In the cases of some Best Picture Oscar winners, it’s difficult to conceive the precise conflation of circumstances that compelled Academy members to plumb for a particular contender. So it is with Mel’s ridiculous medieval martyrdom epic. My objections to Braveheart, however, aren’t based on its presumed historical inaccuracies, be it the woad, the plaid, the facts of William Wallace’s life, or the Battle of Stirling Bridge not taking place on a bridge; with the biopic (in its loosest sense), fidelity tends to fall away as a source of vexation or contention, if the overriding content passes muster. The problem with the picture is that it simply lacks the sensibility to fill the desired shoes; if Eastwood’s passage to director takes in the Siegel tradition, Gibson’s goes via the Lethal Weapon route.
Which is a shame, as Mel’s a much more talented filmmaker than Clint. But where the latter directs with reserve that sometimes verges on indifference (or torpor), Gibson cannot hide his passion for his material. So it is, with projects like this or the recent Hacksaw Ridge – ironically, or tellingly, also nominated for Best Picture – he tends to overspill into shameless melodrama, clodden clichés and brazen audience manipulation.
The result is the most audience-baiting of ’90s winners this side of Titanic (with which it shares a gag-inducingly evocative, Celtic-tinged score from James Horner, apparently one of the best-selling soundtracks ever). It makes me think Gibson should stick to foreign-language movies going forward, as whatever I may think of The Passion of the Christ (not a lot) or Apocalypto (a near-masterpiece), there’s a coherence to them that comes from a focus on visual storytelling rather than the slackening of grip that seems to ensue when characters are able to indulge overt, and corny, emoting.
Maybe Mel shouldn’t have played Wallace (he had to really, to get financing, and even then, it was a struggle). As soon as he made the decision, he brought the baggage of his star persona. It’s not that he can’t fit into a period piece easily enough, in the way Chuck Heston does in Ben-Hur or Kevin Costner does in Dances with Wolves; it’s that by this point, he inevitably moulds it around that persona (compare and contrast with Gallipoli).
So Walllace is now a designer Scotsman by way of Thunderdome, with an uber mullett to match (the same one he has as a kid – no wonder Wallace grew up with such attitude, having to carry such a horrifically-coiffured burden on his shoulders all those years). At times, with such accompanying laddish abandon, there’s a feeling this is not so far from a very violent, thirteenth-century Police Academy, with Mel in the cheeky Steve Guttenberg role and Patrick McGoohan as Lieutenant Harris, taking exception to his disrespectfulness.
With that kind of attitude, the reveal that Wallace, very much the man of the people and not the nobleman Wallace actually was, is also a cultured man of the people (and an artist to boot), one versed in Latin and French, who has even been to Rome – this designed to show up those snooty, snotty English – is simply very, very cheesy. The cumulative effect is one of Bruce Willis in Hudson Hawk, when he orders a menu item in perfect Italian before asking “Oh, and bring me a bottle of ketchup, will ya?” But minus the wall-to-wall irreverence for everything.
Wallace also wants the quiet life (“If I can live in peace, I will“), until poor dear Murron (Catherine McCormack) has her throat slit by the English bastards (Mel’s determined to make you hate the English, even if you are English).
At times, Gibson’s so overpoweringly sincere, his approach verges on parody. Dream sequences pock the narrative in very literal fashion, one of which segues into a silly bit where he rides a horse into Alun Armstrong’s bedroom and then leaps into a moat; it’s designed to feed into Wallace the myth, but because it’s depicted as actually happening, there are times you half wonder if you’re watching The Princess Bride. Then there’s the – surprise, surprise – repetitive Christ imagery, from Wallace raising his hands (before raising a sword), to being dragged through the streets and spat on, to being tied on a cross board (before being thoroughly emasculated).
So what’s there to like about Braveheart? Well, you can’t make any headway at all without first making a caveat, but McGoohan – let’s not forget Mel was considering a big screen The Prisoner at one point – hoodwinks you into believing you’re in a much better film whenever he appears. And that’s despite a fake hooter that occasionally looks like it’s in competition with Peter Sellers’ dentist disguise in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (an Academy Award for Best Make-up right there).
