Prior to his 2006 fall from grace due to a drunken, anti-Semitic rant that immediately blacklisted him in Hollywood, Mel Gibson had transitioned, à la Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford before him, from hunky movie star to now-you-really-have-to-take-him-seriously iconic filmmaker. The zenith of that trajectory (with Gibson doing triple-threat duty as producer-director-star) was the epic, almost-three-hour-long “Braveheart.”
Scotland Versus England
Set in the Scottish Highlands in the late 13th century, “Braveheart” opens with one of the most haunting, brilliant soundtracks in movie history, over which Scottish nobleman Sir Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen) narrates the following monologue:
“I shall tell you of William Wallace. Historians from England will say I am a liar. But history was written by those who have hanged heroes. The king of Scotland had died without a son. And the king of England, a cruel pagan known as “Edward the Longshanks,” claimed the throne of Scotland for himself …
After a nightmarish establishing scene in which young William (James Robinson) stumbles upon some of Longshanks’s (Patrick McGoohan) treachery against the Scots—dead knights and pages hanging from the rafters—and sees his father slain, the boy is taken forth from the village by his uncle Argyle (Brian Cox) to France. There he receives a nobleman-level education, learning French as well as Latin.
When he returns in his late 20s to the village of his youth, William intends to live a peaceful life, raising crops and a family. He basically courts the girl next door, Murron (Catherine McCormack). At 4 years old, Murron (Mhairi Calvey) had picked a purple thistle to give to 7-year-old William, to comfort him, as he stood weeping at his father’s burial. He never forgot her empathy and compassion.
Reenter ruthless Longshanks. As he smirkingly notes: “The trouble with Scotland … is that it’s full of Scots.” And so he attempts to breed them out, imposing the hellish law of “Prima Nocta” (first night), which declared that a new Scottish bride must submit to being deflowered with intent to impregnate by an English nobleman on her wedding night.
Wallace is not having any of that and marries Murron in secret, but when an English soldier attempts to rape her and she violently resists, she’s tied to a stake and publicly executed.
When Wallace finds out about it, England is soon given notice that the towering rage of an alpha-dominant Scottish leader in command of a shocking array of guerrilla warfare tactics has been unleashed on it like a full-blown, modern-day special operations warrior.
The Battle of Stirling
The historic Battle of Stirling, where, almost biblically, Wallace’s starving and outnumbered ragtag band of farmer-soldiers—warrior poets, he lauds them—armed with handmade weapons took on and decimated Longshanks’s armor-clad and heavy-horsed Northern English army, is a sight to be seen.
Building on Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 groundbreaking, arrows-whistling-overhead and horse-hooves-churning-the-muck “Henry V,” Stirling ups the ante with a brutal depiction of the repelling of a thundering cavalry charge via long, thin, sharpened tree trunks, raised last second to impale the armored-up horses and riders.
Throughout, Wallace, on horseback and bedaubed with electric-blue war paint (which inspired a global sports-fan craze of attending football games sans shirts and in full face-paint in freezing weather), inspires his troops with hoarse speeches about Scottish freedom.
In general, “Braveheart” is jam-packed with all manner of bone-crunching ax murders and carnage: You’ve got disembowelments, decapitations, castrations, buckets of red-hot black pitch poured over ramparts, skull-crushings via maces, and manly men bleeding out in the dirt.
Plot Lines and Players
Then there are the various betrayals of Wallace by Scottish lords, as well as by the reluctant Scottish heir to the throne, Robert the Bruce, whose narration frames the entire story from the perspective of his own journey to manhood, truthfulness, courage, and integrity.
A fun fact: The very Irish Brendan Gleeson plays the very Scottish, red-bearded Hamish, and the very Scottish David O’Hara portrays the very Irish Stephen, the self-admitted madman in Wallace’s inner circle, who claims that an Irishman must, when in doubt, look heavenward and converse directly with The Almighty.
Although women are scarce in this manly tale, they carry the film’s soul: Catherine McCormack as Murron, who inspires Wallace from the afterlife, and Sophie Marceau as French-born Princess Isabelle. Isabelle is the wife of Longshanks’s son. Hers was an arranged marriage to the prince, who is homosexual. She is also Longshanks’s unwilling political emissary to Wallace, but she later becomes Wallace’s lover and accomplice.
After all the rousing battles, “Braveheart” grows somber and, indeed, legendary as Wallace is finally captured by Longshanks and hauled to England to be made an example of: He is strung up by the neck, bone-poppingly stretched on the rack, and publicly disemboweled. Yet like some present-day Army Combat Applications Group or Navy Development Group warrior, he refuses to break or compromise in his quest for Scottish freedom.
Thusly glorifying the talent of will to endure and forbear, Gibson canonized Wallace to the point where Scotland made a statue of Wallace that looks like Gibson.
Is “Braveheart” historically accurate? As Robert the Bruce says, “History was written by those who have hanged heroes,” so probably not. But Gibson’s focus is on valor, bravery, and integrity—not history.
Director: Mel Gibson
Starring: Mel Gibson, Brendan Gleeson, David O’Hara, Catherine McCormack, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan
Running Time: 2 hours, 58 minutes
Release Date: May 24, 1995
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5