Braveheart (1995) (R)

"Braveheart" is Mel Gibson's first real splash in the cinematic world as a director, the other notable times being "Apocalypto" and "The Passion of the Christ". With "Braveheart", Gibson managed to win over the critics' hearts while still convincing teenage boys that war is something undefinably noble. When you contrast this with "Gandhi" which won the Best Picture Oscar (as "Braveheart" did) in the previous decade, it's clear that the sense of the word "epic" had shifted from being about words to being about action.
The movie inaccurately chronicles the days of William Wallace (Gibson) as he tries to fight for freedom for Scotland from under the tyrannical and despotic rule of King Edward I or "Longshanks" as the Scots call him, played by Patrick McGoohan. Longshanks has this immense quest for power and during the movie's opening scenes, he marries his son off to a French princess, Isabelle (Sophie Marceau). Unfortunately for the king, it would seem that his son's tastes don't run in favor of the fair sex and now with a homosexual for a son, the disappointment runs thick. Using his keen strategy (for he is a smart man), the king decides that he will quell the uprisings as the spread across Scotland.
Wallace on the other hand, feels like he has no need for war (there are SPOILERS up ahead, you are warned). His father was killing in an uprising so he just wants to settle down and start a family, preferably with Muron (Catherine McCormack), the belle of the ball.
You see, after his father died, his uncle took care of him and raised him to speak French with a horrible accent and read and know, the basics.
After retuning home (in real life he was exiled) William tries to start up a conversation with the local ladies, Muron in particular. He decides he wants to court her and they secretly marry so that the English generals won't rape her...because that's what happens when Edward I is king.
William begins to feel a great yearning for his homeland of Scotland, but doesn't do anything about it because he's more concerned with his new wife than anything else. Then...the inevitable happens, the British kind out about the marriage and try to rape Muron, which eventually culminates with her death.
Grief stricken and red with anger, William and company throw the rules out the window and lay waste to the army. It's the quintessential "hey, look at me, I'm a badass" moment in film and Gibson does it so well. While the film has enormous historical problems and is very insensitive to pretty much any party you can offend, what does remain is the structure of a very solid war piece, even if it is more of a fairy tale than history (I made the same complaint about "Gladiator").
Anyways, now determined on freeing Scotland from the hands of the English because he finally sees how unfair everything is, William Wallace becomes a hero in the eyes of the people and a leader in the eyes of his men. He is larger than life and the film even tries to make comments on how big the stories get concerning William Wallace. His fellow men respect him because he is a warrior and the women (and audience) respect him because he's supposedly a poet as well.
What I don't like about "Braveheart" is how it manages to take all the elements of a good story and demolish them. It masquerades as fact even though it is entirely fictitious with only the barest resemblances to the truth, and it expects us to buy in to this notion of revenge (and it isn't the only offender) as the right and moral choice.
Certainly there can't be anything more disturbing than cheering for death, be it the bad guy or the good guy. Films like "No Man's Land" hammer this home; but films like "Braveheart" celebrate in the bloodshed and bathe themselves in it. That's what makes film dangerous...but moving on...
The battles are spectacular and also ridden with huge mistakes (now he has an axe, now he has a sword, which extras are laughing?, etc.) and for being a film that's somewhat responsible for the shift towards fantasy, "Braveheart' is a big heaping mess.
And yet James Horner's music is a tour de force and Mel himself doesn't do that bad of a job. The film looks great for all intent and purposes, though Randall Wallace (the writer) does brutalize Wallace and the costume designer does take large creative liberties with presenting an accurate time period.
All in all, this is a film that shouldn't work for all it has going against it. It shouldn't work because it's both full of hate and full of lies. It's offensive, vulgar, celebratory or violence, and—dammit —another reason that Mel Gibson should be respected as a credible force behind the camera. It's a flawed film, yet, but a film of sheer and immense power. It stretches the boundaries of what is permissible; but you cannot deny its entertainment value or that of its attempt at something deeper.
Still, up against Gibson's other work, it pales.

Score: ★★★

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