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Consumed With Hate: Braveheart

⚔️ All We Have To Do Now Is Take These Lies And Make Them True...

The Crime: Braveheart
The Guilty Party: Mel Gibson
Overview: An epic adventure bastardizes one of the most significant figures from Scottish history.

Why I Hate It...

This used to be my favorite movie. And no wonder, because Mel Gibson's biopic of William Wallace is extremely well made. I'm going to get very critical further down, but let's take a moment to acknowledge that from a perspective of pure film-craft, Braveheart shines. In the audio commentary on the DVD, Gibson talks about some of the technical aspects of shooting the film, like using atmosphere as foreshadowing and shooting at different film speeds, and that stuff's actually pretty interesting. They did a boot camp for the stunt extras about how to sell a hit safely where they would watch demonstrations with one eye covered up because the camera doesn't have depth perception. Really fascinating stuff. He also defends the historicity of movie with a lot of "well, we don't know that they didn't..." and it's just... sigh.

Now look, I'm not one to ding a movie too hard for not being historically accurate. But we're going to talk about Braveheart anyway because not only is the movie regarded as one of the least accurate period films ever made, but the second line of the movie is "Historians from England will say I am a liar..." In the industry, this is what we call "inviting criticism." Screenwriter Randall Wallace appears to have completely ignored any source texts other than the 15th-century poem The Wallace by Blind Harry, a noted non-historian. Which is fine, but when you're claiming in the text of the film to be an arbiter of truth and then you don't deliver, that's going to seriously impact my ability to enjoy it. And yes, I had the same reaction to Michael Moore's movies when I learned that he had manufactured some of the set-pieces for Roger & Me and Bowling for Columbine. Anyway. Gibson is inviting criticism, so let's criticize, shall we?

First we must dispense with the stuff that just does not matter. Did Wallace and his associates really paint their faces with blue woad? Almost certainly not, but it was a good change to make for the movie. It looks bad-ass, it distinguishes them amid a sea of plaid, and--it bears repeating--it does not matter from a historical perspective. Similarly, if Wallace genuinely had a wife (sources are a bit thin there), her name was likely Marion, but this was changed to Murron for the film so people wouldn't be sitting in the theater thinking "wait, so is this like Robin Hood?" Again, good call there! A-plus, would change again. Let's also set aside the stuff that kinda feels like it matters, even though it probably doesn't. Jus Primae Noctis has probably never been invoked anywhere in Medieval Europe. The Scots did not fight with long swords or back scabbards. Kilts wouldn't exist for another 200 years. Wallace did not invent schiltrons. Etc, etc, etc. Are these bad? Sure, but no worse than you see in most period films.

And you know what? I'm not even going to linger too long on the stuff that really drives historians batty, like the lack of a bridge at the Battle of Sterling Bridge, or the exclusions of Andrew de Moray and John de Mentieth, or omitting the face that the Scottish nobility invited Edward "Longshanks" to settle their succession crisis, or the fanciful hanging of the nobles during the prologue, or making Robert the Bruce a turncoat, or having Wallace sack York, or the hilarious idea that he impregnated Queen Isabella of France, who was neither a queen nor an adult nor even anywhere near Scotland at the time of Wallace's death. My god, that's a lot when you just lay it out like that. But anyway, I'm not going to say any more about (most of) that.

Instead I'm going to focus on how Gibson takes the story of a Scottish nobleman turned revolutionary and re-writes it into a toxically masculine Libertarian--but I repeat myself--power fantasy. And I'm not just saying that because decades later we know that Gibson is a misogynist, racist conspiracy theorist who's weirdly obsessed with gore and reactionary Catholicism. I'm saying that because... it's just what the movie's about. Allow me to argue my case, here. To do so, we must to first ask ourselves what the themes of Braveheart really are. And before you lean back, stretch out your arms and yell "Freeeeeeddddddoooooooom," let me assure you that a) you're wrong, and b) we'll get there.

In the film, William Wallace is an archetypal Righteous Hero. He doesn't have a traditional character arc where he has to grow and learn and change. Instead, he is basically perfect from the time he arrives on screen as an adult, and his character "arc" is about endurance, about maintaining his ideals under increasingly difficult circumstances. His friends abandon him, he's betrayed by the man he is trying to uphold as king, and in the end he is tortured and executed, but he never ever compromises. This is the sort of character arc you see in a story about Captain America or Superman. Or Jesus, for that matter. Kinda funny when you consider that Gibson's follow-up film The Passion of the Christ was one of the greatest coups ever undertaken by a filmmaker: marketing torture porn to families.

Regardless, Wallace is basically Jesus from the perspective of the film, so whatever he does is just and whoever wrongs him is evil and deserving of vengeance. After all, he's just a simple farmer who just wants to raise crops and, God willing, a family. Seriously, the phrase "every man" appeared twice on the posters, and it is a complete fabrication. In real life, William Wallace was a noble. Landed gentry. He might have had servants. There's not a lot of information about his lineage or estates, but he was definitely not a commoner as portrayed in the film. Continuing the narrative, his father dies fighting for freedom and young William taken in by his uncle and gets a world-class education which means he's a genius when he returns to Scotland. Again, he is perfect and not to be questioned. All of this is also unfounded by the historical record, just so we're clear. Next he marries and his wife is murdered. This spurs him to get justice for her death, which makes him an outlaw, so he just keeps fighting on principle, I guess? Without any preamble, his cause morphs from "revenge" to "Freeeeeeddddddoooooooom." There's a lot of fighting, he's betrayed multiple times, and he spends a decent stretch of Act II doing murder on the people who betrayed him. He finally gets captured and killed himself, but he gets the last laugh by cuckolding the King of England. In the film's coda Robert the Bruce, seemingly on a whim, invokes the memory of Wallace to claim his kingship at Bannockburn.

So thematically, we're looking at the success of a man who is so righteous that he becomes a mythic figure. There's a little talk about "Freeeeeeddddddoooooooom" but it seems to start and end with the freedom to murder those who've wronged you. Oh, and then there's the cuckolding. The movie is, frankly, obsessed with family lines (and, by implication, ethnic purity). The inciting incident for the plot is the invocation of Jus Primae Noctis, which would allow English nobles to cuckold all Scotsmen. This is not subtext, by the way, it is the text. King Edward Longshanks literally says "we'll breed them out." Why does William start his rebellion? In the historical record, his was one of several--all of Scotland was in open revolt against the Scottish king John Balliol. But in the movie, it's because his true love is murdered, effectively ending his family line. Oh, but wait, there's more. How do we know Robert the Bruce is corruptible? His father is literally rotting. How do we know that compromise is a bad thing? Because Robert the Bruce's literally rotting father embraces it. How do we know the English throne is in jeopardy? Because Edward II is queer-coded in the most unflattering way possible. He is a soft, effeminate, weak man--but most importantly, he can't have children. And what's Wallace's ultimate revenge? He cuckolds the king, as payback for what the king wanted to do to all of Scotland. You can seriously encapsulate the entire plot in a narrative about keeping your genes alive.

So with all of that in mind, I would say that the major themes of Braveheart are:
  1. Nothing is more important than maintaining your family line.
  2. Retributive violence is not only justified, it is righteous.
  3. One man acting on his own initiative can achieve more than any government, because compromise is weakness.
  4. It's important to talk about freedom, even if you don't really think too hard about what it means, and even though all you're trying to do is replace one inconvenient strong-man who betrayed you with another more convenient strong-man who also betrayed you but is at least ethnically pure.
I mean, look at that list. What could be more Libertarian than that?

Next week, I have very little nice to say about Marlon James' Black Leopard Red Wolf...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.