Monday, April 25, 2011


BACK-STORY: “Braveheart” is a war movie that was released in 1995. It stars Mel Gibson as the Scottish patriot William Wallace. Gibson did not want to act in the movie (he felt he was too old for the part), but the studio refused to finance it without the superstar appearing. Gibson also directed the movie. It was a critical and box office success. It won the Best Picture Oscar and Gibson was awarded Best Director. It captured a total of five Oscars. The movie was filmed in Scotland, although most of the extras for the battle scenes were from the Irish territorial army. The screenplay was written by Randall Wallace who also did Gibson’s “We Were Soldiers” script. He based the story on a medieval poem about Wallace by Blind Henry. Wallace claims to be a descendant of the hero. The movie was going to be rated NC-17 due to graphic violence, but Gibson made some cuts of the gorier shots.

NOTE: As with “They Died With Their Boots On”, I will insert the historical corrections into the summary because there are so many of them.

OPENING: The movie begins in Scotland in 1280. The narrator claims that the King of Scotland has died without heir so the “pagan” king of England, Edward I (Patrick McGoohan), has decided to conquer Scotland. (The Scottish king was still alive and had two sons. Edward was a Christian.) Edward invites the Scottish nobles to parley and then treacherously hangs them. (No such meeting or executions occurred.) Wallace, a farmer’s son, finds the bodies. (Wallace was the son of a lower knight.) His father goes off to war and returns dead. Wallace is adopted by his uncle.

SUMMARY: In London, Edward forces his flamingly gay son to marry a French princess. (Edward II may have been bisexual, but he had 5 kids by his two wives.) Edward orders the practice of primo noctae (the right to sleep with the bride first) to encourage British nobles to settle in Scotland. (Ridiculous, plus there was no such thing in England.)

     Wallace returns from a pilgrimage and reacquaints himself with his childhood sweetheart Murron. They secretly marry. He only wants to live in peace as a farmer. (If Wallace ever married it was after he was already an outlaw.) He rescues her from being raped by a loathsome British soldier. He escapes, but she doesn’t. The local baron slits her throat to lure him back. (all bull shit) Wallace comes riding back in with some nunchucks (I kid you not) hidden behind his back. The bloodletting commences ending with the throat-cutting of the baron and now Wallace is the leader of a rebellion.

     Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen) is the logical heir to the throne. His father is a Machiavellian who is made repellant by his leprosy (untrue). The father convinces the Bruce that compromise with the British is the best route, so Robert does not join Wallace.

     Wallace faces the British at the Battle of Stirling (actually the Battle of Stirling Bridge, but since Gibson did not want a bridge interfering with his battle…) Wallace’s force waits for the British on a hill (like Spartacus). He gives a fiery speech (like in Henry V). Wallace’s men lift their kilts to moon the British. (The Scots did not wear kilts at this time in history.) When the British cavalry (wearing scaled armor?!) charges, Wallace’s men produce his secret weapon – pikes (which they had hidden where?) to impale the horses. The battle becomes a melee (like Spartacus without the graphic violence). The Scots win when the Scottish nobles flank the British with their cavalry. Wallace beheads the enemy commander. 90% of the British are killed. No main characters on Wallace’s side dies. (Nothing about this battle remotely recalls the Battle of Stirling Bridge which was an ambush of the British army as it crossed a bridge. The pikes were used at Falkirk, not here.)

     Wallace is knighted (untrue) and leads an invasion of England featuring the siege of York (he did sack some towns, but did not attack York). Meanwhile, Edward I is so upset he hurls his son’s gay lover out a window (Gibson was justly accused of homophobia for this scene). (The supposed lover was actually exiled, but not under these circumstances.) He decides to send the Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau) to negotiate with Wallace (I am not kidding) while he sneakily prepares an army. Wallace turns down the offer of title, lands, and gold (surprise!), but there is some chemistry between him and the Princess (surprise!) (Do I need to point out all this is bull crap?) Edward marches with a large army including Irish mercenaries (actually, there were no Irish in his army). The Princess sends warning to Wallace.

