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Braveheart Review

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by Casimir Harlow Sep 5, 2009

    Mel Gibson. Once one of the biggest leading men in Hollywood; the star of first the Mad Max franchise then the extremely popular Lethal Weapon franchise; known for his punchy, engaging performances and dramatic capabilities - he may not have particularly suited Shakespearian prose (although he even tried that once the underrated 1990 Hamlet), but he was the perfect man to pick for the job of vengeful husband or vengeful father. An action hero with significant screen presence and a surplus of charm, he used to be the first port of call for new era period pieces - before Russell Crowe became the new man of historical action (Gladiator, Master and Commander, and now Robin Hood) - although his filmography heavily favours the action-thriller genre.

    Relatively recent events have seen him lambasted for his drunken racist outbursts, and it has been some seven years since he last head-lined a movie, so it would be an understatement to say that he had fallen out of public favour. But, in his day, he was still thoroughly entertaining. Irrespective of the personal, potentially objectionable, behaviour of big stars like Tom Cruise and Will Smith, Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, one can't help appreciating the movies they make and admiring the performances they give, and Gibson was a prime example of this. Planning a return to the screen for the superior thriller Edge of Darkness (a Hollywood remake of the British TV drama of the same name), there is still time to delight in the highs and lows of his cinematic accolade, and where better to start than the historical Blockbuster epic, Braveheart?

    Now, the trouble with historical epics is that they generally purport to be based on, well, historical fact. And the trouble with history is that there are plenty of gaps which Hollywood often chooses to fill in with exciting but aberrant behaviour. Braveheart is loosely based on the life of one William Wallace, the legendary Scot who engaged in the First War of Scottish Independence, taking on the English King Edward I “Edward Longshanks” with a view to freeing his people. A Scottish landowner, he gained the attention of Longshanks after killing a few English noblemen, but it was not until his successful defeat of a vastly bigger English Army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge that he was really taken seriously - both by his own people and by his enemies. After initiating raids into England to prove that the Scots could attack as much as defend, he was eventually defeated by the English, caught by a traitorous insider and executed brutally.

    In so far as this paragraph goes, Braveheart the movie remains true. But taking much of its influence from a somewhat fictionalised poem about Wallace written two Centuries later, there is also a great deal of historical inaccuracy here. From a cinematic standpoint, the story plots out some nice revenge threads, more meaty political machinations, and a more intriguing love angle involving Princess Isabelle from Spain (who, in reality, did not become a part of the equation until three years' after Wallace's execution).

    It establishes Wallace's initial motivations as those of avenging a loved one, shows his uprising against the nasty, sadistic English opponents as one of pure underdog heroism - even depicting the English as employing a Primae Noctis (the English Noblemen get to bed Scottish wives on their wedding night) at a time when they did not, just to make them seem more evil - and pitches his most glorious battle (Stirling Bridge) in a field, and not on the eventful bridge, whose very collapse led in part to his victory.

    Putting aside these many exaggerations - and just flat out lies - and labelling them as just cinematic glorifications designed to make the movie more exciting and enjoyable, one might ask why they got so many of the more basic period elements wrong: kilts (or, more specifically, belted plaids) didn't come into use until several hundred years' later, nor did clan tartans, and Irish bagpipes were not really prevalent in Scotland, funnily enough. Using familiar Scottish symbols modernised the movie in a way that made it more appealing to pro-Scots Independence, at the expense of historical accuracy. And at what point did aggrandising Braveheart become an attempt to reinvigorate the Scottish Nationalist Party? At what point did it become a flagship vehicle to inspire Anglophobic prejudice?

    “I shall tell you of William Wallace. Historians from England will say I am a liar, but history is written by those who have hanged heroes.”

    Surely the icing on the cake must be the promotion of the notion that all English monarchs from that point were borne from William Wallace's lineage - through his impregnation of Princess (and future Queen) Isabelle? The fact that Isabelle did not even come to England until 3 years' after Wallace died just makes this a blatant - and fairly provocative - lie, and one which surely serves political machinations more than Hollywood entertainment purposes.

    Gibson himself is much to blame in all of this. And I really have no idea why he is so anti-English. Having studied up on his enjoyably entertaining if similarly inaccurate English-bashing romp, The Patriot, to do the Blu-ray review, it is clear that this guy has a few issues. Either that or he is completely oblivious to the fact that painting us as a positively despicable, truly evil nation - purely for cinematically entertaining purposes in globally renowned films - is just plain irresponsible. It has a very real effect as extreme propaganda for more easily swayed Scottish nationlists (and general Anti-English around the globe), who use the lies that it posits as facts to attack the English. Irrespective of the merits of Scottish Independence, and the fact that it could easily be achieved by the Scottish voting in favour of secession from the United Kingdom, Braveheart is not a flagship vehicle upon which to fight the cause, and yet it has very clearly been used (and potentially crafted) as such.

