly washing past you, while comics allow the eye to linger and contemplate at its own pace. You’d think that the latter is like the former’s storyboards, but it’s not. The choices that go into each should therefore be different, but, as in this book, that’s not always the case.

This isn’t a death sentence, though.

It’s Manning’s art that lends this comic its appeal. The creator of the fistacular Magnus, Robot Fighter knew how to depict action, and most importantly, how to depict action without neglecting the backgrounds. This page, showing Roy escaping from Fencibles via rapids and waterfalls, may trump any of the action in the film:

Love that waterfall.

The same goes for this scene, as Roy makes another escape (the man does a lot of escaping) using a leap and a conveniently placed tree to outdistance his pursuers:

Compare his actual jump above to what’s in the movie. Though I wish the comic could have copied some of the film’s lack of dialogue in the surrounding sequence, I’ll gladly take the breathtaking shot from above over clunky editing. (LOOK OUT HE’S PLUMMETING TO HIS DEATH, no, wait, he somehow reversed gravity and fell upwards so he could grasp that flimsy branch that should have snapped under his weight. Huh.)

As I said/wrote, the story, both on film and on newsprint, has that antiseptic Disney feel. Even when a main character dies, it’s not all that bloody or painful, and the stakes never seem to rise all that high. But so it goes. The comic does a decent job with the materials given (incidentally, it was also the only comic credit that I could find for Beecher, who was likely(?) the same Beecher who did a lot of work in Hollywood around this time). It fits right in with other standard movie comics of the day, especially historically minded kinsmen like 55 Days at Peking and Alexander the Great. You can’t ask for a lot more. Even Liam Neeson, the modern paragon of strapping manliness, would be okay with it, and wouldn’t hunt it down like it was some Eurotrash kidnapper.

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