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Review by Kanaan Trotter
When Steven Spielberg brought audiences Jaws in 1974, the ripples carried through decades of film. It is a defining point in the development of the world of movies. The term “blockbuster” was coined; gore on the screen was pushed to new levels; a fear of sharks settled deep in the bones of Americans. As influential as it is, though, it would be silly to say that the world was changed, or even that Spielberg’s flick rocked American identity. Perhaps we got more use to blood. Maybe we started caring less about actors swearing.
The same cannot be said of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart. To be clear, Gibson’s 1997 film has created a much larger crater in the world outside of film. Many credit the film with playing a crucial role in affirming the identity of the Scottish people who only one year later would radically restructure their government to create the first Scottish Parliament. Near the town of Sterling, a sculpture of William Wallace was erected with the world Braveheart on the shield and replicating the Gibson’s face. In a remarkable situation Gibson had found a man on the outskirts of global recognition, and created a recognizable hero.
Braveheart is the story of William Wallace, renegade and savior of Scotland. Introduced as a boy who watches the death of his father and brother, Wallace is left in the care of his uncle and the wet highlands. Jump a decade or two and Wallace is a long-haired charmer who falls in love with a childhood friend, Murron MacClannough. In the same scene Wallace watches as an English lord interrupts a marriage to enact the right of Prima Noctis –taking the virginity of a serf’s daughter –given by Edward Longshanks, King of England. Soon after Wallace secretly marries Murron against her parents’ wishes, keeping them safe from the Prima Noctis law. But when Wallace later saves Murron from English soldiers trying to rape her, the girl is hunted down and publicly executed.
Fueled by grief and rage, Wallace storms the English fort and kills every man in uniform. It is only a matter of a few scenes, then –each filled with running and burning and an exceptional soundtrack –before Wallace has become a threat to England and the commander of a band of wild men all remarkably good at killing Englishmen.
The film, though, is complicated by the amount of non-historical events and people that fill it. Virtually every historian discredits the reality of Prima Noctis. Wallace’s father didn’t die till Wallace was 18. The Princess Isabella who, in the film, falls in love with Wallace was actually 3 years old at the time. Wallace was himself a son of Scottish gentry, not a peasant boy as the film makes him out. Gibson, in an interview with Total Film, said of his portrayal of Walllace, “We romanticized it a bit but that’s the language of film –you have to make it work cinematically.” The very premise of the movie is historically wrong: Scotland hadn’t spent decades under the oppression of England, but only been invaded the year before the final battle of the movie. Until that time it had been an entirely separate kingdom. To be even more simplistic, the kilts worn in every scene weren’t around till nearly 400 years after Wallace.
In the same interview Gibson says of Wallace, “So he had his faults. We shifted the balance a bit, because someone has to be the good guy and the bad guy.” And while it would be easy to burn the film for dismissing the thing we like to term “historical accuracy”, I find that to be foolish and unhelpful. History is itself a slanted thing, created by the victors and told to reinforce our own insecurities. Gibson’s comments reveal the backbone of much of the film industry, because his movie worked. Critique what we might, Braveheart won 5 academy awards and had a statue made after it all while unashamedly telling it’s own story. Filled with facts that simply weren’t true, the film caught fire.
“Making it work cinematically” lays open the reason Braveheart was so well received, and it is much like the 1974 Jaws. Audiences of movies, Gibson rightly understood, have no desire for the Wallace who conscripted armies and threatened to hang those who refused. There is a need to draw lines in film, to color characters to fit particular roles. Movies are portraits, a few hours to describe the world in a certain way. Understanding film as an interpretation, and not as authoritative, ought to bring healthy perspective of caution to films claiming historicity.
But film, precisely because it is a distinct art, can’t be judged upon historicity alone. That would fail to recognize the power of the art itself. Gibson’s repeated cry as a director and actor in Braveheart is not “look to history”. Rather, the recurrent claim of the movie is that tyrannical oppression is senseless and disgusting in every way, violently crushing the lives and hopes of people who only wish to think and live in peace. But while that proclamation holds up independently, Gibson does a poor job implementing its practice. Every act of Wallace, as the grand hero, is one of only greater violence and much filthier gore. His bloody face and wild eyes bring hope to a nation, but at the cost of battles that leave bodies hacked and scattered. After every scene of war, we find a Wallace bathed in so much blood that it literally drips from his face. It ought to be unsettling that we find him so identifiable looking more like a butcher than a king.
At a climactic scene before a battle, Wallace speaks to his army about freedom. He tells them that they could run from war and die old men. But, he says, “Would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to tell our enemies that they may take our lives but they’ll never take our freedom?” But while the quick speech leaves men roaring and ready to die for an idea, an honest viewer should be less convinced. War brings death, not peace. Any classics student knows that the Greek playwrights figured this out long before Wallace. Shedding blood fixes nothing. It is a burner of cities, not a builder.
War, though, comes as a price for any great nation in history. Blood must be spilt to make room for a new country. So perhaps my challenge isn’t to Gibson’s mostly honest relation between war and freedom, but to the viewer who finds himself chanting along with the battle line. We ought to be skeptical of a world conceived in war. We ought to pause when heroes hack men to pieces for something as ambiguous and convoluted as the word freedom. Easily interpreted ideals leave a lot of rooms to fill, rooms built to accommodate any other beliefs. Braveheart isn’t preaching badly, it fails to say anything at all.