    However, all that aside, taking it as a purely fictional piece of period escapism, Braveheart is an absolute riot, a real underdog's tale about this skilled fighter who unites his farmer-based people to rise up against their evil oppressors, outwitting and outmanoeuvring them, only defeated through treachery on the part of his own men, and only caught through their betrayal as well. There are a couple of massive, well-orchestrated battle sequences (most notably Stirling and Falkirk) which serve to really put you in the thick of things, whilst not belittling the grand scale of the events. There are also plenty of more personal skirmishes - not least during the pivotal opening battles, where Wallace's bloodlust is first sparked - but also later, when his betrayal causes him to take cold revenge on his enemies through surgical assassination missions. Add into that mix an entourage of vivid characters - both good and bad, who are almost all developed enough for you to at least like or loathe them - and you have a great story. This is undeniably entertaining stuff.

    We have all the trademarks of a hero in Mel Gibson's Wallace too - his fight first for his beloved wife, then for his country; his words chosen carefully to make for either pithy comments or grand, rousing speeches; and his actions in battle those of a fearless but not invincible warrior. Gibson needed to be 'persuaded' to take this role but he surely couldn't have been bettered by even the ever-reliable Russell Crowe for patriotic heroics. And his opponent is the perfect epitome of a pantomime villain. Edward Longshanks was renowned for being pretty vicious, but his antics here are just plain evil, Patrick MacGoohan's representation displaying all the trademarks of a scowling Bond bad guy - he is cavalier in battle, prepared to sacrifice his own men to a volley of his own arrows if it will decimate his opponents too; he will happily dispatch his son's confidante/gay lover just to prove how seriously he should be taken; and his diabolical machinations generally involve bribery, betrayal and no-holds-barred violence.

    It's a perfect presentation of ultimate heroism and sacrifice in the face of unforgiveable oppression. It's just a bit too black and white to be anything more than a cinematically engaging, exaggerated skew on reality. Still, the colourful characters are certainly no less than entertaining - and give viewers plenty to root for. Wallace is ably assisted by a disparate group of individuals, first trained as a boy by Brain 'Manhunter' Cox, in a disappointingly fleeting cameo; then paired with Catherine 'Spy Game' McCormack in a tender and innocent initial love story; teaming up with Troy's James Cosmo, Gangs of New York's Brendan Gleeson, Wanted's David O'Hara and Gladiator's Tommy Flanagan to do battle; with some semblance of assistance from Angus 'Equilibrium' MacFadyen as a lacklustre (and far more noble) Robert the Bruce and the gorgeous Sophie Marceau (The World is Not Enough) as Princess Isabelle. That's just to name a few of a many familiar case in this ensemble epic, and they all play fairly interesting, memorable characters, albeit far-removed from historical fact.

    Addressing the issue of homophobia in the movie, it is very difficult not to see how Gibson got it wrong on this front, as he himself eventually showed some regret about the matter - even if he did not ever actually apologise for his derogatory depiction of homosexuality in the movie. Rather than just show it to be something outlawed and frowned upon at the time, he appears to partner it hand-in-hand with wimpish effeminism, this stereotype hard to describe as anything other than bigoted. His portrayal of Edward Longshank's insipid son (husband to Princess Isabelle - at the start of the movie, but after Wallace's death in real life) and future King Edward II, tags his homosexuality as being under his umbrella of negative qualities.

    After looking at the movie with a marginally (well, hopefully at least) more mature mind, I find it difficult not to dissect its inadequacies on the historical front, as it definitely purports to be a fact-based epic, but beyond this level it works extremely well. For 'adult' audiences who are prepared to take this as more of a fantastical, poetical (after all, it was admitted by all involved that this was more based on a fictional poem about Wallace than upon his real life) interpretation of history - painting the picture in broad strokes and bringing it to life with comic-book characters and the mythical vigour of passionate folklore - this is perfect Hollywood entertainment.

    Taking it as a work of fiction, the rousing speeches suddenly become emotive; the heroes and villains coming to life, their respective deaths provoking sentiments of love, loss and hate; and the true underdog story - first fighting for the loss of his beloved, then fighting for the freedom of his country - is resoundingly compelling. You revel in Gibson's war, his journey from innocent boy to guerrilla fighter, freedom fighter, knight and eventually martyr; feeling for his losses and his pain, engaging in his passion and outrage both on and off the battlefield; and by the end of it you can see why his tale won so many Awards. The brutal and epic battle sequences are surely amongst some of the best ever committed to film, the cinematography perfectly capturing the Scottish (and Irish) landscapes, James Horner's familiar score adding to the atmosphere of an already well-crafted period piece populated by authentic-looking villages and castles and the like.

    Braveheart is, in essence, a rip-roaring period actioner, a true classic that must be in that top ten of period epics alongside Spartacus and Gladiator, but since it is also one of the top ten most historically inaccurate movies, it will always be somewhat marred by ostensibly parading itself as a true story when it is, in fact, clearly not. It is a shame, because this is Hollywood spectacle at its best, an easy 10/10 movie brought down because it holds itself out to being more truth than legend, and because - as was clear from its spurring Scottish uprising in the late nineties, and subsequent noteworthy anti-English sentiment - audiences cannot really be trusted to distinguish between fact and fiction.