Braveheart: The Greatest Film Ever Made

Braveheart
The middle distance.

Here’s the most historically accurate film since time itself began, starring Mel Gibson as iconic Scottish hero William Wallace.

Braveheart

Freedom! That’s what William Wallace (Mel Gibson) is after. The Scottish peasant (whose accent only occasionally drifts) is angry with the English.

In 1280 (according to the film), King Edward “Longshanks” invaded Scotland and took over. A young Wallace saw all the brutality of the English and grew up with revolutionary concepts.

His father and brother die whilst he’s young. But not before he gets some useful tips on life stuff.

As a young adult, he then hooks up with attractive young lady Murron MacClannough (Catherine McCormack).

They hit it off and marry, but those bastard English interfere and (in rather shocking fashion) publicly execute her.

Horrified and outraged, Wallace responds by starting a revolution. He wants the English out of Scotland and will do so through violent means.

The result is, with his charisma and natural sense of leadership, he’s able to rally fellow Scotsmen and head into battle against King Longshanks (played with terrific, vile verve by Patrick McGoohan).

Braveheart goes well out of its way to paint a picture of this guy being a total bastard. So, yes, he’s the central antagonist.

And from historical records, it does appear he was a bit of a prick.

To take on Longshanks, Wallace seeks assistance from nobleman Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen) and Wallace is able to lead a mighty battle onward.

What follows are a series of gruesome battle scenes the likes of which cinema hadn’t really seen before.

With thousands of extras, Gibson was able to showcase the type of scope that only a very big budget will allow.

In that iconic speech, we get the epic line, “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take… our freedom!” Nice one, Wallace!

And what follows is mayhem—a replication of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, which took place on 11th September 1297. And, yes, Wallace defeated English forces led by John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey.

However, the Scottish actually put in use clever strategies and battle tactics. They didn’t just run at each other and pile on in—as depicted below.

But, whatever, it still makes for rather riveting entertainment.

The chaos continues and King Longshanks send his son’s wife over to negotiate with the Scot.

That’s Princess Isabella of France (Sophie Marceau), who doesn’t really do too much in the film. She just stands around looking beautiful.

And, of course, Wallace and her hit it off and start a relationship. Just because.

As things rumble along, the English become increasingly worried about Wallace’s rampages across the UK.

Unfortunately for the Scotsman, betrayals kick in. Ultimately, Wallace’s efforts fall short. He’s captured and Longshanks (from his deathbed) orders his execution.

And that plays out in particularly gruesome fashion as well—Wallace is hung, drawn, and quartered for his troubles.

The film does end on a happier note, with Robert the Bruce and the Scots leading more battles against the English. And winning their freedom.

And that’s the plot. Okay then, dramatic stuff!  Braveheart mixes romance (sometimes rather weirdly) alongside brutal violence.

But at the heart of the film, you have a Hollywood style battle of good VS evil. Us English don’t get painted pretty in the thing. But hey ho, we don’t mind.

Otherwise, it’s a film that stands up well—even 25 years on. With strong performances and a brilliant score.

Although it’s easy to pick at the film and highlight its flaws, you can’t say Gibson does a bad job on the direction front.

Along with his strong performance, he does capture some sense of history. Yes, it’s not perfect. But it’s very entertaining.

The supporting cast is also largely excellent and they put their all into it, including the thousands of extras getting hacked to bits in the battles!

So, well worth another viewing. Just don’t think too hard about the historical element as the film plays out. Yes? Och!

Production

Paul Kaye’s character Dennis Pennis was around at the time of the film’s marketing runs. He was able to pin down Gibson with an absurd question.

Other than that, it was a massive clean sweep for the film. At least after production—critical acclaim was more or less universal.

Nominated for some 10 Oscars, it bagged half of that lot. Including Best Picture (fending off Sense and Sensibility, Babe, and Apollo 13 in the process).

As with James Cameron’s Titanic in 1997, everyone was swept along with the romanticism. Braveheart was everywhere!

Off its $65 million budget, it recouped $210 million worldwide at the box office. Not the most massive hit you could expect.