     In the Battle of Falkirk, the Irish open the attack, but when they reach the Scots, they shake hands and switch sides (I am not making this up). Wallace has fire arrows fired to set the oil spread the night before in the field afire (like Spartacus). This prevents the British cavalry from charging, but we still get an infantry melee. At the crucial moment, the bastard Scottish nobles leave the field thus dooming Wallace. Edward orders his archers to fire into the melee, not caring who gets hit. He then sends in reinforcements (like Spartacus). (In the actual battle, Wallace’s men were in hollow squares armed with pikes. Edward bombarded the fixed squares with arrows which won an easy victory.) Wallace sees Edward leaving (he decides not to stay to the end?) and goes after him like in a Western. He is dehorsed by a knight if full plate armor. Guess who is behind the visor? Robert Bruce! Bruce saves Wallace from capture. (Never mind!) The movie should have ended here, but then Mel would not have been able to get tortured (or torture history buffs some more).

     Mel goes Lethal Weapon on the two main treacherous nobles, killing one by riding his horse into the poltroon’s bedroom and smashing his head in with a flail! He drops the other’s corpse onto the Bruce’s dining table. (AYK) Edward sends the Princes to lure Wallace into a trap, but instead she allows herself to be impregnated in a romantic cottage. (A neat trick considering they never met and she was not even married to Edward II until two year after Wallace’s death. Plus she would have been nine years old at the time.) Wallace: “Why do you help me?” Isabelle: “Because of the way you are looking at me now”. (Gag, then barf!)

     Wallace goes to meet the Bruce, but he is captured because the leper sold him out so Robert could be king. (He was actually betrayed by a Scottish noble.) Robert is guilt-ridden about this and turns against his father.

THE CLOSING: The Princess begs Wallace to confess and thus avoid torture. Wallace agrees. (Just kidding) “Every man dies – not every man really lives.” (A quote from a different William Wallace.) And finally, the moment Mel has been waiting for – the torture scene! But not simple torture. First, lifted with a noose. Second, stretching. Third, pain inflicted on a cross shaped table (Christ imagery anyone?). Finally, because he responds with “Freedom!” instead of “mercy”, they mercifully behead him (wait, what?) (Actually, Wallace suffered worse in being drawn and quartered.) Meanwhile, Edward lies dying nearby. (He died two years later.) The last thing he contemplates is the Princess whispering that she carries Wallace’s child who will be the next king (provided it’s a boy, of course). (Alas, the fictional child was still-born.)

     We have to have a happy ending, so the movie implies that the immediate result of the killing of Wallace was Robert the Bruce leading an uprising that resulted in perpetual independence for Scotland at the Battle of Bannockburn. (Actually fought nine years later and eventually Cromwell conquered Scotland.)


Action – 8

Authenticity – 6

Acting – 8

Accuracy – 2

Realism – 4

Plot – 5

Overall – 5

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? It depends if they care about history or realism. If they don’t, they will probably enjoy the love story and they can close their eyes during the battles. The costumes are well done. Mel is a sensitive hunk.

ACCURACY: You know you are in trouble when even the title of the movie is inaccurate. The name “Braveheart” was actually applied to Robert Bruce. You get a preview of what is to come when the lies start flowing in the introductory narration. I do not want to beat a dead horse, but this movie is pure garbage! It could not have been more inaccurate than it is. Virtually everything is a mockery of the actual people and events. To make matters worse, Randall Wallace and Gibson had the nerve to defend its historical accuracy. Wallace is, of course, more to blame. He bases the story on the very dubious Blind Henry poem. This could justify taking liberties with Wallace’s early life (of which we have little knowledge), but not the raping of well documented events like the two battles. To have the Battle of Stirling Bridge depicted with no bridge in sight is infuriating. But in spite of the total disregard for history, many critics praised the film for its entertainment value. Have we reached the point where laughable cliches and ridiculous occurrences pass for entertainment? I could not help breaking out in laughter when the Irish switched sides in the middle of a charge or when Wallace and the Princess have a tryst between enemy lines. Unbelievably, Wallace got a nomination for Best Original Screenplay!

