Monday, March 12, 2012

History vs. Narrative

Film: Braveheart
Format: VHS from personal collection on big ol’ television.

In this world, post Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic, drunken tirade, it’s difficult to remember that Gibson was once an extremely talented actor and filmmaker. There was a time when people would go to see something specifically because he was in it, and more often than not, they’d be happy with the results. Gibson made a transition from good looking action guy to more thoughtful fare slowly. Even his more cerebral, meaningful stuff, like Braveheart, comes with a load of action and violence. Gibson’s name was crap for some time, a reality that he’s still sort of fighting against (last year’s The Beaver grossed less than $1 million). It’s instructive at times to remember why this guy was so damn popular and seemed to be made of Teflon for years. Even his shitty movies didn’t seem to affect his popularity, drawing power, or appeal.

No film cemented his reputation as a serious actor and filmmaker more than Braveheart. This was Gibson at the height of his acting chops and at the moment he became not a guy making movies but a true filmmaker. In many ways, Braveheart is sort of a tipping point for Gibson’s career. Up to this point, with a few forays into other genres, most of Gibson’s output was action or the occasional action-fueled comedy. After, Gibson seemed set on essentially remaking Braveheart in other, more American, patriotic forms or going the full-on religious route, with Apocalypto being a noteworthy exception.

This makes Braveheart important in Gibson’s career, but it’s an important film for other reasons as well. It is in many ways a return to or at least a continuation of the concept of epic filmmaking that had returned to vogue in the ‘90s. Braveheart clocks in at close to three full hours, and along the way, it goes through some very specific segments of film style. There’s no doubt from the opening scenes and narration that we’ll be going to war eventually, but that’s not where we spend much of the first hour.

We start with the young William Wallace (played as a youth by James Robinson). His father (Sean Lawlor) and brother (Sandy Nelson) head off to battle and come back dead, leaving William in the care of his uncle, Argyle (Brian Cox). Argyle takes William on pilgrimage to Rome and through France, and William returns later in life, ready to settle down and raise (as he says) crops and a family. And now he’s Mel Gibson. He encounters a few old friends, particularly Hamish (Brendan Gleeson), Hamish’s father (James Cosmo), and Murran (Catherine McCormack), who he has rather carried a torch for in his long absence. There is a brief, whirlwind romance between the two, and they marry in secret to avoid the problem of primae noctis, allowing the feudal lord bed rights for any woman on the night of her wedding.

Of course, it all goes to pot when Murran is accosted by a few English soldiers and fights off a rape. Wallace comes to her aid and tries to lead the soldiers away, but Murran is captured, accused of inciting rioting against the king, and has her throat cut. And this action, which happens relatively early in the film, fuels Wallace’s rage for the next several hours.

Of course, it all comes down to unbridled rage at the English king of the time, Edward I, called Longshanks (and played by the strikingly awesome Patrick McGoohan). Longshanks is depicted in the film as a brutal tyrant, capable of any atrocity to expand his own territories. His son, who would eventually become Edward II (Peter Hanly) is effeminate and depicted as gay and weak, which is one of the few aspects of this film that is at least marginally correct; Edward II is historically thought of as bisexual. Regardless, Edward’s queen, Isabella of France (Sophie Marceau) is often sent into diplomatic missions with the idea that she might succeed, but if she were to be killed, she’d be no real loss.

And there’s lots of fighting. Wallace fights the British, the British lay traps for Wallace, and he kills pretty much anything that stands in his way or appears to stop him from killing more English people. It’s all about the death and destruction here, and Braveheart really pulls not a single punch. The war scenes are filled not with gratuitous violence, but realistic violence. We see limbs and heads removed, skulls crushed, and blood aplenty. No one dies with a sword through the ribs and a spot of blood. Instead, we get military picks driven through helmets and into the brains beneath. Battles end with everyone covered in gore.

There are a few other things worth mentioning here as well. I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the role of Robert the Bruce (Angus McFadyen). Of all the characters in the film, he is one of my favorites because of the way in which he is depicted. This is a man who would eventually become the king of Scotland, but in this film is merely learning what it means to be a ruler of men. He gets advice from his father (Ian Bannen), who remains hidden due to leprosy. His advice seems to come directly out of Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Robert finds himself perpetually battling between doing what his father wishes and doing instead what he feels is right. Of all the characters in the film, it is Robert the Bruce who undergoes significant changes, makes mistakes, pays a price for them, and learns from his errors.

