“What kind of man would defy a king?”
Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan
Synopsis: When his secret bride is executed for assaulting an English soldier who tried to rape her, William Wallace begins a revolt and leads Scottish warriors against the cruel English tyrant who rules Scotland with an iron fist.
In the rugged wilds of 13th Century Scotland, rebellion is in the air. The natives are growing restless and, as if amassing for a 1970s Home International football match, the clans are gathering in large numbers to braid their hair, paint their faces blue and bare their arses at the English. This unrest is inspired, not by the inherent injustice of one people’s subjugation of another or a desire to re-establish a national identity, but because William Wallace (Mel Gibson) is a tad annoyed that some English soldier cut his girlfriend’s throat.
Yes, Braveheart marks a brief but memorable return to the golden days of Hollywood, a time when huge battle scenes were populated by real people rather than figures created by a computer, when the harsh reality of life spent in an inhospitable climate were disregarded in favour of brilliant white teeth, vivid blue eyes and glowing good looks, and when historical accuracy was an inconvenience to which scant attention was ever paid. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that Carry On Henry (1971) is more historically accurate than Braveheart. But those brutal, incredibly violent, battle scenes do provide a flavour of what Gibson is capable of as a director.
Wallace metes out swift tit-for-tat revenge upon the hapless soldier who offed his lassie (Catherine McCormack), and inadvertently begins the rebel movement when other villagers help him kill the other soldiers in the garrison. Before you know it, his legend has spread throughout the land. He is 7ft tall, they say. Wallace cements his reputation by devising the strategy and rallying the wavering troops at the Battle of Stirling Bridge (although the bridge, which was instrumental in the Scot’s victory because it was too narrow for the advancing British army and therefore collapsed under the weight, is nowhere to be seen). His bravery earns the admiration of another Scottish legend, Robert the Bruce (Angus McFadyen) and it’s not long before the Clans are united for the first time and go to war against the army of King Edward I (Patrick McGoohan).
While Braveheart is enjoyable enough if treated as insubstantial fluff, there’s something about the portentous scale of the movie that is hugely irritating. The opening narration of Robert the Bruce states that ‘I shall tell of William Wallace. Historians from England will say I’m a liar, but history is written by those who have hanged heroes,’ thereby setting the tone for the entire movie, and suggesting that there is an element of truth in the often laughably melodramatic tale that unfolds. All English people are rapists and killers; all Scots are noble and principled. King Edward I, portrayed with delicious maleficence by McGoohan, is consumed with — and, metaphorically, by — his desire to crush the Scots by any underhanded means necessary. His son, Prince Edward (Peter Hanly) is a clearly gay participant in a sham, politically-motivated marriage to a French princess (Sophie Marceau) who, of course, falls for the charms of Wallace even before she meets him. That’s right, fact fans, William Wallace knobbed the future Queen of England. Not only that, if what she tells Longshanks on his death bed is the truth, he also impregnated her…
I can’t help feeling there’s something of an anti-British agenda here. Ok, the Scots are technically British, but many of them still don’t really see themselves as a part of the Union. Mel Gibson’s prejudices are well documented — and are a fatal character flaw when combined with a fondness for liquor — and this tendency towards anti-British sentiment is apparent in other movies in which he has appeared — Gallipoli, for example, which invents a British officer to replace the Australian one who was actually responsible for the ill-fated charge that cost so many Australian soldiers their lives. Like it or not, movie stars like Gibson (or, in his case, former movie stars) have a disproportionate amount of influence over the opinions of people who aren’t well-informed on the subjects of their films, and with Braveheart Gibson, aided by scriptwriter Randall Wallace, shamelessly abuses that influence while taking the opportunity, as director, to include as many lingering shots of his own leonine-wigged features as he can.
(Reviewed 21st March 2013)