Mel Gibson Stars in an Entirely Fictionalized Historical Biopic

Braveheart. Photo © Paramount Pictures

Technical proficiency is on high display in this stylized, exciting, and rousing portrayal of William Wallace, the savior of Scotland. Too bad its entirely fictional.


Plot Summary

In 1995, Mel Gibson starred and directed Braveheart, a cinematic re-telling of the story of William Wallace, a Scottish legend who is purported to have secured Scottish freedom from the English crown. (Braveheart also won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1995 and is widely considered one of Gibson's best films.

As Gibson tells it, Wallace returns to Scotland to settle down and start a family. Ignoring the fact that as a middle-aged man he looks a bit old to be suddenly returning to Scotland to settle down. It then only takes about five minutes of screen time for him to fall in love and get married in secret, so as to avoid having to share his wife with the local English Lord (in order to secure the loyalty of faraway Lords, England's cruel King Edward has given a decree that all local nobleman shall have the right to sleep with the wives of commoners on their wedding nights.)

As bad luck would have it, the very day after their secret wedding, Gibson's new wife is attacked and murdered by English soldiers guarding the nearby fort. (If one stops to think, they might wonder why the English guards chose this particular day to become sexually sadistic, when apparently, according to the film, Gibson's new wife had lived in close proximity to these soldiers for her entire life.) In any case, Gibson responds by massacring the soldiers at the fort, and starting a war with King Edward to secure Scottish freedom.

He rallies local villagers who join his fledgling Army, he uses creative thinking on the battlefield to best English armies, and in a montage of sequences, we learn that a lot of time has passed where Mel Gibson as William Wallace, has been busy killing Englishmen. By the two-hour mark, Gibson has pushed the English out of Scotland, and become a legend destined for the history books.

And lest, I forget, he also wears a really dramatic blue face paint into battle.

The legend of William Wallace is further dramatized by the presence of the aforementioned King Edward, played here to delightfully cruel and sadistic purpose, making him a wonderful villain that the audience can enjoy hating, and the presence of a French princess in the form of the beautiful Sophia Marceau. Marceau's purpose is to serve as a mid-film romantic love interest for Gibson's Wallace, given that the character's own wife was murdered in the film's opening.


A Rousing, Exciting War Film


I'll admit -- it's rousing stuff. The scene where a military commander gives an inspiring speech to an underdog force about freedom has become a tired Hollywood cliché, but Gibson - snarling with full war paint on his face - pulls it off perfectly. I'm an American living in England, but Gibson's speech even made me want to fight the English. And the battle scenes are incredible: Well choreographed, dynamically filmed, and credibly violent for the era. Axes fly through the air, swords sever, blood spurts, all of which is perfectly appropriate for a film about a war set in this era. (My first rule of war films is that war films should be credibly violent; in this regards, Braveheart passes with flying colors.)

Furthermore, the film has spectacular sets, strong performances, and sweeping cinematography, all of which is strengthened by the location of the Scottish highlands, which always seem to loom dramatically within the film. This is all capped off by a rousing musical score of dramatic drums and cymbols when the fighting occurs, and soulful bagpipes when someone needs to appear appropriately contemplative (usually while staring off meaningfully from the top of some Scottish cliff.)

Additionally, Gibson's love of violence, where his characters either experience the death of loved ones which instigate his transformation into an avenging angel and/or his character's torture at the hands of nefarious authorities, while normally disturbing, here is used to masterful effect.


If Only They Hadn't Made up Everything


Unfortunately, the film, it should be said, is entirely fictional. It's not even loosely based on actual historical events. The characters within the film are mostly created for the screen, and those that did exist in history, are apparently plucked out of the time stream, appearing centuries too late or too early. Even the kilts are wrong (the Scottish didn't start wearing the infamous kilts worn in the film until hundreds of years later.) All of which could be forgiven, if the film itself was in service of an attempt to give an honest accounting of the man known as William Wallace.

Except here too, Gibson has completely fabricated almost everything. About the only fact supported by the history books is that at one point in time, there was a man named William Wallace who fought the English. However, in real life, Wallace was hardly a man of the people who fought to secure freedom; instead, as one might expect, Wallace fought to secure wealth and property. And the dead wife that instigated the film version of Wallace seems to have been entirely created out of thin air.

Of course, it's a bit absurd to expect filmmakers to adhere solely to the truth when making films about historical figures. Two hours of cinema is a very short period of time within which to encapsulate the story of a life, and to tell this story within a historical, political, and social context. All of which is to say, I find it completely appropriate and understandable, that filmmakers need to make certain shortcuts in order to bring some stories to life. But there also seems to be some sort of threshold, a point at which the story becomes so fictitious, such that one wonders why they even had the pretense that the film was based on a real-life historical figure? Why not just write a fictional story about a fictional character? (I use Braveheart as an example when discussing the rules that all war films should abide by; specifically, the necessity for historical films to be historically accurate.)

Braveheart is a good film.

But one that also borrows off the idea of being historical in order to buttress the film's power and perceived authenticity. Knowing a bit of history can't help but diminish the film.

Bottom Line:

A technically masterful, exciting historical epic, that is unfortunately not based on a real historical epic.