August 29, 2013

Movie Review: Braveheart (1995)

There's a difference between us. You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom. And I go to make sure that they have it.. - William Wallace (Mel Gibson)

Director: Mel Gibson

Writer: Randall Wallace

Producesr: Stephen McEveety, Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey and Alan Ladd Jr.

Studio: 20th Century Fox, Paramount

Major Stars: Mel Gibson, Brian Cox, Patrick McGoohan, Sophie Marceau, Angus Macfayden, James Cosmo, Brendan Gleeson, Catherine McCormack

What do you do with a problem like Braveheart? A film of undeniable craftsmanship and stunning scenery and action, it is also completely detached from the history it claims to represent.

Let’s talk about the good stuff first. Braveheart is an expertly-directed and shot film. The characters are well-written and memorable. The battle-scenes are fantastic. Especially the Battle of Stirling Bridge, which is one of the best battles I have ever seen on film.

There is real emotion in the film. The death of Wallace’s first wife is heart-breaking, and the palpable anger it creates in Wallace drives him in all he does. There are also some wonderfully funny lines, mostly courtesy of Mad Stephen (David O’Hara), the self-proclaimed King of Ireland.

And the scenery…wow. Just beautiful vistas of mountain-tops, fields wrapped with low-lying fog…amazing. You can hardly tell the battles were shot in Ireland while much of the rest of Braveheart was shot in Scotland.

And the actors/actresses are wonderful. Partick McGoohan is enjoyably detestable as Edward I, aka Edward Longshanks, King of England. Sophie Marceau does a nice job a Princess Isabelle, wife to Edward’s son and Wallace’s secret lover. And Gibson is charismatic as hell in the role of William Wallace. He dominates the story and the screen as he should.

There is a lot to like about this movie. The problem is that most of what there is to like is set up by using a blatantly false and inaccurate history. Here are just a few problems:

  • Scotsmen at this time didn’t wear kilts or paint their faces
  • Edward I didn’t claim the throne of Scotland when Alexander III died in 1286. He claimed it when John Balliol rebelled against him in 1297. Wallace’s uprising began one year later to restore Balliol.
  • Wallace’s father wasn’t a farmer. He was a knight and landed gentleman. William Wallace never ran around in rags; he was a nobleman
  • Bagpipes were never banned in Scotland at that time.
  • Isabelle and Wallace never met, let alone slept with one another.
  • There were no Irish troops at the Battle of Falkirk
  • As great as the Battle of Stirling Bridge was in the movie, it was actually fought at the bridge and not in a big open field. That was how the Scots won; by using the bridge to break up the larger English force.
  • The “Prima Nocte” was never instituted by Edward in Scotland. Or anywhere else for that matter.

And that doesn’t come close to listing all the inaccuracies.

Braveheart is the first film on this list to really force the question of “How important is historical accuracy in a war film?” On the one hand, it is undoubtedly a beautifully-made film and a multiple-Oscar winner. On the other hand, its history is an absolute mess and a lot of the beats in the movie depend on distorting or ignoring the historical record.

It’s one thing for a movie to use a historical time-period to tell a fictional tale. I am pretty sure that during World War Two there was never a gang of convicts sent on an impossible mission (The Dirty Dozen) or that a tank crew went haring off on its own to find some gold (Kelly’s Heroes). But those movies never claimed to be telling a true story, so you don’t hold that against them.

Whereas in Braveheart, the first line of dialogue we hear is the narrator telling us “I shall tell you of William Wallace.” And then proceeds to tell an almost-entirely fictional tale of his life. That should be held against the film. Look at it this way; did you hold it against Michael Bay in Pearl Harbor when he had FDR stand up out of his wheelchair or portrayed James Doolittle as a loud-mouthed moron? Then you should hold the kilts and Isabelle against Gibson.

It’s a tough call trying to decide how much the history should count in a film that declares it is telling history, when the distortion of that history creates a well-made film like Braveheart. And then deciding where to put it on the current list. Taken as a straight film, the quality puts it up there with Saving Private Ryan and A Bridge Too Far. Go with the history and this film is more in the area of Waterloo and Enemy at the Gates*.

At the end of the day, it has to be recognized that a blatant disregard for history drives a movie that claims to tell us of history. And while Braveheart is a wonderful film in almost every other way, that has to count against it. I’m placing Braveheart ahead of The Bridges of Toko-Ri but behind Where Eagles Dare. I know that is outside of the mainstream of thought surrounding the film, where it usually scores higher. But accuracy has to count in a film that purports to tell an accurate tale. On that count, Braveheart fails miserably.

But it succeeds at everything else. And it’s still an upper-echelon film. Definitely make Braveheart a part of your collection and enjoy it for the story it tells. Just don’t make the mistake of believing it’s true.


* And this doesn't bring up the other issue with this film...Gibson himself. Ever since his anti-Semitic rants made him toxic in Hollywood, you can't approach his films the same way. Can you separate the actor from his film? I have to admit, it is hard for me because of what Gibson said.


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