BRAVEHEART is an important motion picture. It won 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, it transformed Mel Gibson from the star of the MAD MAX and LETHAL WEAPON movies to a respected director, and it became a point of pride for people of Scottish descent all around the world, or at least in the U.S., I don’t know. So I figured there was only one way to properly celebrate the 20th anniversary of the film’s release: get around to watching it for the first time. See what the deal is.
Mel Gibson (the star of the MAD MAX and LETHAL WEAPON movies) plays William Wallace, a rugged young goofball and champion rock thrower returning to his village after years of absence after the war deaths of his father and brother. He gets home just in time to witness the English declaring prima nocta, best known as that thing that Tony Stark jokes about in THE AVENGERS 2, but it means the royalty are allowed to rape your wife. Even back then it was not considered cool at all.
But William goes about life as normal and he falls in love with a gal named Murron (Catherine McCormack, THE WEIGHT OF WATER, 28 WEEKS LATER) and he marries her in secret (Anakin style) so as not to attract wife-raping royal scum. But some asshole comes and kills his wife so he gets revenge and then becomes a revolutionary and leads a ragtag army of guerrillas and kills like seven thousand people and spends most of the movie covered in war paint and/or blood. But he’s still pretty charming for the most part and has a good sense of humor including mooning, etc.
I believe the battle scenes were considered pretty new at the time, and they hold up well. I’m not usually the biggest fan of big swarms of muddy dudes running at each other yelling and swinging swords and axes, but director Mel Gibson (APOCALYPTO) orchestrates it with what I believe they call “aplomb.” Yes, you have metal clanging against metal and grunting and what not, but with the amount of stabbings, choppings, impalings, and bodies crumbling underfoot, turning into piles, laying and bleeding and turning white, it gives a real sense of the damage that was being done.
(Note: Some credit due to Mel Gibson stunt double/second unit director/stunt coordinator Mic Rodgers, director of UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: THE RETURN.)
Wallace’s first uprising is smaller scale, and he’s very agile, running around, climbing, almost parkouring, and throwing rocks. He’s a wily underdog outsmarting his more powerful, but also more uptight foes. In one badass scene he and his guys attack an officer while they’re wearing the armor of the English soldiers. Their enemy warns that 100 soldiers are on their way back and he says “Were they dressed like this?” Gulp.
Then the first large scale battle, about halfway through the 3 hour movie, uses alot of strategy. The Scots are portrayed like the Bad News Bears of medieval warfare. They’re hairy, mismatched and grungy. They yip and shout and expose their asses and seem to be having a great time taunting the opposing army, who are led by snooty classists who have very nice matching armor and carefully lined up rows of archers, horsemen, etc.
One step of Wallace’s plan involves letting them shoot their arrows, and blocking with their clunky wooden shields. Once the shower of arrows subsides they stand up again and cheer and act like everything is fine, but it’s interesting because you do see and hear a bunch of them getting horribly nailed, surely killed or destined for lots and lots of severe pain. They don’t get out clean, they just act like it.
This is leading to a step where they trick the horsemen into running at them and then pull up the wooden spears they carved, and I gotta say, the bloody stabbing of the horses has got to be the most disgusting part of this violent, trimmed-to-avoid-NC-17 movie. So bravo on that one. That’s A Film By Mel Gibson all right. Whether or not he’s trying to glorify war he does not make it look pretty.
You can draw all kinds of historical and political parallels to a story like this, and I know macho people have used the movie as a rallying cry for all sorts of causes that I wouldn’t agree with. Me, watching it for the first time in 2015, it’s hard not to see the English at least at the beginning as a parallel to the United States military of this century, since we’ve spent so many years occupying other countries. The English are tolerated, but feared and unwelcome. They see themselves as different from the locals and treat them disrespectfully, and sometimes flat-out abusively, until the natives get fed up and fight back with their meager forces. “Hit, run, hide. The highland way.” Insurgents, basically.
But also the English remind me of our majority white police forces coming in from other counties to patrol majority black neighborhoods, seeing them as something other, not understanding or respecting their culture. If the English in this movie made fun of the Scots’ braids and kilts, would it be much different from white cops taunting kids for their slang or their pants hanging low? Wallace tries to just live with it, but then they go too far. They kill his wife. It’s like they killed Radio Raheem. Maybe in the cold light of day he shouldn’t throw the trash can through the window, but they fucking killed Radio Raheem. That’s how Wallace is thinking when he starts his rampage.
(But where are his parents? Well, they’re dead.)
Wallace even has a “hands up, don’t shoot” moment, except in his case they should’ve shot him because he was playing a trick and pulls nunchakas out of his hair. Holy shit, this explains alot. You know most cops have to have seen BRAVEHEART. So they see a guy with his hands up, they think he’s reaching for his hair-nunchakas.
