Braveheart: It’s Not Apollo 13

I’ve mentioned several times over the course of this blog that I’m a definite lover of history. But not all eras of history are the same in my mind. I’m a fan of the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly the 20th century. That’s part of the reason why I started this blog: movies give us an insight into people at the time they were made.
In addition, I’ve also been able to separate the actual historical events from those depicted in a film. Movies are works of art and I truly believe that films can take a certain artistic license to demonstrate their stories and deeper meanings. I didn’t penalize Argo for this nor did I ding Titanic for it. It’s just the way it is and no amount of complaining from me or other critics is going to change that. When I make a movie about a past event, I can choose to make it as historically accurate or inaccurate as I want.
This week’s film, Braveheart – the 1995 Best Picture winner – is certainly no exception to this rule. The film stars Mel Gibson (who also directed it) as William Wallace, the famous leader of Scottish independence in during the late 13th and early 14th centuries, and it features Wallace’s fight over the years against English rule. But the film is so blatantly historically inaccurate that it infuriates both historians and some fans alike. But, again, I am just letting you know of this fact. I won’t penalize the film for it.
So where does that leave us? Well, over the course of the film’s 178-minute run time, the movie features deplorable and seemingly unending violence (though some beautiful battle sequences), a very strong underlying theme (more on that below) and stunning cinematography. Yet, I’m conflicted about the film, which I will also get to soon. Braveheart is, plain and simple, an epic, another grandiose film that I’m seeing defines the 1990’s in cinema. Other than The Silence of the Lambs, Braveheart joins Dances with Wolves, and Titanic as truly ambitious pieces of filmmaking.
When it comes to its place in history, though, I’m certain of that. This movie went up against Apollo 13 and beat it. I can confidently say that this film is not better than Apollo 13. It’s not even close in my book. Yet, it won, but for all the wrong reasons.
Now, for the rest of the film.

Plot
Braveheart opens with a very young William Wallace learning the horrors of the English by stumbling upon a public execution of Scottish nobles at the hands of the tyrannical English king, Edward I, or Edward Longshanks, played by Patrick McGoohan. William’s father and brother are killed shortly thereafter. William is then taken in by his uncle who travels the world and educates the poor Scottish orphan.

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When he returns years later, Wallace is instantly smitten by his childhood crush, Murron (Catherine McCormack). The two marry in secret in order to avoid the English. Wallace rescues Murron from a rape, but she is captured and executed during the escape. Wallace then goes off like a banshee against the English, brutally murdering every Anglo in his path while also leading a pack of rag-tag Scots to defeat the English army at every turn. What ensues is a see-saw battle of wits, wills, and soldiers as the film touches both on the politics of war and the frontlines themselves. From a drama standpoint, the film is an excellent example of how to make a political drama and action movie.
But the story is not without it’s farces, and those are too much for me. First, of all the points to make in a film about William Wallace, homophobia is not one of them. Yes, homosexuality was frowned upon in 13th century England, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to be in 1995 cinema. The son of King Edward I, Edward II (Peter Hanly), is portrayed as a fumbling, weak, and rather stupid man whose defining feature is that he’s gay.
Second, there’s the affair between William and Isabella of France. Isabella, played by Sophie Marceau, is the wife of Edward II and she is a much better leader than her husband and she’s sent to negotiate with Wallace on behalf of the king. After a couple of meetings, the two become sexually involved and, big surprise here, she becomes pregnant with Wallace’s child. All of this is after Wallace promised Murron that he would never fall in love with another woman. The affair was so predictable that I basically called it from the trailer. The affair could have been scrubbed and it would have been the same film. 0.

Writing/Dialogue
The screenplay, written by Randall Wallace, is based on the 15th century epic poem The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace by Blind Harry. The screenplay earned a nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
The screenplay perfectly sets the tone of the film, speaking in a form of older English or Scottish while still being understandable. Naturally, the political parts of the film are driven by dialogue, while the battle sequences are devoid of it. This is a perfectly good balance between dialogue and silence.

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One particularly good sequence from the screenplay is Wallace’s freedom speech before the Battle of Stirling, the first major conflict of the film. The speech is full of not only funny quips from Wallace but also inspiring lines that made me want to go run five miles. 1.

Sound
James Horner’s score was nominated for Best Original Score and it’s easily of Horner’s best scores, and he’s got A LOT of them.

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Full of bagpipes and more “traditional” Scottish sounds, the score provides a perfect underscore to each and every scene. In fact, this film is full of Horner’s score playing under almost every shot. This resembles a more contemporary movie and it is a stark difference from the lack of score that we saw in The French Connection. The score is emotionally moving and the film won the Oscar for Best Sound Editing, an honor that was deserved. 1.

Set Design
Set against the dramatic background of the Scottish highlands, Braveheart is not just beautiful, but also stunning. The physical environment of the movie took my breath away with its jagged mountains and green slopes. In fact, the film was shot in the Scottish highlands during production.

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But more than that, though, the set is full of incredible costumes, even if they are dirty and horribly inaccurate. No expense was spared on this set. Everything from the weapons, to the cities and castles is gloriously done and very engaging to the audience. The movie won the Best Makeup Oscar and it’s not hard to see why: the face painting and the amount of blood in the film send it over the top. No issues here. 1.

Cinematography
The director of photography for Braveheart was John Toll and he won an Oscar for Best Cinematography.
Since the film takes place in the Scottish highlands, naturally, there are plenty of gorgeous shots, particularly at the beginning of the film. These were shot primarily from helicopter fly-bys of dramatic peaks and valleys. I love a good artsy landscape shot and Braveheart has many of them. These are not unlike the incredible widescreen shots utilized in Dances with Wolves, The Deer Hunter, and No Country for Old Men. The film was shot on Panavision for an ultra widescreen experience and it paid off in a big way, making for a film that is very beautiful and very violent.

