In 1995 Mel Gibson came out with Braveheart, of which he was both director and protagonist. Since his debut behind the camera had been the anonymous The Man Without a Face, released two years earlier, it was hard to know what to expect from an epic movie about the life of William Wallace, one of the heroes of Scottish independence. And what about it?
Well, it’s because of that movie that today everyone is sure about who William Wallace was, that he died tortured by the British, and that his last spoken word was “Freedom” screamed at the top of his lungs before being executed. Braveheart has entered today’s culture, everyone has seen it, and it has a fantastic and very recognizable soundtrack. Having re-watched it recently, I wonder: does it deserve its high reputation? My answer is yes, it does, but there are several things about this film that are less than good. And some are terrible. I’ll explain below, and I won’t worry too much about spoilers with such a popular movie!
The first part of Braveheart is great and practically flawless. It starts with the young William Wallace who witnesses the death of a good number of Scottish captains at the hands of the vile King of England, Edward I Longshanks. Soon afterwards, he becomes an orphan since his father is killed in the ensuing battles. Raised by uncle Argyle (Brian Cox), William returns to his home village with the innocent intention to marry his childhood love, the beautiful Murron (Catherine McCormack), and be a farmer. But the British don’t want to leave him alone and kill her for resisting a rape attempt by one of the soldiers of the garrison stationed in the Scottish region where William lives. So there’s only one thing to do: rebel and kill all the British until they leave Scotland!
Wallace quickly gains the favor of the population, but not that of all the Scottish nobles. While some of them initially help him, for example in the battle of Stirling, Robert the Bruce (maneuvered by his father) will always oppose him, despite the admiration he feels for the brave Austral… ehm, Scottish William Wallace. The series of victories of the latter will culminate with the conquest of York (this never happened, as far as I know), only to be followed by a stunning defeat at Falkirk. Up to this point, the film is an epic thrilling ride and it’s wonderful to watch: there are beautiful images, an incredible cinematography, a memorable soundtrack, the actors are all perfect physically and with their acting, and Gibson’s ability to shoot the action scenes is really amazing (in the very interesting commentary contained in the DVD that I have, Gibson speaks about the various techniques he used, some learned when he worked with his friend George Miller in the Mad Max movies). And, perhaps surprisingly, Gibson pulls out a very credible Scottish accent (also according to some of my Scottish friends), acquired by living in a flat above a Glascow pub for a few weeks.
The battles, in particular, are incredible and will be forever part of the history of cinema. Thousands of extras, 100% practical special (no horse was hurt to shoot this film, although in some cases it seems almost impossible), mud and blood everywhere… this is true epicness!!!
And then… the second part of the movie unfortunately doesn’t even have half the strength of the first. For example, both Wallace’s private vengeance towards the Scottish nobles who betrayed him and the romance with Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau) really don’t work. The historical inaccuracies become too many to be ignored (even in the first part there are some: the ius primae noctis never worked like that, for example, but it doesn’t matter, it’s a good narrative trick to move forward the story! And the battle of Stirling didn’t go as seen in the film, but why should we care about that?), and the story becomes almost pure fantasy with Robert the Bruce personally defending the King of England… If I were Scottish, I would be angry for the screen treatment of the person who gave independence to Scotland in 1328! And yes, of course the final scene redeems him a little, but the character emerging from the movie is a mean little person!
However, the ending with the harrowing torture of our hero, which actually happened, and his FREEDOM shouted at the point of death… have a devastating force, I find it impossible not to cry with that scene. With Braveheart, Mel Gibson in my opinion showed that he could be a great director, and it impresses me even more because he was also the protagonist! In short, this movie is a must-watch, even with its historical inaccuracies and with its second part which is much weaker than the first. It’s almost three hours long, but I assure you that it feels like it’s only twenty minutes! Ciao!