Special Review: “Braveheart” – A Tale of Love and Conflict
Produced by: Mel Gibson, Alan Ladd, Jr., Bruce Davey, Stephen McEveety
Written by: Randall Wallace
Starring: Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan, Catherine McCormack, Angus Macfadyen
Music by: James Horner
Whenever I ask people what their favorite films are, undoubtedly one out of maybe five people has listed Braveheart in their list. That’s not a 100% scientific assessment, now, but you get my point. People really like this film!
The thing is, I’ve never been able to relate. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the film. It was just that… well, I had never seen it! Much like The Godfather and Casablanca, this was one of those all time classics that, despite being a massive film fan, I had somehow managed to not see.
Eventually, I did see The Godfather and its sequels, and I did see Casablanca, and both sets of films definitely lived up to their reputations (including The Godfather Part III being the most pointless sequel). But I continued to remain uninitiated into the clan of Braveheart fans, and I continued to be gawked at by its respective members as they questioned the validity of me as not just a film fan, but as a human being — “You mean, you have never seen Braveheart?” they all gasped!
But you know what? As fair as that was, their proselytizing of Mel Gibson’s opus did nothing but make me tired of the film, even though I hadn’t seen it. Just when I thought to myself, “Okay, I should go see this movie. I know it’s nearly three hours long, but I really should see this movie. My reputation is on the line!”, someone would inevitably remind me that “it’s one of the best movies ever!” and I would be turned off yet again. I dunno. Maybe I was getting a taste of my own medicine. I imagine this is how others feel when I try to get them to watch a movie I love – “But Moon is such a great movie! The character development! The stark cinematography! Sam Rockwell interacting with himself in two different roles! David Bowie’s son directed!”
Braveheart remained in my Netflix queue for a long while. Then I switched to Blockbuster for my home delivery service and, probably out of obligation, I threw it into the queue there, too. And again it sat there for a while as I kept pushing it down the list in favor of other movies. I just wasn’t sure that I wanted to sacrifice three hours of my life to a movie I was so unreasonably adamant about not caring for. I would remember the few scenes I had seen in one of my English classes while discussing gender issues, and I remembered I didn’t care much for it, not necessarily because of the subject matter, but because… well, it just didn’t do anything for me. What was so freaking great about Braveheart?
Then, one day, I neglected to tend to my queue. And I got an e-mail in my inbox: “Blockbuster has shipped Braveheart.”
“Huh,” I thought to myself, thinking this may have been divine intervention. I had been promising my friend, Robert, one of the film’s devoted disciples, for the better part of our friendship that I would have him over when I got around to watching the movie. But, again, I kept delaying my promises. “That’ll teach you to play with your friend’s emotions,” God seemed to be saying. “You can devote three hours of your life to watch a movie one of your friends recommended!” And I remorsefully agreed.
“Guess what,” I texted my friend. “I got Braveheart coming in. Want to come over on Saturday?” I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of a repeated “YES!” followed by a bunch of chatter about how mind-blowing the experience would be for me. Like a hesitant atheist friend who had finally agreed to come to church, I humored him. “It better be good,” I remember saying. And, if it wasn’t, I was prepared to let as many heads roll as I expected there to be in the film.
Saturday came, about a week ago as of this writing. My roommate Aaron, who had seen the film but not for a really long time, made homemade pizza that night. One with pepperoni and vegetables, the other a puttanesca-style with anchovies, kalamata olives, and basil. Robert, I remember, couldn’t handle the anchovies. It’s an acquired taste, for sure, and Aaron wasn’t offended. I, meanwhile, was left wondering if I would enjoy the movie as much as I was enjoying the delicious pizza. (I have a sophisticated palate, you see….)
I’m certain most everyone knows the basic plot of Braveheart, right? The film roughly covers the life of Scottish hero William Wallace, from his childhood on up until his gruesome public execution at the hands of the evil English empire. A lot of noise has been made and controversies stirred over the film’s historical inaccuracies, and, indeed, it really couldn’t have been that much more historically inaccurate had it added some fire breathing dragons into the story. Whatever, though. A film should be taken on its own merits and all that. One more film merely “inspired by a true story” isn’t going to hurt the world so long as it’s at least a good one, right? Yeah, sure.
