Mel Gibson’s Braveheart is a violent, passionate epic about the real-life Scottish hero William Wallace, who, from 1297 to 1305 A.D., led a revolt against the ruling English that eventually led to the independence of Scotland. Until Braveheart came out, Wallace was not a particularly well-known historical figure outside of Scotland, where he is intensely beloved (The Wallace, a fictionalized biographical poem by the 15th-century Scottish bard known variously as Blind Harry or Henry the Minstrel, was, for hundreds of years, the second best-selling book in Scotland behind the Bible). However, Gibson’s almost-three-hour tour de force of filmmaking changed all that, extending William Wallace’s status as an indelible, highly romanticized heroic figure far beyond his home country and winning five Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director) in the process.
Gibson portrays Wallace as a peaceful, educated man who, out of force of necessity, emerges as a larger-than-life hero, a completely uncompromising patriot who wants nothing more than absolute freedom for his country. All of the characters around Wallace only add to his stature because their faults accentuate his strengths. This even includes sympathetic characters, such as Robert the Bruce (Angus MacFadyen), a Scottish nobleman who respects and admires Wallace’s convictions, but is hamstrung by the politics of the squabbling Scottish nobility. Wallace’s adversaries, the brutal English King Edward I (known by the nickname “Longshanks”), who is played with nasty relish by Patrick McGoohan, and Edward’s weak, sniveling son, Prince Edward II (Peter Hanly), contrast against Wallace’s heroics even more. Where he is honest and determined, they are sneaky and conniving; where he is capable of showing mercy, they are ruthless; where is honorable, they are despicable.
Little is known about the historical Wallace, and what is known is enshrouded in myth that has grown over the centuries. Screenwriter Randall Wallace, who at the time had written for a half-dozen television shows and had no feature film credits, was thus able to build the character out of both myth and fact, self-reflexively stressing that, even during his life, Wallace was the stuff of legends. When he appears in front of his army before the Battle of Stirling, many of the men don’t believe he is actually William Wallace because “he’s too small.” A later montage depicts various people spreading increasingly grandiose stories about Wallace’s prowess in killing 50 or 100 men alone.
But, despite Wallace’s immense stature as a brutal solider and a brilliant leader, Braveheart is rooted in his humanity. In fact, the catalyst for his getting involved with the struggle against England is the murder of his wife, Murron (Catherine McCormack), who is cast as Wallace’s one true love. The Princess of England, Isabelle (Sophie Marceau), who has been forced into a loveless marriage with Edward II, yearns for Wallace because she is so taken with his undying devotion to his slain wife, who appears throughout the film in Wallace’s dreams and visions as a kind of angel or muse. Sent by Longshanks to strike a compromise with Wallace, Isabelle ends up falling in love with him and tipping him off whenever traps are being set.
Of course, Braveheart is probably best known for its extensive battle sequences. Having only directed one previous feature, the relatively small-scale drama The Man Without a Face (1993), Gibson proved to have surprising talent and control behind the camera in orchestrating huge battles involving upwards of 1,600 extras (since then, the big, bloody epic is the only kind of film he has made: 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, 2006’s Apocalypto, and 2016’s Hacksaw Ridge). The film has an immense scope that is matched only by the bloody ferocity of its violence. Gibson doesn’t shy away from the blood-and-guts aspect of 13th-century warfare involving axes, mallets, chains, and swords. His battles are huge, bloody spectacles of sheer human barbarity, albeit barbarity that is put toward the goal of achieving freedom from a tyrant. The film’s earthy color palette gives an almost tangible sensation of being in the wet highlands (filming was done in both Scotland and Ireland), and the cinematography by John Toll (recently Oscar-crowned for 1994’s Legends of the Fall) turns the rugged, mist-enshrouded landscape into a world of myth and legend.
Despite its many stunning accomplishments, Braveheart does have its weaknesses. While historically accurate, the depiction of Longshanks’s disgust at his son’s obvious homosexuality borders on the sadistic. The same fey, frail characteristics that mark him as stereotypically gay also mark him as a sniveling coward, making the two appear to be one in the same (the film was rightly taken to task by many gay rights groups). Gibson also tends to lavish a few too many close-ups on himself, which is a common fault of stars who direct themselves (see also Warren Beatty).
Because it is an epic about a larger-than-life hero, Braveheart is told in strong, broad strokes, leaving little room for subtleties or nuance. It is about bold, old-fashioned themes like heroism, sacrifice, and undying love, which are splashed across the screen with unapologetic sensation. The rhetoric of the film works at our basest, most primal levels, and it is hard not to be roused at Wallace’s inspirational speeches about dying for the cause of freedom and refusal to yield to the temptations of wealth and power that keep the Scottish nobility under Longshanks’s thumb. It is a wildly ambitious film, especially for a second-time director, yet it works on virtually every level.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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