Yes, his King Edward I is a two-dimensional Disney villain, and much of his time is spent disapproving of his son (Peter Hanley), a stereotypical mincing queen despite Mel’s protestations that he wasn’t being homophobic, honest. But he’s such a splendid rotter, you can’t help but experience the picture meeting its full cartoonish potential whenever he opens his mouth.
Apparently, Gibson was bewildered that anyone would find Edward’s murder of his son’s lover funny, but you don’t have the king establishing a setup of “Then tell me, what advice would you offer on the present situation?“, then delivering the punchline of throwing Phillip (Stephen Billington) out of the nearest window before he gets to answer, if you don’t intend it to be funny; I bet Mel laughed his socks off in the editing room on every single playback.
Commander: I beg your pardon, sire. Won’t we hit our own troops?
Edward I: Yes, but we’ll hit theirs as well. We have reserves. Attack.
There’s an – how intentional, it’s hard to assess – Alan Rickman quality to the villainy here (it was only four years since Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). McGoohan quickly becomes the droll spur that hastens the proceedings, and it’s highly enjoyable watching Longshanks storming into any scene in utterly unreconstituted fashion, whether it’s insulting the Scots, the Irish (McGoohan’s resigned “Irish…” when they change sides on the battlefield is perfection), the opposite gender (“That’s what happens when you send a woman” he scoffs of Sophie Marceau’s Princess Isabelle giving away the gold), or his blasé attitude to casualties among his own men. And he kind of wins, even if it’s on his death bed. So, if you’re on board with McGoohan’s performance, Braveheart almost has a happy ending.
Also on the plus side, even at this early stage in his directorial career, Mel’s grasp of action choreography – he had great-to-decent tutors in the likes of George Miller, Peter Weir and Richard Donner – is very impressive. Perhaps more so with the smaller scale catharsis of avenging the loss of Murron than later battle scenes, but he knows what he wants, and what he wants is viscera (although, having said that, there are a surprising number of obviously under-connecting blows in the picture).
The cast are mostly very good too. William’s broadly colloquial camaraderie with his men is very watchable, thanks in no small part to the likes of Brendan Gleeson (who, incredibly, looks quite young), Brian Cox (who also managed to star in that year’s other historical Scottish epic, Rob Roy), David O’Hara (as the Mad Irishman caricature – although all the characters are caricatures, so he’s just the one that stands out as whacky), Tommy Flanagan and Peter Mullan.
There’s also Ian Bannen in some dodgy leper makeup (remember that Academy Award?) as Robert the Bruce’s duplicitous father, and the Bruce himself (Angus Macfadyen – apparently, a “sequel” is planned with Macfadyen reprising his role). The Bruce is an intriguingly conflicted character, but Macfadyen never really has a chance to dig into him; all Mel really wanted was to cast someone who comes across as a bit weedy, because Wallace is all man.
In general, Braveheart doesn’t have the vision, poetry or mythmaking of a true epic; it’s rough and ready in tone, the aforementioned Lethal Weapon in a period setting. It’s also told on a broad canvas, not even Peckinpah-esque in relishing the queasy beauty of violence. Mel’s charm is very contemporary, and he doesn’t shrug that off for something immersive, probably consciously, irrespective of the other anachronisms.
What you’ll remember are the limbs being hacked, genitals sliced, buttocks pierced and skulls caved in. And hanging, drawing and… well we didn’t get to see the quartering. And that Mel may as well have got Rowan Atkinson as the battlefield nobleman who meets a nasty end, so risibly chinless is he. He really doesn’t like those English.
You’ll also remember Mel’s impassioned imploration for freedom, of course, and his supreme sacrifice for nationalism and shrugging off the English yolk. What you won’t encounter is coherence, over and above the grisly moments and odd rousing speech; even that other actor-turned-director Costner, in his much derided (latterly) Best Picture Oscar Winner Dances with Wolves, had that.