I also need to discuss Stephen (David O’Hara), the insane Irishman who shows up around the middle of the film. Stephen is borderline insane, but also cunning and a hell of a warrior. He injects a necessary bit of insanity, levity, and comedy into the final mix. While certainly there are those who might not be his fans in the world, I don’t know any of them. I think the guy is great, and he easily makes the film for me, if only because he’s not so completely serious all the time once the killing starts.

It is the end of the film that most people remember, of course, because it is the end of the film that is the most powerful. Wallace, finally captured and to be put to death faces his stoutest test, and, of course, finds a way to inspire the masses when he meets it. If you’ve seen this, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, well, you should watch it.

The biggest issue with Braveheart as a film is that it is completely inaccurate in almost every aspect. Yes, there was a guy named William Wallace, and he did fight against the English. He was eventually captured and executed. And just about nothing else is true to the narrative. Even the essential plot element of primae noctis is a fabrication—the rule certainly existed, but there’s no evidence that Longshanks ever used it. Couple this with the fact that Edward II married Isabella after Wallace’s death, and you’ve got a film in which virtually all pieces of accuracy were sacrificed on the altar of narrative. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it’s a true thing. It also makes me wonder if the real story isn’t compelling enough, why film it?

If I want to go disturbing on this, there’s some evidence that this film was instrumental in a rise of Scots nationalism and anti-British sentiment. Couple this with some of Gibson’s later behavior, and one has to wonder if perhaps this film wasn’t the beginning of Mel Gibson going controversial and dividing as well as entirely historically inaccurate. Food for thought, no?

Why to watch Braveheart: Mel Gibson at his best and before the crazy set in.
Why not to watch: To paraphrase John O’Farrell, it couldn’t be more historically inaccurate if it included a clay dog and were named William Wallace and Gromit.


  1. Ha, I have to review this for an assessment at school and our introductions are pretty much the same. Except, I didn't really care for the movie - it was good, but I thought it was way too Hollywood. Anyway, Mel was at his best here, what the hell happened?!

  2. It is way too Hollywood. I understand a little artistic license here and there, but Braveheart is essentially fiction. It's also not that surprising that Gibson went on to create films that followed the same hyper-patriotic formula as his career continued. People with extreme opinions have a tendency to rewrite history as they wish it to be, not as it was.

  3. Braveheart is a great film but by no means perfect. I never really delved into how historically accurate it was or not - thanks for point out that this movie should NOT be taken as historical fact.

  4. I like this film quite a bit. One of my favorite stories about it, which ties into what you were saying at the end, is after it stirred them up the Scots decided to erect a statue in tribute to William Wallace, but no one knew what he looked like - so they made the statue look like Mel Gibson.

    Another Gibson story - way back in the 80s I read a long interview with him (where he said many of the things he has now been criticized for saying more recently) and at the end I thought to myself, "this guy's an asshole." The next day at work I was telling a female co-worker about some of the things he said. She said she didn't care; he was too good looking. She then went on to say that when she was younger she and a few female friends used to have a thing for a guy in their neighborhood. They knew he was not a good guy, but they didn't care because he was so handsome. When he would do bad things to them, they would comfort themselves by saying, "right now he's a Greek god, but in 20 years he'll be a goddamn Greek". Well, it's coming up on 20 years from the height of Gibson's popularity. It seems like he's just as much of a jerk as he ever was, but now he doesn't have the looks left to be forgiven it.

  5. I've only seen the first half of this film. I walked out of it. Not because it was bad - it wasn't - but because they had announced the wrong running time for it. It was at least an hour longer than we had thought, which meant that we had to get back to release the babysitter. We were offered new tickets but we never got around to use them to watch it a second time. I suppose I should complete it one day but the running time is a bit daunting.

  6. @Alex--yeah, it's not close to perfect. The ending, for instance, is designed to be soul-stirring and dramatic in the moment, but after the fact is pretty melodramatic and mockable.

    @Chip--Nicely stated. Gibson may still have the looks, though, but I'm not much of a judge. However, there's certainly a lot of evidence for what you say. The hyper-attractive can always afford to be more high maintenance than the rest of us. As for the Scots' statue, at least it's as historically accurate as the film.

    @Jessica--This is a film that feels shorter than its running time. Once you get past the initial romance stuff, the film is really a lot of battles, planning for battles, and intrigue. It feels like two hours even though it's close to three.