Braveheart is to my generation what Shakespeare may have been to an earlier and more literary generation. When it came out in 1995, my friends and I could quote entire scenes, especially the stirring speeches Mel Gibson gives as freedom fighter William Wallace.
Although it’s been accused (among other things) of historical inaccuracies and of fetishizing violence, the movie is a brilliant piece of storytelling and a model of good filmmaking. To dispense with those two criticisms (which I consider the most serious that have been levelled at the movie), the issue of historical inaccuracy is of course valid, but I’d prefer to view the movie as a springboard to entice people to want to learn about the historical William Wallace and his fight for Scottish independence from English rule. The movie isn’t trying to tell a historical story—not in the sense that, say, Band of Brothers aimed to tell a historical story about the experiences of Easy Company during World War II. Instead, Braveheart explores themes of heroism, leadership, courage, sacrifice, love, friendship, and betrayal; and it borrows key moments from the life of William Wallace in order to do so. As for the level of violence depicted in the film, I think what Gibson said about his later movie The Passion of the Christ when faced with a similar charge applies to Braveheart as well: Gibson said that he had to tone down the violence that Christ experienced or else few people would be able to handle sitting through the movie. Braveheart is the story of warriors fighting for their lives, and it makes few excuses in showing the almost inhuman brutality that a person needs to survive and thrive in battle (more on this later). Needless to say, neither movie is for young children or the faint of heart.
Braveheart opens with a harrowing scene. The king of England, Edward the Longshanks, invites Scotland’s nobles to peace talks after claiming their nation’s throne. The young William Wallace (James Robinson) receives a lesson he’ll never forget in the King’s notions of peace when he witnesses the aftermath of the meeting: the lifeless bodies of each of the nobles and their young pages swing from the rafters of a barn. When his father and brother are later killed in battle, William is taken away to be raised by his uncle Argyle (Brian Cox). William’s father had told him that “It’s our wits that make us men,” and now his uncle echoes those words when William says he wants to learn to fight. “First learn to use this,” Argyle says, tapping him on the head. “Then I’ll teach you to use this,” he says, pointing at his sword.
When we next see William, he’s a young adult (Gibson himself recognized that he wasn’t the ideal age to play Wallace, but he needed to star in the film to secure the funding to make it). William has also set aside any thoughts of fighting; he wants to live in peace, working a farm and raising a family. That doesn’t seem to be his destiny, though. A personal tragedy fuels Wallace’s thirst for vengeance, which unleashes in him the spirit of a warrior who is as clever and cunning as he is strong, and as innovative and inspiring in war as he is courageous in battle. Wallace becomes single-minded in his desire to free his people from English oppression. An interesting decision which he makes as both director and actor, Gibson chooses to play Wallace after this tragedy as something almost inhuman during battles: he seems to be a near-merciless instrument of death. But Wallace is all too human, and his ability to inspire men to follow him into battle even against seemingly insurmountable odds is balanced by his own desire to put his trust in other people, especially the man he hopes will be King of Scotland when their country is free, Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen).
Wallace is more successful than anyone could have imagined (perhaps he himself most of all). At his side in battle are his childhood friend Hamish (Brendan Gleeson), Hamish’s father (James Cosmo), and an Irishman (David O’Hara) who seems to think Ireland is his island and who regularly lets Wallace know what God is thinking (in order to find his equal, he says, an Irishman is forced to converse with the Almighty). O’Hara’s performance perfectly balances the humour, energy, fierce loyalty and outright lunacy of the Irishman. Motivating Wallace throughout his campaign for freedom is his constant awareness of his wife Murron (Catherine McCormack) and his desire to be brave and even a hero for her.
The score by James Horner, at times stirring, at times melancholy,is always beautiful and moving. The Academy Award-winning cinematography by John Toll takes us from scenes of rolling green hills to brilliant blue skies, from epic battles with hundreds of soldiers to a quiet shot of Wallace staring up at tall trees and realizing one way he might be able to defeat England’s cavalry. The script by Randall Wallace is nicely paced and sparkles with wit, clever turns of phrase, and inspiring speeches (such as the very famous one that ends “They may take our lives, but they will never take our freedom!”) Gibson as director is able to bring out some wonderful performances from his actors, but none is better than the performance he himself provides. When Wallace is betrayed by someone close to him, Gibson plays the moment so well that it’s hard to think of his pain as anything but real. His Wallace goes from a playful romantic in love, stealing away Murron for a horseride in the rain, to a ferocious warrior in the heat of anger, ready to kill every English soldier out of a sense of vengeance at worst and a desire to free his land at best. Gibson’s talents are in full display (as both director and actor) in some of the final scenes of the movie, whose conclusion is as moving and powerful as any other movie I can think of. (Those final scenes draw inspiration from Christ’s Passion, and even more than I realized at first, as it took someone else to point out to me the parallel to Christ’s experience in Gethsemane).
What would you sacrifice your life for? Is there more to life than just just living? What inspires people to follow someone, even to their own almost certain death? What is more valuable than life itself?
Braveheart attempts an answer to those questions, and provides an illustration of Wallace’s claim that “Every man dies—not every man really lives.”