As the rebellion starts, the powers that be call Wallace a “brigand” and “common thief” instead of a “thug.” But he and his people go line up and face off with a force that overwhelms them in number, armor and weaponry. It seems like they can’t win and some of them go home but most of them feel they have to do it to stand up for themselves. And some of them (Wallace) want to “pick a fight,” like people always say about protesters. I mean, it’s all there. #ScottishLivesMatter
You know what, I know they killed Mrs. Braveheart, but right now the community needs to keep calm and stay peaceful, maybe have a brief candlelight vigil but then get off the streets and make sure there is no looting.
As a violent adventure movie it’s really effective. Gibson’s Wallace is very compelling, a prototype of throbbing manliness, a great warrior, a sweetheart with ladies, a man with a code, a bit of a psychopath. And though Gibson mostly got props for coming into his own as a director here, I think his acting performance is also really good. I chose that thumbnail at the top because of the sad look on his face. He does a good job of showing signs of a broken victim of tragedy underneath all the warrior bravado. Also he does a good job of the warrior bravado. I’m sure his Scottish accent is probly terrible according to most people, but I was fine with it.
As Wallace becomes more legendary the movie takes on the feel of a tall tale. Two scenes pretty much in a row are so outrageous I kept expecting them to be dream sequences. First, an English royal has nightmares about Wallace riding a horse in front of a bunch of fire. The moment he wakes up Wallace actually kicks down his fucking door on a horse, rides in and swings a metal ball to smash his head in. Then he rides the horse up the stairs and out the window! It’s like he’s Candyman or something.
Then Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau, THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH), beard of the King’s gay son Prince Edward (Peter Hanly), discovers Wallace in her home, asking why she helped him by warning about an ambush that she considered dishonorable. As he’s talking to her he puts his arm up and flexes a veiny bicep. He looks like the painted cover of a romance novel. We’ve already seen her discussing his legend with her friend, who swooned as she talked about him killing everybody because of what they did to his wife. And she has this gay husband who won’t touch her. She yearns for A Real Man. She has to look away because if she makes eye contact she will have no choice but to flip that kilt up and go for it. And then she decides yeah, I will make eye contact and all the sudden they’re goin at it. And this is not a dream, this is supposed to be what actually happens. It works as steamy romance I think but it’s got this vibe of Ha ha, Scotland fucked your princess. I’m surprised there’s not a scene with the king crying because Wallace’s dick is so much bigger than his. And a part where we find out how much Wallace can bench.
I believe at the time there was some criticism about the movie being homophobic. Prince Edward is a sniveling, effeminate, coward who is always disappointing the king not just because he’s girly but because he doesn’t do jack shit. He’s referred to as a “sodomite,” he pushes Isabelle away, she hates him, she dreams of fucking a man’s man and then she does.
Edward has a hunky “adviser” (the quotes are implied in the scene but the real guy it’s based on really was his adviser) named Phillip (Stephen Billington, DRACULA II: ASCENSION) who looks like Karl Urban and tries to make him stand up to the King (Patrick McGoohan, who followed this with THE PHANTOM) and help him with military strategy, but the King throws the poor guy out a window. Allegedly some crowds laughed and cheered this, which does not seem like Gibson’s intent to me. The King is the main villain of the movie and this is clearly meant as a despicable act, but I can’t defend the performance by Hanly as the prince. By all evidence the character is a victim, a man not allowed to live his own life, whose lover is horribly murdered by his father, and who is shamed just for not wanting to be in charge of a war. But he plays him as a total bad guy prick. There is no way he’s trying to have some kind of dimension to this character. You are supposed to hate him. (Phillip seems nice, though.)
For a while I thought the movie was surprisingly respectful of women. Murron, during her short life on screen, has a strong presence and good chemistry with Gibson. She defies her parents and seems to know what she’s doing. Later, when he meets Isabelle, he respects her because she reminds him of Murron’s “strength,” he says. She seems like the smartest and most honorable of the royals. She goes on a diplomatic mission where she’s supposed to try to bribe Wallace, but respects him for not taking it, and she donates the gold to the poor instead of bringing it back. She knows the right thing to do is to warn Wallace about the King’s trap, and is smart enough to play dumb about it. And sure enough his majesty tells her “You may go back to your embroidery.”
I really like her character and her relationship with Wallace, but when you find out she’s doing all this because she wants to fuck him it sort of ruins it. Even if it leads to a little bit of soap opera justice when she gets to whisper to the king on his deathbed that his heir will actually be the bastard son of William Wallace. That’s like something that would happen on Empire.
Wallace also has an interesting relationship with Robert the Bruce (Angus MacFadyen, TITUS, EQUILIBRIUM, SAW III–IV), a more privileged, pretty-boy Scotsman whose father convinces him to betray Wallace. But they really respect each other so there’s a real “why you sonofabitch” moment where Wallace is fighting this knight and the helmet comes off and it’s Robert, who had promised an army that never arrived to back him up. It’s a cool scene because Wallace doesn’t rage like you’d expect, he just looks absolutely crushed. I thought we were bros. He lets him live and it has a profound effect on Robert. He never stops feeling guilty, and he tells off his old man and basically seems to idolize this guy who has so much more honor than him. And he’s like “I’m never gonna fuckin sell out again!” like a director after he gets screwed over by a studio.