The thing about all of Braveheart‘s inaccuracies is that none ever really add any complexity to the characters. Mel Gibson plays Wallace as the traditional he-man hero as well as every woman’s stereotypical dream specimen. He’s witnessed some horrors in his life, and his crusade to “unite the clans” against the forces of evil, otherwise known as the English, is really quite understandable in the context of the film. They’ve murdered countless Scottish citizens, and Wallace could be forgiven for the rampage he goes on when his newlywed wife (Catherine McCormack, 28 Weeks Later) is publicly executed by the English sheriff for her defiance at his attempt to rape her. … Wait, what?
Yeah, you see, that’s the thing about this film. It’s all very black and white, with the Scottish being good and the English being evil, and the French somewhere else providing a second lover (Sophie Marceau, The World is Not Enough) for Wallace to woo from a distance. Meanwhile, she laments her betrothed husband’s inclination to pay his gay lover more attention than he does her. The only time you’re basically asked to sympathize with the English characters is when the tyrannical King Edward I (Patrick McGoohan) tosses his sniveling son’s said lover out a window. Huzzah!…
There are two characters, Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen) and his lepper father (Ian Bannen), who are tempted to side with the English, but the son realizes the error of his ways and goes back to siding with the Scotts, chiding his father for his lack of loyalty. I guess everybody has their Benedict Arnolds, including the noble Scotts.
(This reminds me – another Mel Gibson film, The Patriot, which may as well have been titled Braveheart II: The American Way, also faced the same controversies that Braveheart has regarding its historical revisionism, its reliance on extreme gore, and even its portrayal of the English as unyielding tyrants. What is it about Mel Gibson and racism?)
Technically, the movie is sound. The gory action sequences were admirable, if disorientingly chaotic at first. I had to adjust my expectations to enjoy them, but they won me over. I’ve gotten used to slick choreography and stylized visuals, but it was quite nice to see some truly brutal battle sequences, even if the blood was comically cartoon-like. (Did they use corn syrup and red food coloring or what?)
The speeches delivered throughout the film are pure Oscar-bait, though, and I really couldn’t have cared any less for them, including Wallace’s famous but overwrought”they will never take our freedom” speech. Perhaps it’s just Mel Gibson’s swaggering performance that turned me off. Gibson is actually the worst part of the film. While everyone else is at least relatively in sync with their hammy, Shakespearean overacting, Gibson takes it to another level, making Wallace out to be more manly and inhumanly noble than Superman – and at least Superman isn’t human. By the time we got to the end of the film, when he’s being publicly castrated, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that this was more about making a film about what it means to be a true “man’s man” than a actually being a meaningful film about the cost of freedom.
Maybe I expected too much? Soon after Wallace’s head had rolled, so too did the credits, and Robert turned and looked at me with a kind of self-assurance that told me he felt as though I had just introduced to one of the most life-changing films of my life. I didn’t exactly know what to say for a bit. And then he asked me: “So… what did you think?”
“…Gladiator was better.”
It was all I could really think to say. I felt like Robert had when he tasted the anchovies. The movie’s an acquired taste. Robert thought it was fantastic. I did not.
In the end, I suppose I should just be proud of myself for having finally given it a try and knocking it off my list. Braveheart had won two “major” Oscars after all (Best Picture and Best Director), and that’s in addition to three “merely technical” Oscars it earned for makeup, cinematography, and sound editing. Obviously enough people thought it was a good enough film to award it these trophies, and while that in no way verifies its status as a truly great film, it does mean that I am missing out on something that others simply cannot get enough of.
Do I feel inadequate as a man for not liking Braveheart‘s unrelenting manliness? No. Do I feel as though I just don’t “get it”? Again, no. Braveheart is alright, but it’s definitely an overrated, aggressively mediocre epic. But, if you feel like burning off three hours of your life, then by all means, go ahead and enjoy. As for me, I feel as though my first viewing of the film may be my last, at least by choice. I have seen the film, and I have faced my prejudices, only to find that they have been affirmed. As expected, I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t really enjoy it that much either. And while it doesn’t commit the one unforgivable sin of being utterly boring, it didn’t really pique my interest too much, either. In the end, I’m mostly just going to miss the ability to say, “I still haven’t seen it,” and then watch people’s reactions. And now I’m left wondering: What will my next Braveheart will be?
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3 / 5