Braveheart (1996) dir. Mel Gibson
Starring: Mel Gibson, Patrick McGoohan, Brendan Gleeson, Sophia Marceau, Mary McCormack
It’s obvious now that self-sacrifice is Mel Gibson’s favourite fetish, but back then, before “Passion of the Christ” William Wallace carried the title as the on-screen hero with the most gruesome and painful act of mutilation. The tear-jerking finale is just one of a dozen eye-popping scenes that elevate violence to high art. After 11 years the unabashed emotional story of courage and patriotic English-hating pride still packs its emotional and visceral wallop like a blunt mace to the head.
I don’t mind the tampering of history to make its point, which I’ve been told by many a history-fanatic is the case with the story of William Wallace. Who cares. In 1280, with the evil English King, Edward Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan) on the throne Scotland is ruled under slavery-like oppression. The final straw is “Prima Nocte,” an act which allows a noble Lord to take the wife of a newly married woman to bed on her first night. At this time William Wallace, the humble son of a farmer, whose father died at the hands of the evil English army, has returned to Scotland to find his bride – his childhood love Murron MacClannough (Mary McCormack). But the noblemen get to Murran and kill her without remorse in order to goad Wallace into a fight. The reluctant warrior is unleashed with menacing vengeance. As he fights back, the entire village, and then the entire country, rallies behind Wallace to fight for the freedom of the people.
Ironically what stands in Wallace’s way is the stubborn politicking of the Scottish nobles who refuse to give up their land and title for freedom. Robert the Bruce (Angus McFadyen) who has the potential and conscience to unite the clans is manipulated into betrayal by his dying father. Despite these obstacles Wallace fights battle after battle and is close enough to winning before he’s captured and ultimately executed for his rebelliousness. But as a martyr he becomes stronger in death than life and under Robert the Bruce, the Scottish people finally win their freedom.
The major attraction of the film are the phenomenal battle scenes. After 10 years of imitation, Gibson’s film has yet to be topped for it’s visceral and relentless sword-wielding action. The beatdowns still bring a childlike smile to my face. My favourites include: the sword to the balls, the arrow in the bare ass, the knife to the face, the ball and chain beatdown to the nobleman’s head and the bloodly head-puncture at the beginning of the Stirling battle. The action is huge and complex and involve thousands of extras but Gibson shoots it so confidently nothing is missed or masked by a shaky camera.
“Braveheart” makes no apologies for being patriotic and partisan. As a result Gibson and writer Randall Wallace resort to caricatures for several of the key players in the film. While the fey son of the King provides humorous interludes (especially when his lover who is ‘skilled in the arts of war and military tactics’ is tossed out the window) they’re unnecessarily juvenile two-dimensional characterizations. Robert the Bruce is also key to the film but he’s consistently a brooding wanker without a backbone. Even in the final rousing scene he’s a half asleep before commanding the army to fight. We never see him rise to truly become the man Wallace wants him to be.
The film has been ripped off so many times in the last ten years, most famously by mega-hits “300” and “Gladiator”. They all owe gratitude to “Braveheart”. Remember it was Gibson’s second film as director (after the talkative drama “The Man Without a Face”) and so to craft a film of such epic scale only adds to its Gibson’s monumental achievement.
A new special edition DVD is now available from Paramount Home Entertainment. Buy it here: Braveheart (Special Collector's Edition)