Mel Gibson has a reputation for the historic blockbuster and Braveheart is his best. Since the screenplay was written by Randall Wallace, a descendant of the film’s hero, you might expect a bit of bias, and there is. The voiceover tells us whose side we are on.
‘I will tell you of William Wallace. Historians from England will say I am a liar. But history is written by those who have hung [sic] heroes.’
Edward ‘the longshanks’ (Edward I, king of England, played by an oily and deeply unfeeling Patrick McGoohan in one of his finest roles) is the ‘baddie’, along with all Englishmen and the Scots are the ‘goodies’ (although some of them blur the edges of morality a bit when they join the English).
We first see William Wallace – Braveheart – as a small boy whose father has been butchered in battle. He grows to become Mel Gibson, is taught Latin and swordplay, marries a local girl who is murdered by the English and he is on the warpath from then on. Rather than pay the annual tribute and taxes to their English overlords, Wallace takes them on and beats them at their own game at the Battle of Stirling.
Braveheart has the best medieval battle scenes I have seen, with Welsh longbowmen, heavily armoured knights and Scotsmen wearing nothing under their kilts. When one of the English generals has his head cut off at the battle’s climax, the audience in the cinema on the night I saw the film first all cheered – and that was in a cinema in England!
But Mel’s Wallace is not just a street fighter. He’s a hero and he tries to get the squabbling Scots nobility to work together and to persuade the oddly-wussy Robert the Bruce to lead them. Betrayed, Wallace ends up being drawn and quartered at Smithfield, but even in all that pain, he still has the sangfroid to yell ‘Freedom!’ which is the film’s main theme.
The last scene is magnificent – ‘In the year of our Lord 1314, patriots of Scotland, starving and outnumbered, charged the fields of Bannockburn. They fought like warrior poets. They fought like Scotsmen. And won their freedom. Forever.’ And with Wallace’s iconic hand-and-a-half sword sailing through the air in triumph, we all left the cinema feeling like Scotsmen too!
After a while, reality dawns and you start to quibble. Where did that blue war paint come from? The Britons had used in thirteen centuries earlier, but it is not Medieval. Edward I was not a nice man – he had trounced the Welsh before taking on the Scots, but he didn’t make a habit of throwing his son’s friends out of castle windows. As for Wallace sleeping with the Princess of Wales, played by the lovely Sophie Marceau (yes, she was French, so that’s right) the least said the better.
Like most men of his time, Wallace was not above murder when it suited him. Even so, his hacking down of a rival while the man knelt at an altar was pretty extreme even by the standards of the time and of course is nowhere in the film.
It’s also a bit of a con to suggest that Bannockburn was a spur of the moment thing – the Scots army appeared to capitulate to the English and then beat them – because Robert the Bruce had already dug huge concealed pits the night before unto which the English chivalry rode. And next time you watch it, keep an eye on Wallace’s famous cleadh mor (his sword). One minute it’s strapped to his back; the next it’s not; then it’s there again. By the way, you can’t draw one of those things over your shoulder with one hand – they’re too long and clumsy.
But I am being too picky – it comes from being married to an historian, probably. I loved Braveheart; Mel’s flawless Scots accent (in fact, just Mel, at his peak); a cast to die for; haunting music by James Horner; a real feel of period costume; gorgeous Scots and Irish scenery.
The problem with historical films is that you’ve got to tell a story simply and if the story flags here and there, you’ve got to pep it up to keep the interest. On balance, Braveheart does that pretty well.