CRITIQUE: The movie is not terrible. The musical score by James Horner perfectly sets the mood throughout the film. The scenery is awesome. The environment is appropriately medievally grotty. The acting is very good. Gibson is more than competent. McGoohan makes Edward I as slimy a villain as you could imagine. Marceau is lovely and feisty. Macfayden is good as the conflicted Bruce. The supporting cast is above average (you might find the insane Irishman aggravating).

     The two battles, although inaccurate, are rousing. Especially the Battle of Stirling. The mechanical horses that get impaled are so lifelike that the ASPCA supposedly complained. As far as I know, no humans actually had any limbs hacked off, but there is so much hacking a mistake could have happened. However, it is obvious Gibson was ripping off films like “Spartacus”. But then again, several movies have done that. Speaking of “Spartacus”, you can’t beat the original and “Braveheart” does not even come close.

     You can see the future of Gibson (e.g. “The Patriot” and “Passion of the Christ”) as a film maker here. All the elements are there – over the top villains, getting tortured, unbelievable atrocities, Rambo-like heroics, and disregard for history or realism.

CONCLUSION: I’ll be truthful. I have passionately hated this movie since I first saw it in a theater. I tried watching it several years later thinking I was being overly harsh, but I could not get a third of the way through. Having to watch it all the way through for this blog project was the biggest chore I have encountered since I began. I won’t repeat what I said in my  "They Died With Their Boots On" post about history versus Hollywood. I do find it ironic that I had to review two of the most egregious trashings of history back to back. I do have a hard time deciding which movie is worse. You can make a strong case for “Braveheart” because besides its incredibly high rate of inaccuracies, it also has some of the most ridiculous plot elements and clichés ever to be found in a modern movie.

     This movie does not belong on a list of the greatest war movies compiled by any history magazine, much less Military History magazine. Shame.


  1. I'll probably watch this again but will just program myself to see it as a pure adventure movie. Maybe it will work then. I suffered when I watched it the first time.

  2. If you feel this way, I would advise against watching it again. I would hope my review would make the experience even more painful. Watch Rob Roy instead.

  3. two overrated best picture winners: Braveheart and Dances with Wolves. Case of two powerful actors with large egos making overlong, but generally entertaining "epics". These two are shown over and over on tv mainly because they are high on the "chics dig em" meter.
    i like how you point out the ways hollywood messed with the real history. Im sure Wallace's history was interesting enuff without messing with it. the only credit i give Gibson (who like Tarrintino loves him his violence)is thinking that he was too old to play the part. At least he didnt play Christ in the Passion Of the Christ. But im sure he would have had he been younger. I much prefer Clint Eastwood as an actor/director. Much less pretentious.
    The battle scenes in BH are really the only reason to watch it to me. And even those are over the top (all that warpainted faces and posturing)and not as good as Spartacus which was made years earlier. Typical of this movie is that symbolic sword quivering in the ground. Now thats hollywood. 1995 also saw Rob Roy with Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange. Not nearly as overblown and pretty entertaining. Hollywood dug Scotland that year.
    I much prefer Gibson's Apocalypto to BH. Very original adventure movie. But thats a preference thing.

  4. I much prefer Dances to Braveheart. There is nothing ridiculous and unintentionally funny in it. It does a good job on Sioux culture and does not trash history because it does not purport to tell a true story. It is a bit heavyhanded in glorifying the Indians, but that does not come close to balancing 90% of Westerns. It is more clearly comparable to The Last Samurai.

    I question how much arm-twisting the studio had to do to get Gibson to star. I can not see him passing up that torture scene.

    BTW the blue paint was another inaccuracy.

    I love Rob Roy. It is absolutely superior to BH. Great acting, especially by Roth - one of the greatest villains. We know less about Roy than Wallace, so it was easier to make up the story, but the difference is none of the plot was laughably ridiculous.

  5. Hi

    Excellent critique of Braveheart. I hate to admit it but I loved the movie the first time I watched it. Until I did some research. I share your amazement that the Military History Magazine included this as one of its top 100 films.

    I respect your willingness to work your way through a pre-determined list of movies. I often have trouble forcing myself to review a movie that I already know that I detest, so I will eventually just grit my teeth and get it over with.