Except it then went on to dominate the VHS rental scene, raking in more cash.

The screenplay was written by Randall Wallace. It takes a few liberties with what probably happened (more on that further below).

Gibson passed on the script in 1993, but then the possibilities of the production kept his creative interest.

Using his company Icon Productions, he initially wanted Brad Pitt for the lead role. Gibson genuinely felt he was too old to take on Wallace.

However, distributors Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox argued Pitt wasn’t famous enough—they demanded Gibson, or they’d take the budget away. And that meant no film.

So, that’s why Gibson is in the role. In his late 30s at the time, the early scenes where he’s pretending to be 18… don’t really work (when you think about it, but that’s not what this film is really for).

Later in the movie, when he’s an adult, we think Gibson does a good job. It’s dramatic and emotive. You have to give him that, really, he obviously put his all into it.

Filming started in June of 1994. Most of Braveheart was shot in Scotland (you’ll be pleased to hear).

But due to the atrocious weather, the famous battle scenes were set in Ireland.

See filming in the rain for details there. Despite the relentless rain, cameras don’t really pick up the lighter stuff.

You can tell it was a wet production. Many of the characters have a habit of looking drenched and sodden during many scenes.

Still, the crew shifted country. And it still wouldn’t stop hurling it down.

But 1,600 Irish extras did their bit and engaged in the action. Note the use of fog machines and whatnot.

In editing, Gibson had to tone down the lunacy of the battle scenes to ensure a lower age certificate.

Also, in 2016 he stated there’s a four hour version of Braveheart he could reassemble. Should any distributors want to run with that. Freedom?

Historical Critique of Braveheart

At the time of its release in 1995, the film caused a really massive stir. Its battle scenes were rather unprecedented.

It blasted through the Oscars like it deserved everything and made Mel Gibson (its director and star) slightly more famous than he already was.

That led to films such as The Last Samurai taking on even mightier productions.

However, after the initial euphoria died down people began to realise the film is a bit of a historical mess. To put it mildly.

If you watch Braveheart as a standalone film with no relation to reality, then you get a jolly good, rollicking, psychotically violent rebellion/revenge story.

As that’s the odd thing about this film. It is good. Very good, at times, and if you switch your brain off it’ll sweep you along in its emotive way.

Take the soundtrack, for example, which is gorgeous and swells up to convince your brain you’re watching a classic film.

But! The problems. The problems. The bloody problems. If you start to dig a little deeper you’ll realise it’s all over the place.

Many dates are incorrect (inexplicably) and their are continuity errors. Plus anachronisms aplenty.

One of the main issues film buffs and historians focus on is the relationship between Wallace and Princess Isabella of France.

In reality, she would have been about three at the time Wallace was doing his rebellion thing. Which doesn’t work, you might realise.

Screenwriter Randall Wallace (ironic surname, eh?) rearranged history to make an entertaining film.

The issue is a lot of people still watch it now and think it represents what really played out. Erm, no. Mel Gibson wasn’t even alive in the Middle Ages, stupid!

Anyway, the strange decisions in place for the script aside, it’s still an entertaining film. Just don’t go into it think this is history.

32 comments

  1. Um….er …. I haven’t seen it. Or Gibson’s Gallipoli film, which apparently also played fast and loose with historical accuracy. Nor have I seen any of the Max Max movies. You may be wondering what planet I was living on during the late 20th century but it apparently wasn’t this one…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Clearly you’re not brave enough to watch it! Frankly, as you’re a historian, you may cringe and grimace at the disastrous historical accuracy.

      His other film, The Patriot, is a bit all over the place as well. In terms of entertainment, though, they do the job.

      Mad Max (the 2015 one with Charlize Theron) is excellent, though, and well worth anyone’s time.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I nearly saw that one, largely because of the flamethrower guitar guy. There’s a bar on Sydney’s Circular Quay just down from the Opera House, and they ran a promo stunt involving him standing on top of it (the bar, not the opera house…). I’ve drunk in that bar, but I never did get around to watching the movie.

        Like

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