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 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.