Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne

Mel Gibson’s Braveheart

Posted by Max Lalanne on October 8, 2012

It’s somewhat telling that the 13th-century-set epic Braveheart, directed by, and starring, Mel Gibson, opens with a narration: “I shall tell you of William Wallace. Historians from England will say I am a liar, but history is written by those who have hanged heroes.” A not particularly convincing tell-off right from the start to whatever historical inaccuracies and absurdities that one might encounter in this film, and they are countless, it also establishes the mood and context of the picture. Braveheart asks you to set aside your presumptions and embrace what you see and feel in front of you, and the audience bears witness to the undaunted and thrilling passion that Gibson brings to this film and to his performance as Wallace, who made sure he lived and, like Spartacus and the countless other revolutionaries before him, died a free man.

This film wears its heart proudly on its sleeve and doesn’t hold anything back – that apparent passion translates to rampant bloodiness and gore, the afore-mentioned carelessness for what really happened in favor of and in search of cinematic perfection, and a sort of fully unafraid, out-there inspirational corniness that might be best summed up in Wallace’s last defiant yell before his beheading: “Freeeeeedooommmmm!”

Ah, Wallace. He’s a self-professed “savage” who covers his ruggedly handsome face with blue warpaint and kills soldiers left and right with a mad fury. And yet he’s an intelligent, literate and sensitive man, merely driven to violence by an unyielding anger to avenge his slain wife. That swiftly turns into something more, a bloody campaign against the English overlords and a promise of freedom for all of Scotland (that’s constantly undermined by the local lords’ resistance to a full-fledged war).

Gibson, with his long hair, blue eyes, and a thick brogue, plays Wallace as a romantic, uncouth yet endearingly sensitive hero that makes a princess swoon when he’s not slashing limbs off. It’s as if he was born to play this role, made all the more impressive by the fact he not only had his character to invest in but also the entire film.

Saving Braveheart from being an exercise in self-indulgence is very little, but I’d be damned if I wasn’t entertained and engrossed throughout. Handsomely mounted by cinematographer John Toll and set off by James Horner’s evocative score (which, I feel, directly inspired that of this year’s animated film Brave), the film takes its time in properly starting with a young Wallace, who wants to go help his farmer father fight the English. “I know you can fight, but it’s our wits that make us men,” his father tells him. The next time that we see him, however, he’s a lifeless corpse being pulled on a cart through the moors, and the orphan boy is taken in by his kindly, educated uncle.

Jump to a dozen or so years later, and Wallace is returning from his journeys and falling in love with his childhood sweetheart, Murron (the lovely Catherine McCormack), whom he takes on night rides in the pouring rain in the Scottish heartland and later secretly weds. However, the relative happiness is not to last. Murron, having been saved by Wallace from being raped by some brutish English soldiers under the command of the local lord but failing to escape, gets her throat slit in public for treason. In a vengeful fury, Wallace returns to the village and proceeds to kick the ass out of the entire English garrison (who’s been expecting him, mind) with some help from the villagers.

That sequence is the first in the film to show the shockingly visceral violence, as soldiers get skewered with spears, dismembered with swords, punched by improvised knuckledusters in the throat, and whacked across the face with what looks suspiciously like a nunchaku all in the matter of thirty seconds or so. However, it’s far from the last, as the audience is treated to several more large-scale battles, all filmed in the same relentlessly brutal way and all giving us the same giddy, adrenaline-boosting pleasure of watching some scrappy Scots fight the armored, well-equiped forces of the cold-hearted King Edward “Longshanks” (Patrick McGoohan).

Braveheart, and Gibson, have been criticized for being Anglophobic, albeit only by modern British publications such as The Guardian. That’s a special kind of nonsense. Really, although the film is strong with Scottish patriotism and national pride, the timeless, universally recognized message of freedom and struggle against overwhelming odds is far too great to be constrained to a war against two nations.

Ultimately, Braveheart is a fantastically thrilling, emotionally involving achievement. It’s fast and bloody and fun, and what more could you possibly ask for in a film such as this? [A-]

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