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I was also impressed with the battle sequences. Grandiose wars, particularly the hand-to-hand battle variety, are very difficult to shoot due to the logistics of it all. But the camera work demonstrates a chaotic sequence and what battle is actually like. Additionally, the number of quick edits keep your attention shifting from one thing to the next, forcing you to stay engaged and even wanting more. 1.

Acting
Just like last week’s post this film features really only one actor, Mel Gibson. That’s not to say that the rest of the actors are bad, not by a longshot, but this film is Mel Gibson’s baby and he’s really the only star worth talking about.
Gibson plays William Wallace, the inspirational Scottish guerilla leader hellbent on avenging the death of his wife, Murron. At first, Wallace is young and immature, cracking dirty jokes and not taking life seriously. The death of Murron is the end of the film’s first act but it’s also the end of Wallace the boy and the beginning of Wallace’s development as a man. He loses his family, some of his friends, his wife and even his home and this focuses him on the singular goal of defeating the English.
Instantly, Wallace is a sympathetic hero as he embarks on his journey against tyranny. As the movie wears on and on, (again, it’s three hours long) Wallace slowly transforms into the barbarian that the English depict him to be, brutalizing everything in his path. I actually like this about him. Having a morally compromised hero makes everything better.

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But, that’s really where his story arc ends. Wallace’s focus never wavers and he remains firmly dedicated to his goal of freedom for the Scottish people. He exudes a particular kind of disgusting machismo that makes Wallace a one-trick pony. He’s shown to be instantly a great fighter and an inspiration to men and women alike, yet the depth of his struggle to become those things is just not there. Wallace is suddenly a lightning bolt of fierce independence right after the death of his wife with no consideration given to him arriving at that decision. I don’t mind him sticking by his vision of Scottish freedom, but for more than two-thirds of the movie, his singular focus gets tiring and the horse is beaten until it’s all the way dead. 0.

Directing
Gibson also directed the film and the effort won him his only Best Director Oscar.
When I was thinking about what to write about this film, I reached the conclusion that there are really two overarching themes to Braveheart: anger and freedom and liberty.
I’ll start with anger. As The Hound tells Arya Stark in A Song of Ice and Fire, anger is enough to keep a person going, and this is point with which I agree. Anger is an incredible motivator and it’s also not a new theme. We see this in Game of Thrones and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri how anger can help to define people and characters.

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But we do have to be careful about anger. This is the only emotion which can give people a stone cold indifference to other people. It breaks us down and then builds us how it wants, which is not normally good. Rash decisions, violence, and an overall bitterness towards life are the result of anger over the course of a lifetime. Braveheart shows us that anger leads to the violence, yes, but it also leads to ruination and loss. Wallace has no choice but to be angry, but he also loses his humanity in the process. The same is true for Edward Longshanks and his treatment of not only Wallace, but of his son, and his subjects. The two men are so enraged that they become barbaric to a fault.
The other theme is freedom. If you’re reading this from America, then you definitely know about freedom. It’s one of our core values as a nation and the fight for it is eternal. It’s an idea that we can easily get behind. But this is also an issue, too.
Braveheart is a film about freedom and that appeals to us as Americans and that’s my theory as to why it won. It played an emotional card. The guerilla nature of Wallace’s war against the English and the calls for independence is certainly a parallel to America’s own story of independence. I have no problem with this as a theme, but it’s Gibson’s execution of this that I can’t stand. He shoves the concept of freedom down our throats, screaming it at the top of his lungs at every turn. I was turned off by this very blatant appeal to the emotions of a post-Cold War Academy and movie-going audience in general.
This film has a terrific chance to be an amazing biopic about an oft forgotten part of history and one of its dynamic leaders, but it’s instead a film with only really one apparent theme (anger being a secondary one; the act of me trying to bring something new to the table) that is rammed through 178 minutes of cinema.
No, Braveheart should not have won Best Picture in 1995 when you consider the competition, particularly Ron Howard’s Apollo 13. That film is a filmmaking and technical marvel that helped to define modern cinema. Apollo 13 is also miles deep with character development, has a strong message of never giving up, and just an all-around better story than Braveheart. This film is no Apollo 13 and I can’t stand that it won over that film. 0.

Bonus Points
I’m giving an extra point to Braveheart‘s cinematography. It was just so damn beautiful.
Final Score: 5/10

Oscar Facts
Braveheart won the 68th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 25, 1996 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. It beat Apollo 13, Babe, Sense and Sensibility, and Il Postino: The Postman for Best Picture. The award was presented by Sidney Poitier and accepted by Mel Gibson, Bruce Davey, and Alan Ladd, Jr., producers. In total, Braveheart was nominated for 10 awards, winning five, and the film had the most nominations and awards that year.
Other winners that night included Nicolas Cage winning Best Actor for his role in Leaving Las Vegas, Susan Sarandon winning Best Actress for Dead Man Walking, Kevin Spacey won Best Actor for his role in The Usual Suspects, and Mira Sorvino winning Best Supporting Actress for Mighty Aphrodite. The ceremony was hosted by Whoopi Goldberg.

Final Thoughts
We keep chugging along with next week’s 1931/1932 winner Grand Hotel. After that, it’s Crash, The Artist, Sting, Rebecca, The King’s Speech, and A Beautiful Mind.

5 Comments

  1. This was an interesting review to read Keltin, for once I think I actually liked a movie more than you did! However, I have only watched it once and don’t want to watch it again due to the brutality. But I remember how moved I was when I watched it.

    Like

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