The brain is one of the most incredible devices that God ever conceived. Admittedly, this statement is fueled by a bit of egotism. I love my brain, and I am thankful for it. But it does some odd things sometimes, and in those moments I talk to it in the third person as if there were a gremlin inhabiting my skull. I offer this brief explanation to contextualize why you are getting so many Mel Gibson movie reviews close together. You see, I watched Maverick (1994) a few days after viewing Braveheart (1995), and typically I like to do my reviews in the order in which I see them. It helps keep them straight in my mind, anyway. Still, Mel Gibson’s Scottish epic has been with us long enough, and I have seen it so many times, that I feel comfortable writing this now five days on from my viewing.
Late thirteenth and early fourteenth century Scotland was a crazy place, as Braveheart demonstrates throughout. Young William Wallace (James Robinson) witnesses the devastation caused by the occupying English firsthand when his father, Malcolm (Sean Lawlor), is summoned to a meeting of the heads of the clans to hear the terms of Kind Edward I (Patrick McGoohan), also known as Longshanks. He is late, and when he enters the rude hut where the conference is to occur, he finds everyone dead, hanging from the rafters. This triggers a full-on rebellion amongst the clans that Malcolm takes part in, along with his eldest son John (Sandy Nelson). Both die in battle, leaving William an orphan. He is taken in by his more worldly uncle Argyle (Brian Cox), and he leaves to learn Latin and French and other subjects. In the intervening years, King Edward I grows increasingly frustrated with the recalcitrant Scots and enacts a series of increasingly crueler laws in an attempt to quell them. It is around this time that the right of prima nocta, which King Edward I believes will breed the rebellion out of the Scots. A grownup Wallace (Mel Gibson) returns to his ancestral home as one of the English rulers asserts this right on the wedding day of one of the locals, taking the bride for himself. When others are angered by this act and want to do something about it, they turn to Wallace for help. He protests a desire for peace, mostly because he is intent on settling down and marrying his boyhood crush, Murron (Catherine McCormack), and leading a quiet life. Her parents are not totally on board with this, but they marry in secret anyway. Unfortunately, the next day one of the soldiers of the local English garrison takes an unsavory liking to Murron, and attempts to rape her. Wallace is able to come to her aid, but is unable to see her safely away. She is then tied to a stake and summarily executed. This is what sends Wallace over the edge, and he and a group of locals overwhelm and murder the garrison. They go on to repeat this in a number of other towns, gathering more supporters along the way. They also defeat an English army sent to deal with the new uprising. So successful do Wallace and his followers become that the Scottish court is forced to recognize his achievements, knighting him and naming him guardian of the kingdom. He next marches on the Northern English town of York, taking it. From there, King Edward I sends his son’s, Prince Edward (Peter Hanly), wife Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau) to negotiate with Wallace. This is a ruse on the part of King Edward I to buy more time and turn the Scottish barons, chief among the future Scottish king Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen), to his side. King Edward I then marches into Scotland at the head of the army himself, and is able to route Wallace’s forces at the battle of Falkirk. As the struggle comes to a close, a wounded Wallace comes face-to-face with a traitorous Robert the Bruce, and is stunned by the revelation. Yet, he carries on resisting the English, this time fighting more of a guerilla style war and aided by the infatuated Princess Isabelle, whose husband seems keen on more unconventional fare. Wallace stills wants to see a united Scotland, though, and accepts an invitation from Robert the Bruce to reconcile their differences. Unfortunately, this is part of a plot hatched by his father (Ian Bannen) to turn over Wallace to the English and secure his son’s position. Though King Edward I lays dying, and Princess Isabelle is pleading for Wallace’s life, Wallace is hung, drawn, quartered, and beheaded. Not a fun way to go. Still, he apparently becomes a martyr for the Scottish cause, for Robert the Bruce is able to rally Scotland and defeat the English at Bannockburn at the close of the film.
As one who holds a terminal degree in history, I would be remiss if I did not comment somewhat on the history presented in Braveheart. In short, it is a joke. Undoubtedly, the primary characters in it existed, though that is almost where the film’s reliance on historical facts ends. To be fair, Scotland did desire to be free of English rule, and Wallace was executed in London. Yet, the film seems to suggest that King Edward I is on the verge of passing away when Wallace meets his end. In truth, the English kind would live another two years. There are so many other little instances in the movie that likely never happened, and it should be noted that people were not wearing the patterned kilts as you see with all the Scottish characters. Also, King Edward I never instituted prima nocta anywhere, let alone in Scotland. However, the biggest problem is that there is so little actually known about William Wallace other than he existed, and that there was a mutual hatred between him and the English. This is a classic case of Hollywood’s overdramatization of the past.
One thing that I do appreciate about Braveheart, though, is how they show Faith as being part of the fabric of every-day life. You see it with priests being all over the film. You can make the tired argument that this would, of course, be the case given Gibson’s well-known religious beliefs. Even though the movie gets so much history wrong, it should receive credit for showing how people at that time viewed the world around them through the lens of Faith. This is summed up well when Wallace tells Princess Isabelle that he had been given nothing, but that it is God who makes us who we are. It shows a reliance on God that he takes with him to his death when we see him praying for strength to face his execution. Needless to say, it stands in stark contrast to our modern world.
With its historical inaccuracies, its violence, and brief moments of needless nudity, I do know if I would recommend Braveheart if you have not already seen it. Oddly enough, it won five academy awards including Best Picture and Best Director for Mel Gibson. Then again, since when has Hollywood cared about historical accuracy?