BRAVEHEART (1995)

Featured imageI knew this movie was one of Mouse’s favorites of all time. Gearing up to watch it, though, my heart and mind were a little distracted. I’ve been feeling at a real loss at the state of our world, and particularly the ways in which Black life is valued in this country. I started reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which outlines in scathing detail the undeniable systemic racism of our criminal justice system. We sat down to watch Braveheart, and I thought it would be far removed from what was most at the forefront of my mind. I didn’t think a film that took place in Scotland would have anything at all to do with some of the frustration and powerlessness I was feeling.

But I was not entirely correct. Braveheart is a powerful story of individuals rising up against oppression. It’s about those who are marginalized banding together in the interest of their own humanity and in the interest of justice. I had to suspend a lot of what I know about Mel Gibson as a person and focus instead on the incredible character he plays – William Wallace, a proud Scot who has witnessed brutality and atrocity towards his people and even his own father from a young age. He is all too familiar with what it is like to live under tyranny in the guise of the “law” – namely oppression by English soldiers and lords. The English are there because King Edward “Longshanks” of England has successfully conquered Scotland and has been shoring up his power there for some time. These people occupy the land of the Scots and act with impunity – partaking in a tradition of raping newlywed young Scot women on the day of their weddings as part of a “law” which protects them from doing so. Wallace has gotten to see other parts of the world, having been raised by his Uncle Argyle in Rome. He has ability to speak other languages and sense of life beyond this occupation. When the English soldiers attempt to rape his childhood love, a woman he married in secret, the two of them fight back. Tragically, she doesn’t make the confrontation out alive – but Wallace does, and is driven to fight English oppression over Scotland once and for all.

YES YES YES! I’ve referred to Braveheart as the “greatest movie of all time” only half-jokingly. I love it dearly and I think it is big budget Hollywood at its best. With its romanticized retelling of history and thousands of costumed extras, this very embellished film about Scottish folk hero William Wallace recalls the work of Griffith and Demille. Indeed, one could argue that Best Picture was invented to reward and encourage just this sort of film in the first place. Nothing here is understated. It is good guys fighting bad guys, classic entertainment. But it’s superbly crafted entertainment. It depicts action without farce and emotion without schmaltz.

The creative force behind Braveheart was star, director and producer Mel Gibson. And like Katy said, that makes things just a little more complicated. Receiving this award may have been the high point of Gibson’s life. He’d won esteem for his work on both sides of the camera. Not only was he wildly popular with audiences, he was a beloved public figure; a family man who was charming in interviews with a reputation for on-set clowning. Discussion of Gibson today largely centers on how he has disgraced himself with drunken, racist tirades. I am certainly a fan of the man’s work. I was once a fan of the man. And there is the question: how much should our distaste for the artist inform how we evaluate the art? I don’t know, but I’ll bet we’ll have a lot more to say about this when we get to Annie Hall.

Braveheart has been on the receiving end of criticism for sure. One thing that’s been a little hard to shake, despite my intense love for the movie, is the portrayal of the English prince, and I’m not alone in this. In the film, he is a classic sissy boy who seems more interested in dressing up his boyfriend than fulfilling his duties at court or in the royal bedroom. Complicating this is the fact that the real Edward II was an ineffectual ruler and probably did have relationships with men. Still, I wouldn’t point to this as an a positive or stereotype-defying portrayal of a gay man on screen.

One criticism that I have no interest in is the rather wild liberties taken with actual historical fact. If you want to learn history, read a history book (and you should). Braveheart won the Oscar for Best Picture, not Most Accurate Reenactment of Real Life. This is big screen entertainment and I don’t feel it’s under any obligation to let facts get in the way of a killer story.

I agree with Chris that it isn’t the film’s job to necessarily depict history precisely, but I do get a little afraid when a film is close to some parts of history but then takes liberties simply because I know more people will go to see the film than will ever crack open a book. That is sad, but I think true. Perhaps it just underscores how important it is that we advocate for media and cultural literacy, for asking questions, for going to the source yourself.

I also want to echo what Chris said about the depiction of Edward II. It seems like a cheap shot to represent a gay character in this way. Who knows – perhaps it could be read as the foreshadowing of Gibson’s horrible bigotry and stereotyping which he would treat the rest of the world to in full later.

The MPAA rating for Braveheart is R for “brutal medieval warfare”. Their words. How appealing that sounds to you may pretty much predict how you feel about this movie. I thought about composing my blog post for Braveheart entirely of a list of favorite moments, starting with the scene where Wallace swings a sword like a baseball bat and cuts off a guy’s head. Most of the rest of the list would be similar depictions of ultra-violence and rousing speeches about FREEDOM. This sounds like a story in danger of descending into WWF territory. What prevents this is the Robert Bruce character, the powerful Scottish noble whose heart calls him to join Wallace’s cause but is swayed by his cynical father. His presence makes Braveheart more than just a story about a fanatic getting lots of revenge.

Robert Bruce’s character is painful to watch, the same way it is painful to watch people you love – friends and family – fail to stand up for what is right and just when there is social pressure preventing them from doing so. That also felt pretty relevant to many current social realities and to fights against injustice throughout history. It brings to mind quotes about how societies really begin to fail and inequality really begins to flourish not because evil people act, but because good people do nothing. Silence as collusion/consent, etc. It is hard to break away from one’s family to stand on one’s own with conviction. It is clear that when Wallace sees that Bruce has betrayed him, it breaks his heart. This was probably the most painful scene in the movie for me to watch. When you think you have solidarity and commitment, a friend on your side, and you realize that is absolutely not that case – it feels gutting. The film does a great job of presenting this.

Watching Braveheart start to finish was thrilling, as it always is. We’ll see if war seems as fun when we watch our next movie. Until then…FREEDOM!!!

Also nominated in 1995:
Apollo 13
Babe
Il Postino: The Postman
Sense and Sensibility

Next film: THE DEER HUNTER (1978)

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2 Responses to “BRAVEHEART (1995)”

  1. Dan Eppihimer Says:

    i was just thinking last night abt if you two continued this project or if it was on hiatus. And this morning saw this, and im certain this is my favorite joint review that youve both done so far. I enjoyed the contrast between excitement and skepticism, and how those two things relate to you as individuals, and how the conversation comes together in relation to each other.

    • Thanks Dan! We truly love doing it and it means the world to us to have our pals read it. ❤ I forget what film is next but the project is still going strong!!! Hope to see you soon too!

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