When the English soldiers who control the home town of William Wallace kill his wife, Wallace begins a bloody revolution that would eventually win the freedom of his home country of Scotland. This is his story.
Mel Gibson has done considerable damage to his public image over the years. You can blame it on his battle with alcoholism, his troubled upbringing or his total inability to keep his mouth shut at inopportune times, but thanks to a couple of incidents people may never look at Gibson the same again. That is unfortunate because he has such amazing talent and a body of work that borders on excellence. Whether it is his breakout role as Mad Max Rockatansky or his charismatic Sergeant Martin Riggs in the original Lethal Weapon, you can’t deny the man’s acting abilities. Yet for all his acting skills, the one area he truly excelled was behind the camera in the 1995 epic Braveheart.
Mel Gibson stars as William Wallace, the man that led the resistance against the English occupation during the Wars of Scottish Independence. The movie, while rooted in history, remains a fictional account of this important character. That should not discount the brilliance of the film as Gibson was able to craft a near perfect historical epic based on this era of Scottish history.
Writer Randall Wallace admitted to scripting the entire screenplay before ever doing any deep historical research into the life of the real William Wallace. Simply taking what he already knew about the events of the time and the legends and rumors of the man’s life, he created a story using the basic Heroes Journey, with Wallace the center character facing the trials and tribulations set before him to eventually achieve greatness.
We start with William Wallace as a young boy (James Robinson) who watches his father leave for war. His father would die fighting a losing battle against Edward I of England, also known as Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan). Wallace would be taken out of Scotland by his uncle Argyle Wallace (Brian Cox) who would become a mentor to young William and teach him the only way to attain victory is by first using your mind.
William would return to Scotland as a man, only wishing to be a farmer and live peacefully, avoiding the ongoing oppression by English troops who had taken control of his village. He reunites with his best friend, Hamish Campbell (Brendan Gleeson) as well as his childhood sweetheart Murron (Catherine McCormack). After professing his love for Murron, the two marry in a private ceremony despite protests from her father. Shortly after their secret marriage English soldiers attempt to rape Murron and William races to her rescue. The act is seen as rebellious and Murron is publically executed before William can save her and set in motion the Scottish rebellion led by William, who then swore vengeance against the English oppressors.
The movie clocks in at a little less than three hours and it is a testament to the skillful direction by Gibson that it seemed to fly by. There are very few moments where it slows down, yet characters are allowed to grow and develop amidst all the battles and large set pieces. Gibson is solid in his role as William Wallace, giving him just the right touch of doubt and despair while never allowing his heroism to be in doubt. Despite the fact that the revolution was started in a fit of blind rage, the William Wallace that we see at the end was a man who fought because he believed he could free Scotland, a man who wanted nothing more than to have a country to claim as his own.
Patrick McGoohan provides a strong antagonist as the King of England, a man who is both demanding and vengeful of those under him yet believes that he is fighting for what is the right for his people. The best villains are not the cold blooded, merciless killers without a soul, but men who believe they are fighting for what is right at all costs to the opposition who they believe are wrong. The best antagonist is the man who believes he is the protagonist and McGoohan is able to balance that villainy throughout the movie. When he kills his son’s lover, you know he believes it is the right thing to do for both his son and his people, but despite it all it is an act of sheer despicable brutality. This is not to say that he is pure evil, only that he extols the arrogance of a man who believes he is justified.
At the same time, Gibson portrays William Wallace as a hero with true faults. Wallace is not a man who preaches the virtue of nobility in this movie. He is a man who would ride his horse into a man’s home and smash the unarmed man’s face in with a mallet in the name of revenge. He would stab a running man in the back just as soon as he would fight a man face-to-face. Wallace is the hero because he only wishes for freedom from the English occupancy of his country. He dreams of independence to choose their own ruler and live under their own rules. The men he fights and bleeds with are simple men of the land and the fact they are fighting a large English force whose purpose is to conquer makes them more sympathetic. They are no less virtuous than the English soldiers, yet they are the underdogs and the heroes of this film.
The battle sequences are simply spectacular in the movie. Gibson has a very good eye when framing these large set pieces. The fighting is brutal and relentless, yet there is a touch of humanity in the fights. The battle between Wallace’s men and the English troops where Wallace paints himself blue and leads his men in a spirited fight remains the high point of the movie. The Scottish would taunt the English soldiers, raising their kilts and flashing them before taking a defensive stance under their shields during the archer attacks. The set piece was magnificent and was set up in spectacular fashion.
At the basic core of the movie was a story of one man, an unlikely hero who was forced to accept his role. William Wallace wanted nothing more than to be a farmer and live his life peacefully with the woman he loved. When that woman was taken from him he became a revolutionary who fought valiantly against overwhelming odds. While he did not live to see the eventual victory his revolution would earn, it was this man who influenced a country to remain strong, to bleed for their king and fight for their freedom. Throughout the entire story, William was led by one memory – that of his love for Murron. Before his execution, he would look out and see her smiling back at him, giving him the strength to die a hero’s death.
A few years later Gladiator presented a tale that was based on these same ideals. Yet Braveheart was delivered with skill and precision that touches without being over sentimental. Gladiator, despite the skill and deft touch of its director Ridley Scott, failed when it reached the climax. It delivered a melodramatic ending that forcefully pulled on your heart strings instead of letting the story itself bring you to those feelings. Braveheart ended with a strong climax that both satisfied and sent our hero off into a glorious end.
When everything is said and done, Braveheart remains an almost perfect historical epic. While not as accurate as many critics would have preferred, it remains a powerful story of one man’s heroic actions and the consequences that his strength would provide for a country in need. Many movies have tried to reach the level of this film, and most have failed. Mel Gibson reached a career plateau with this movie and created a benchmark that all epics will strive to reach. While he may never reach the level he achieved here, Gibson should always be remembered for Braveheart, a masterpiece and a crowning achievement in American cinema.
The sound is Dolby 5.1 Surround and sounds great. The picture is also beautiful (16×9 widescreen) and the landscape looks spectacular. The movie received solid treatment on this disc and everything is pristine.
There is an audio commentary track with Mel Gibson. At first I was very disappointed in this commentary track. Mel Gibson is not the best person at articulating what he is thinking. In the commentary you will go long stretches without him saying anything and then when he does say something, it is mainly just trivia. However, as the movie stretched on I began to enjoy the small antidotes he would dish out at random points. It is an enjoyable way to enjoy the film once again, but with various comments along the way. Gibson, while trivial most the time, mentioned some interesting things, you just have to pay attention to catch them.
A Writer’s Journey is a discussion with Randall Wallace, who wrote the movie. He talks quite a bit about his writing style and how he did not do a great deal of research until after writing the screenplay. He also goes into detail about Mel Gibson coming aboard and the entire process from his point of view. It is a nice little featurette. The documentary Alba Gu Brath! The Making of Braveheart is a spectacular look at the making of the movie with most of it archival footage and interviews done with the cast and crew and an intimate session where the camera sits in while Gibson and Steven Rosenblum edit the movie. There are also interview segments with Gibson from present time mixed in as well. It’s a great documentary.
Tales of William Wallace is a featurette that discusses the real life of the revolutionary and talks about some realities the movie chose not to use. It is a nice addition for those history buffs who like to complain about the accuracy of the film. There are also archival clips of interviews with the cast of the movie, a gallery of photos and 2 trailers.