Film Torments: Braveheart (1995)
CONTINUING our desperate foray into the clogging arteries of Oscar Month at Film Torments, we have Rich Kee’s analysis of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart – a film, and I quote, comprised of: “[A] three hour performance of self-fellatio.” Let’s bunker down.
We’re all hypocrites when it comes to historical fiction. All biopics take liberties with the facts in order to make an entertaining film. Yet sometimes a romanticised, bullshit-heavy movie is accepted by the critics and the public and sometimes it isn’t. What is it that makes Amadeus a great film and Anonymous not? Why did we adore The Queen but not Diana? Why has Titanic been forgiven while Pearl Harbour hasn’t?
The simple answer is that they’re just better motion pictures; we’ll allow for stuff being made up if the invention is satisfying and profound. When it comes to the Oscars in particular, exaggerated biography is the way to go if you want to rake in the awards. One of the more fanciful “true” stories to take home the Best Picture Oscar is Mel Gibson’s magnum opus: Braveheart.
Braveheart was released in 1995 and is one of the most “mid-nineties” films there is. It was an era of ambitious stars, all beautiful and chiselled, making their passion projects thanks to generous studios. CGI was in its infancy, and couldn’t yet be used to render detailed realistic backgrounds or create entire armies by multiplying footage of a dozen extras. Braveheart is, therefore, one of the last epics to have actually been filmed on an epic scale.
Unfortunately, despite its impressive scope, Braveheart is desperately shallow. The Scottish, as violent and drunken and lewd as they (obviously) are, are heroes all. There isn’t a Scot without honour in this whole film. Meanwhile, every Englishman is a snide coward who uses underhanded tactics (which is near-identical to the underhanded tactics used by the Scots, but is framed less flatteringly) to win battles against the passionate and worthy Scots. It’s like a propaganda film made 800 years too late – we might as well rename it Scottish Sniper.
The historical inaccuracies are numerous, so I’ll just sum up the big ones. Wallace was 18 when his father died, not a child, and his mother lived six years longer, so the orphan plot which takes up the first half-hour is bollocks; Scotland wasn’t occupied by England at the time of William Wallace’s youth, and wouldn’t be until the year before he died; Wallace lived in a shameful exile for his last years after everything went tits-up not long after the Battle of Stirling.
Princess Isabella of France was still a child and didn’t come to England until after Wallace was dead, and therefore was unlikely to have conceived a child with him, especially when her first child was born seven years after Wallace’s death; Robert the Bruce wasn’t at the Battle of Falkirk and definitely didn’t attempt to kill Wallace there. Suffice to say historians don’t care for this film.
Furthermore, there’s the various villainous Edwards. We know that Edward II had homosexual relationships and apparently had a habit of giving his lovers political power. Sure, when he’s portrayed as a snivelling weasel under the direction of a known homophobe it comes off quite hateful, but at least there’s an attempt at character development.
His father, King Edward Longshanks, is laughable in this film, even when played by veteran actor Patrick “Prisoner Number Six” McGoohan. He’s such a one-dimensional, unnecessarily evil portrayal of a King who was certainly ruthless but not nearly so soulless in real life. Gibson and his team were apparently even less interested in nuanced Englishmen than they were in nuanced Scotsmen.
The script is unimaginative and hokey; even with the calibre of actors Gibson assembled to kiss his character’s arse, the dialogue never comes to life. And I mean it when I say they kiss his arse: nary a conversation goes by in this film that isn’t about how awesome William Wallace is.
To the film’s credit, it plays with Wallace’s mythic status by showing how disappointed people are to find he isn’t seven feet tall and can’t kill quite so many dozens of men in a single blow, but then every time Wallace enters a battle he scores an implausibly high kill count. Knowing that Gibson himself is behind the camera as the French ladies swoon over his macho mullet, and knowing his ego as we do, makes Wallace’s constant shilling more than a little tedious.
Therein lies the big issue with watching Braveheart nowadays. As charming and handsome as he was in his golden age, it’s difficult to see Mel Gibson in any film without remembering what a scumbag the man is. He’s a fine leading man – not “Daniel Day-Lewis good” but not “Kevin Costner bad” either. However, he’s a zealous, misogynistic bigot with an apparent torture kink, and Braveheart is exactly the kind of film a man like that makes when he’s given millions of dollars to do it. Even Michael Jackson made it through the 00s with his 80s reputation in better shape, and he didn’t even make it through alive.
Gibson-bashing aside, do I really hate Braveheart? Not really. It’s not a good movie, but it’s a serviceable one and I understand why your uncle likes it (this film was made specifically for your uncle). The story flows well on its own terms and the shots of Scotland are breathtaking, while the cast is far better than a film this naff deserves. Did it deserve to win the Oscar for Best Picture? Or any of its other four Oscars? No, and I’m amazed that it did. Most baffling is the Best Makeup award, and Ian Bannen’s hilariously hideous makeup as the deformed elder Robert de Bruce drains all the gravitas from a sterling actor’s performance.
The film is littered with actors who are rarely disappointing but none of them are on top form here. Brendan Gleeson plays the noble oaf Hamish, David O’Hara makes the most of his bonkers role as Stephen of Ireland, and Brian Cox makes a larger impression in one early scene as Wallace’s uncle Argyle than almost any other actor in the film. The likes of Alun Armstrong, Peter Mullan and James Cosmo are always great to see, but they aren’t given the meaty roles they deserve in this film.
As for the women, Sophie Marceau and Catherine McCormack do their best with flat roles, but for the most part they’re just there to be beautiful lovers to Wallace. Marceau’s Princess Isabella could have been a far better character with more screentime, but ultimately she only amounts to one cold, cliché speech to the dying king in a subplot which makes no sense.
The Academy back in the nineties, for whatever reason, had a different standard of what earned their votes to what we have come to expect now. They loved to reward a large project; most of their winners were huge in scale, had a ton of characters, and were filled with sentimental epic-ness.
Meanwhile, the more challenging and innovative directors would have to wait until after 9/11 for people to reconsider the wanton destruction and moral simplicity. This was the era when Forrest Gump beat Pulp Fiction, Titanic beat L.A. Confidential and The English Patient beat Fargo. It’s no surprise that Braveheart is in that sort of company.
What eludes me above all about Braveheart is that I just don’t see why anyone would love it. Sure it’s entertaining and pulpy and if it’s on Channel 5 one night I’ll watch it until the awesome battle in the middle, and then switch over in the adverts. But that doesn’t make it good.
What about this film would make anyone want to tell their friends about it? What was so riveting about it that anyone would want to watch it several times? How could anyone pick this as the best film of any year, or even consider it a contender? I just don’t get it.
Maybe there’s some artistic depth which I’m missing, or maybe this film was a big gamechanger which millennials can’t appreciate. All I know is, in the year when Toy Story changed the entire landscape of cinema and wasn’t nominated for Best Picture because “cartoons aren’t for grown-ups”, Mel Gibson’s bloated and juvenile tribute to himself is what took home the statuette. That’s the nineties for you.