The name Mel Gibson has meant various things over the past 30 years. At one point it meant up and coming actor from Australia, then it meant American action star, and as of 2013 it means anti-Semitic actor with a messy personal life seeking a comeback. However in 1995 Gibson surprised everyone by directing an old school Hollywood epic in the vein of “Ben-Hur” and “Spartacus” showing he had more than one ace up his sleeve. It’s too bad his career took a nosedive in the mid 2000s, because “Braveheart” showed he could have become a great director.
I got my first taste of this Gibson epic while living in Lima, Peru in the mid-90s. My brother and I were flipping channels when we got to the battle scenes at Sterling. You know the one, where the Scots defy the English by lifting their kilts. I don’t remember if we saw the whole thing through, but my brother liked it enough to put it on his Christmas list. Since this was back in the VHS era and the movie is 177 minutes long it came in a two-tape package. A movie that long just about covers your entire evening, but we really didn’t mind. For one thing we were both in our early teens and this movie was rated R for brutal medieval violence. It’s only a movie, but the first time you see a guy get his leg chopped off by a sword and blood comes spurting out, it really sticks in your mind. Then it also has some rousingly quotable dialogue: “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take…OUR FREEDOM!” Now that’s a good pep talk.
Set in medieval Scotland, “Braveheart” tells the story of William Wallace (Gibson) who as a child saw his father and brother hanged after peace talks with King Edward Lonshanks of England (Patrick McGoohan) went sour. Wallace’s uncle takes him away from Scotland to teach him how to use both his sword and his brain. Years later he returns a grown man and reunites with his childhood sweetheart, Murron (Catherine McCormack). They marry in secret because under English law the lord of the land can take a newly married Scottish woman to his bed on the night of the honeymoon. Kind of brings a whole new meaning to the expression “the honeymoon is over.”
Despite being able to have their marriage, Wallace and Murron do not live happily ever after. English soldiers try to rape Murron and Wallace fights them off before attempting to flee. The local sheriff captures Murron and slits her throat in front of the entire village, causing Wallace to fight the English garrison, rallying the villagers with him. Neighboring villages hear of Wallace’s actions and join him. Next they execute and English lord and send his men packing back to England. From there it snowballs into an open rebellion against the English army.
Surprising everyone from King Lonshanks to the Scottish nobility, the commoner Wallace wins battle after battle and even sends Lonshanks of his nephew in a basket after capturing a major city. Yet as is the case with many soldiers, Wallace is more comfortable fighting armed men than politicians. He wishes to rally Robert the Bruce (Angus MacFadyen) to his cause, as he is a contender to the Scottish crown. Yet his father Robert the Elder (Ian Bannen) believes there is more to be gained by submitting to the English. Other Scottish noblemen are also tempted to betray Wallace in the battlefield in exchange for money and land.
Pulling the strings for these manipulations is King Lonshanks, who has no qualms with playing dirty or firing arrows on his own men during battle. He even sends his son’s fiancé, French Princess Isabella (Sophie Marceau), as a negotiator in the hopes Wallace kills her and starts a war between Scotland and France. What he couldn’t expect was for her to fall in love in Wallace. Of course the fact that Prince Edward (Peter Hanly) is more interested in his friend Phillip (Stephen Billington) than the beautiful Marceau kind of helped seal the deal between the princess and the Scottish rogue.
After the movie came out a number of controversies arose, from the effeminate portrayal of the Prince to the apparent prejudice towards the English. I think there were even historians quibbling over whether or not the Scots ever wore blue war paint in battle. I am no expert in English history, but I think if you want facts you are better off reading a history books. If you want a rousing legend, watch a Hollywood epic.
Like “The Lord of the Rings” movies that would come out six years later, “Braveheart” featured hundreds of extras butchering each other on a dirty battlefield as horses came charging from the hills. However TLOTR is a fantasy epic filled with orcs and other computer generated creatures whereas the level of violence in “Braveheart” is much more visceral as it features actual human beings literally going medieval on each other.