Like many best picture winners before it, Braveheart brings its audience to an exotic location. David Lean showed us the Arabian desert and a bridge in the river Kwai in Burma. Bertolucci brought us into the Forbidden City.
Now Mel Gibson has brought us to a new exotic land, Scotland.
The owner of the eponymous brave heart is a man named William Wallace. We first meet him as a boy in 1280 when he witnesses the murderous treachery of King Edward (“Longshanks”). The child actor (James Robinson) who plays young William is excellent. He really sells the backstory. I believe this kid grew up to be Mel Gibson*.
Orphaned, young William’s uncle Argyle (Brian Cox) takes him under his wing, taking him across Europe where he is educated and exposed to different cultures. He’s a renaissance man before the renaissance.
After being away for years he returns to Scotland. Since he’s been gone Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan) has given the Scottish noblemen land and various rights and privileges as a means to control them.
When Wallace arrives many men are discontent, seeing through Longshanks’ methods and desire their independence. They want to pull Wallace into the fight but he’s only concerned with reconnecting with his childhood friends, his best mate Hamish (Brendan Gleeson) and the lass he fancies, Murron (Catherine McCormack).
The two fall in love (Murron and William…this isn’t Brokeback Highland) but Longshanks has ordered an edict as an attempt to squelch the Scottish uprising.
“Perhaps the time has come to reinstitute an old custom. Grant them prima noctes: first night. When any common girl inhabiting their lands is married, our nobles shall have sexual rights to her on the night of her wedding. If we can’t get them out, we’ll breed them out.” – Longshanks
This forces William and Murron to have a super-secret wedding. But that doesn’t stop the local English garrison from attempting to assault Murron. Wallace comes to her rescue but while he’s escaping they capture and execute her to draw him out.
Wallace leads his clan on a revenge mission, slaughtering the entire garrison. He can stay out of the fray no longer and finds himself leading more and more men against English tyranny.
Gibson and McCormack had great chemistry together. I really bought them as a couple in love. In fact, the first 40 minutes of the film feels a lot like an epic, historical romance.
But it’s worth the time invested. As a result I fully understood William’s motivation after her murder.
From here the story takes on a decidedly familiar tone. Wallace works to unite the clans in a revolutionary war to drive the English out of their homeland.
As the story progresses Longshanks becomes more and more frustrated by the Scottish flies buzzing around his head. No matter what he does he can’t seem to swap them away. He’s also dealing with his weak and probably gay son, Edward (Peter Hanly) who is also no help in dealing with the William Wallace problem.
“I shall offer a truce and pie him off. But who will go to him? Not I. If I fell under the sword of that murderer that might be my head in a basket. And not my gentle son. The mere sight of him would only encourage the enemy to take over the whole country.” – Longshanks
But that “gentle son” has recently taken a wife, Isabella of France (Sophie Marceau), as an arranged marriage for geopolitical purposes (and a bit of a beard for Edward). Isabella is smart and beautiful. Longshanks sends her to meet with Wallace to try and negotiate.
This sets in a motion what could have easily been a cliché-ridden love story. It’s not. The two find comfort in each other’s arms (among other things) but it’s a different kind of relationship.
When I first saw the film in the theater in 1995 I was confused by this a little. I was so focused at the time on this man avenging the death of his wife. How could he turn to another woman?
But Wallace doesn’t fight because his wife was murdered. That’s only what drew him in. He fights for Scotland. He fights for his people.
It’s easy to root for these Scots.
- They’re underdogs.
- They’re victims of their oppressors.
- They’re super cool.
In some ways it feels a lot like Sparatcus. The uprising of an oppressed people against all odds. One of the battle scenes felt a lot like something out of Spartacus. There were thousands of extras on the battlefield. The start of one battle felt a lot like the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Some have complained that there are historical inaccuracies in the film. I don’t doubt it. Even the most faithful biopics make some changes. After all, it’s a film meant to entertain. So as long as the embellishments are reasonable I’m OK with that.
But I’m not a history expert so I asked my history educator friends what they thought.
One thought the two biggest errors were the relationship between Wallace and Isabella and the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Apparently in the film the Battle of Stirling Bridge doesn’t have the Stirling Bridge in it.