    You have produced some impressive reviews. I have a website that reviews historical films and I would be happy to exchange links. Sorry for mentioning this in your comments, but there does not seem to be any other way to contact you.

    Take care

    Andrew Allen

  6. Sorry it took so long to comment. There has been a problem with blogspot and it still is not fixed, hence the "anonymous".

    Thank you so much for the kind words. I have actually been going to your excellent site for weeks.

    I would love to put you on my Bunkies list. Also, if you are not familiar with Caroline's site All About War Movies, I highly recommend it.

    Let's keep in touch.

    signed - War Movie Buff

  7. To be honest, I really liked 'Braveheart', as far as I recall 'Robert Bruce' was equally brave person however the main focus was on W. Wallace; still if for the time being if I can forget about the historical authenticity I will still enjoy this movie; When it comes to direction I think Gibson's 'The Passion Of Christ' & 'Apocalypto' was really top notch as some one has sited here. Great review with lots of information.I too was planning to write something about this movie;so far I was able to write some stuff on TROY, planning to write later on 'Kingdom Of Heaven'

  8. I wholewheartedly agree with your review but for two quibbles. You called the English "British" which is as historically inaccurate as the historical inaccuracies that you are correcting. Also a cliche is still a truth, albeit a trite one. As you brilliantly pointed out there is so little truth in this movie that perhaps there is not any to even qualify as trite. What were laughable were not cliches but falsehoods, anachronisms and downright absurdities. Very many of my fellow Scots actually think this film is a true reflection of these events, so you can imagine that my hatred of this film may actually extend further than yours. Thanks for this review.

  9. the war movie buffJuly 20, 2011 at 9:27 PM

    Wow, someone who hates it more than me - I bow before you. I can see where being Scottish you have first claim on criticism.

    Sorry about the British reference, I tend to use British and English interchangeably. My students don't seem to care LOL.

    I disagree a little with your definition of cliche as being a trite truth. I would define it as something that Hollywood wants us to believe is true either because they don't bother to check (e.g., machine guns can be fired constantly with no effect on the barrel) or they are lazy (e.g., submarines escape depth chargings by going way below their maximum depths) or they use it for enetertainment purposes (e.g., the guy who shows a picture of his girl is doomed to die).

  10. the war movie buffJuly 20, 2011 at 9:33 PM


    Hey, my man, where have you been? It's okay for you to like Braveheart, I know your tastes run to more variety than mine. Don't change, dude. Nice props for Robert Bruce. He gets trashed in this movie and deserves his own movie. He is much more important historically than William Wallace. What do you think, John?

  11. I only recently came across this site again and forgot that I had left a comment. I think that Wallace is probably a more interesting character than Bruce in so far as there is a certain folk hero element to him as well as a lot of mystery surrounding his biography but certainly Robert the Bruce is the more significant figure and also a very interesting character himself. I'm a believer in what I call the Great Bastard theory of history. The Harrying of Buchan alone illustrates what a bastard Robert the Bruce was, and he heroically adorns Scottish paper currency. The long wait, sacrifice and utter ruthlessness to gain power could make for a gripping movie about Robert the Bruce's character as well as the theme of how political States are forged.

    In regards to cliches, I was wrong to have stating it categorically that cliches are trite truths, what I meant to say that they are often trite truths. You are correct to find the patterns of war movie cliches but I suspect you are a bit harsh upon movies for possessing them. My main point is that in these old films a lot of these cliches had yet to be cliches so it is a bit unfair and perhaps anachronistic to watch them now and criticize them for being full of cliches. These truths(when they were truths) and depictions had yet to be repeated ad nauseam. Of course to be fair to you it is hard to pinpoint at what time you can say that this or that has become a cliche. So in conclusion I just think you are a bit harsh on older war movies, despite some obvious deficiencies compared to more recent films (the feel of battle being the most obvious, the battles in the Sands of Iwo Jima are like childs play compared to Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers etc.)

  12. John,

    Thanks for returning. I find your reference to the Great Bastard theory of history intriguing and will give it some thought. I don't know it can apply much to American History (my main interest), but I can see it applying to the Middle Ages, for instance.

