Braveheart is an historical epic that tells the story of William Wallace, a commoner who unites the 13th Century Scots in their battle to overthrow English rule. While it takes liberties with historical record, the movie strives to add drama and glory to a forgotten historic figure.
The other nominees for Best Picture that year were Apollo 13, Babe, The Postman (Il Postino) and Sense and Sensability. In addition to Best Picture, Braveheart also won Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Effects (Sound Effects Editing) and Best Makeup.
Times are hard in 13th Century Scotland, as we learn in a childhood sequence where a young William Wallace sees cruelty to the Scots bestowed by English soldiers. Such a scene is shorthand for motivation, an emotional appeal to get the viewer on the side of the main character, William Wallace.
Gibson's movie is all about hyperbole: not just the hundreds of extras meeting on the battlefield but also the way that characters are portrayed. The British king, Longshanks (King Edward I), played by Patrick McGoohan, is a caricature of evil, a sneering, selfish tyrant without one redeeming quality. By comparison, Wallace, as portrayed by Gibson, is a fair-minded, righteous everyman. Seldom, in real life, are motivations and personalities so neatly defined.
Of course, there are dramatic moments designed to raise the hair on one's arm, and on a first-time viewing they have that effect. The story, as told by an Australian, is nevertheless equally appealing to an American viewer, who can identify with the historical tale of standing up to an oppressive ruler.
And yet, history rarely has such clear delineations of right and wrong. It is only through story telling that such distinctions emerge. In this sense, Braveheart is better compared to the 1991 movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner, than to Costner's 1990 masterpiece, the historical epic Dances with Wolves. Gibson's movie seems more interested in myth making than history telling.
The film was shot on location, much of it in the rain, which contributes considerably to the look. Through creative use of mechanical horses, Gibson evoked a realistic look for the battle scenes (so realistic that that ASPCA reportedly investigated him for suspected cruelty until videotaped footage of the location shooting proved otherwise). Extras were recruited from the FCA, the Irish territorial army, who fought with vigor, adding to the authenticity.
Some details adding to the drama, however, such as the blue body paint used by the Scots during their battles, were historically inaccurate. Such blue paint was only used until the end of the Roman era, 800 years before the setting of the movie. The role of Princess Isabella is also inaccurate, as she did not even marry Prince Edward (later Edward II) until after Wallace's death.
A more prominent historical error was the portrayal of Prince Edward as gay, which along with the deplorable treatment of him and his lover in the movie, caused an outcry amongst gay rights activists against the film.
The film, for all its flaws, does follow Hollywood story telling conventions effectively. On a first viewing, the movie delivers the drama and excitement that the movie posters promise. However, this is not a film you're likely to remember for more than the gorgeously-shot battle scenes. Like a mythical hero, Gibson's Wallace is bigger in memory than in actuality.
Rating: *** (3 out of 5 stars)
Myths arise because the facts are too complicated.