As the story goes Mel Gibson was asked by a local Scot why the Battle of Stirling Bridge was filmed on an open plain he answered, “The bridge got in the way.”
The local man replied, “Aye, that’s what the English found.”
This was by far the bloodiest best picture winner yet, even more so than The Silence of the Lambs. But the battle scenes are unique and interesting, even if they are somewhat interchangeable. The great Oscar-nominated score by James Horner really helps build the tension.
As the story progresses the third act turn is excellent. It’s like a magnet pulling you into the story’s conclusion. When William is betrayed Gibson’s performance says everything in his eyes. It’s written all over his face. It’s outstanding.
How in the world did Mel not get nominated for best actor!?! In fact, this film received zero acting nominations. More on that travesty (and rarity) later.
When William Wallace is finally captured and facing the punishment for his treason against Longshanks the film took on the feel of 1966 best picture winner A Man for All Seasons.
Sir Thomas More was imprisoned and taken to trial for refusing to sign an oath swearing allegiance to King Henry as Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
His friend, Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk tried to persuade him to sign the oath to win his release.
Duke of Norfolk: Why can’t you do as I did, and come with us…for fellowship?
Sir Thomas More: And when we die, and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me…for fellowship?
William Wallace was imprisoned for treason. He was facing execution regardless, but Longshanks wanted to break him and teach a lesson to any would be uprisers.
Executioner: William Wallace, you stand intained of High Treason.
William: Against whom?
Executioner: Against your king. Have you anything to say?
William: Never in my whole life did I swear allegiance to him.
Executioner: It matters not. He is your king. Confess, and you may receive a quick death. Deny, and you must be purified by pain. Do you confess? Do you confess? Then on the morrow you shall receive your purification.
Like Sparatcus and Sir Thomas More, William Wallace couldn’t be broken. But like Sparatcus and Sir Thomas More it also cost him his life.
The torture scenes are extreme. You wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d given in and confessed. So when he doesn’t, it’s powerful (even though you were sure he wasn’t going to because you’ve seen movies before).
At the 68th annual Academy Awards, Braveheart came in a favorite but not a heavy one. It had the most nominations with 10 but Apollo 13 was right on it’s heels with 9. And although Ron Howard didn’t get a directing nomination it did have two supporting acting nominations for Ed Harris and Kathleen Quinlan (remember her?).
But neither Mel Gibson nor Patrick McGoohan were among the nominees. In fact, Sophie Marceau wasn’t amazing but she was good enough to take Quinlan’s place in the supporting actress category.
When it took home the big prize it became the ninth film to win best picture without a single acting nomination. But the first three (Wings, All Quiet on the Western Front and Grand Hotel) were in the first years of the Oscars when they only had best actor and actress. Supporting acting categories weren’t introduced until the 9th Academy Awards.
In looking at the other five it says more about those films than it does their actors. Four of them were in the 1950s which was a really crappy decade for best pictures. Some were amazing. Some were terrible. These four were terrible (An American in Paris, The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days and Gigi). The Last Emperor (1987) was just a visually stunning film in a weak year.
Braveheart isn’t any of those things. It should have had at least a couple of nominations. For crying out loud, if they could nominate Kevin Costner for Dances with Wolves they should have nominated Mel Gibson for Braveheart.
The rotten cherry on top is that the winner that year was Nicolas Cage. It’s odd to think nowadays that Nicolas “Not the bees!” Cage has a best actor Oscar on his mantle.
But don’t feel too bad for Mel. He took home two Oscars that night for producing and direction.
With his directing win, Gibson became the fifth actor-turned-director to accomplish the feat.
- Robert Redford (Ordinary People)
- Warren Beatty (Reds)
- Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves)
- Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven)
I don’t include Woody Allen in this list because Woody acts almost exclusively in his own movies.
In the end Braveheart took home five golden statues and established Mel Gibson as a legitimate film director. Unlike Costner this wasn’t beginner’s luck. He’s directed three successful films since Braveheart (The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto and Hacksaw Ridge). All were well done, receiving a dozen Oscar nominations together, including another best director nod for Gibson just last year.
*Well, not literally Mel Gibson but you get the idea.