    As far as the cliche comments, I do not consider Braveheart to be an old movie. By the time it was made, the cliches I refer to had been around for a long time.

  13. Your countries founding fathers were certainly great and not generally bastards but so many of the great men of history ie the kings, princes, emperors etc tended to be such bastards. The cultural heroes of history are a different matter though.

    My cliche comments should really have been presented on your list of war movie cliches page, that was what I was really refering to. Even without the cliches Braveheart would be a monstrosity.

  14. Hey WMB. I was wondering, have you seen the film The Bruce? It has Brian Blessed as Edward I. I'd be curious to hear your take on it.

    But if I may delve into politics, why was the window scene deemed homophobic. I was under the impression that Edward chucking the guy out the window was intended to illustrate that Edward was a bad guy, not that homosexuals deserve to be chucked out windows. The window toss was the villain's doing.

    I will give Randall Wallace this much credit. I read the novelization of Braveheart when I was 14 and it DID have a bridge fight in the Stirling scene. IIRC Randall blended the movie with history, having Wallace do the pike ambush deal and then engage the British infantry as they crossed the bridge.

    My main criticism of the book was Randall's portrayal of emotion being a substitute for skill. He talks about the English "trying to rely on their training while the Scots gave themselves to wild fury". Even as a teen that sounded hokey to me and passion as a substitute for knowing what the heck you're doing was an overarching theme in the book. A hard sell considering Wallace wound up dead.

    But I would like to hear you take on The Bruce if you ever have the time. Fair warning: the melodrama level is pretty much on par with Braveheart and Brian Blessed hams it up as a stereotypical villain. But just for the sake of comparisons it would be fun and their portrayal of Bannockburn is worth at least one view. No scale armor.

  15. I have not seen it and in fact was not aware of it until your comments. Thanks. I see it's available on You Tube so I will check it out.

    I don't see how the scene can be interpreted any other way than being homophobic. What better way to show the villainy of Edward than making him intolerant? I'm not saying the film agreed with throwing a homosexual out of a window, but it did use the character to tap into a stereotype that sadly led to a highlight of the movie for some.

    You will not get me to say anything positive about this movie. I hate it more than any other movie ever made. Even more than JFK.

    I admire your thesis about the weakness of the passion overcomes military discipline theme of the novelization. I am not a Randall Wallace fan, although We Were Soldiers was a good screenplay until he had to Wallacize it with the atrocious ending.

  16. As a Scot, and a history graduate/lover, I enjoy the film purely as entertainment. And it was nice to see my country in a major film without any hoots mon kilted clichés that bordered on offensive.

    To the history, the film wrongly portrays for visual purposes Wallace as a Highlander, he was lowland Scot from Ayrshire. As was Bruce. Born within 20-25 miles of each other. Wallace was 27 and Bruce 23 when it all 'kicked off' in 1297.

    The film could have covered the horrific massacre of Scots women and children in 1296 by Edward's forces, so terrible even his own men begged to stop.

    Cromwell?. Yes and No. The wars of 1642-51 were not s Scots vs English war, the last of those was in 1640 (result we win at Newburn), the English/British civil war was a Royalist-Parliamentarian war, in which Scots fought on both sides. Even after 1648 when the Scots sided with the Stuart king Charles I and then post 1649 his son, Scots and Ulster Scots served in Cromwell's army. As did Welsh troops. Old Oliver himself was also fairly liking of the (Protestant) Scots and basically left the country alone. A castle here and there as base, but he left our laws, culture and people alone for the most part.

    His ire was for the 'papist' Irish. Scots and Ulster Scots were part of the faith and God's people.

    Cromwell may have taken Scotland in 1651-52 but not as an English commander, and the country by 1654 had plans for a union with England, a plan made by both sides. And in 1660, Scotland freely reverted back to its pre-51 status. 1651-60 was more of a royalist occupation as opposed to an English conquest.

    1. I also appreciate this great comment. It's easy to oversimplify things when making a historical movie - it may be unavoidable in some stories - but it is so gratifying to understand the larger context. I find I tend to appreciate those movies that make a point of explaining some of these extra details, even though it usually slows down the action.


Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.