I knew Wallace was gonna get tortured and executed (SPOILER), and of course Gibson is big on the idea of being manly by withstanding horrible pain. He did it with Jesus, he did it with Porter in the theatrical cut of PAYBACK. Wallace even spits out a potion that would’ve made it hurt less. It’s important to him to not whimper or cry when they do their worst to him, and Gibson gives a very good “withstanding pain” performance, probly getting a little roughed up for real during the filming.
The construction of the scene is kinda cruel to the audience. I’m sure many people went in not knowing the ending and figuring he’ll be victorious in some way. So they string him up and then you see his two best friends in the crowd, hoods pulled up to cover their eyes, trying to look inconspicuous. In normal movie language that means they’re planning to swash some buckles and do some derring. Throw him a knife, swing on a rope, jump on a horse, whatever. But they’re not gonna do that. They’re just there to see what happens.
Meanwhile the King is on his deathbed choking. Is he gonna die, and his asshole son is gonna take over, and Isabelle is gonna be like “step aside and let a real woman do her job!” and she’s gonna save the day? And also Robert the Bruce is there, and he is outraged at his own father for betraying Wallace, and he feels guilty for when he betrayed him, maybe he’s gonna redeem himself by stopping the execution somehow?
And also the crowd starts chanting “Mercy! Mercy!” And I think that means they changed their minds and don’t want him to die? Are the people gonna save the day?
But nope, they cut off Wallace’s head. That there are all these people there who know it’s wrong, and none of them even feel they can try to stop it, makes Gibson’s damning of whatever system you take this movie to be about even more powerful. Because it’s true. Even people in powerful positions feel helpless to stop some of the horrible shit that goes on in our world. So they just stand by and watch.
(By the way, I really thought this scene was gonna be more gruesome. For some reason I heard he got drawn and quartered, and it’s not that bad. It’s kind of a long torment but it’s not that graphic.)
Whenever I see a true story or historical type movie I like to crank up the ol’ wikipedia machine afterwards and find out how true-ish it is. So I got a good laugh learning that this is considered one of the most historically inaccurate modern movies. Some of it is based on an exaggerated epic poem, some of it just movie magic. Wallace didn’t really grow up under occupation and yearn for freedom he’d never experienced – the invasion happened the year before he started fighting. They don’t know if he really had a wife, so that’s probly not what set him off, and he definitely didn’t fuck the princess or impregnate her, since she was a kid then and only married Edward when he was already a king and had the child in question 7 years after Wallace’s death. Also it was funny to read that they didn’t even wear kilts or plaid at that time and the characters in the movie wore them incorrectly even for other time periods. That reminded me of how Gibson’s excellent and totally inaccurate APOCALYPTO apparently mixed together things that were hundreds of years apart in Mayan history.
There’s also a funny story about a statue based on the movie being installed in the parking lot at the Wallace Memorial. It was widely hated and somebody smashed its face in so they had to start locking it in a cage to protect it.
FREEDOM! Eventually they gave the statue back to the artist. Another thing that would be cool would be if they just changed it to a MAD MAX, LETHAL WEAPON or PAYBACK statue. I’m sure people would’ve been more okay with something like that.
See, this is why you do these 20 year waiting periods on certain movies. In the thick of it winning all those awards and being cheered on by pumped up audiences it would’ve bothered me more that it was totally full of shit and had those homophobic parts and stuff. Now I can see the problems with it and also the strengths. It’s a somewhat crazy, but well-made and entertaining movie from a very talented and troubled individual whose movies I enjoy although I don’t always agree with them.
And that’s okay. I can appreciate it without entirely endorsing it. I’m not gonna be all pure and William Wallace about it.
Despite the great success of BRAVEHEART (including the 10 Oscar nominations and 5 wins) Gibson did not direct again until THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST in 2004. But that was his start as a writer-director and was another huge cultural phenomenon. After that it was APOCALYPTO in 2006 and one he’s working on now. He continued as an actor, including LETHAL WEAPON 4 and PAYBACK, but incidents with drunk driving, domestic violence, anti-semitic and racist comments in 2006 and 2010 seem to have irrevocably damaged his reputation, slowing down his career. His best film of this period, GET THE GRINGO, pretty much went straight to video.
Writer Randall Wallace had previously been a TV writer (Hunter, Starman, Sonny Spoon) but after this went on to direct THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK, WE WERE SOLDIERS (starring Gibson), SECRETARIAT and HEAVEN IS FOR REAL. He also wrote PEARL HARBOR and Gibson’s upcoming HACKSAW RIDGE.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.