Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” was a monumental film, and it’s not too much to say that it single-handedly revolutionized the way war films are made today. Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” for all of its bloodbath and “war is really really hell” scenes, came after Gibson’s opus about a commoner Scotsman who rises up to oppose the powerful English army that holds 13th century Scotland in a tyrannical grip.
“Braveheart” stars (and also director) Mel Gibson as William Wallace, the commoner Scotsman who unites all of Scotland under one banner to fight off the English, who are superior in force and, well, everything else. Wallace himself was a pacifist, having lived through his own father’s murder at the hands of the English, and been educated in foreign lands by his uncle thereafter. After he returns home as an adult, and after the English murders his wife Murron (Catherine McCormack), Wallace leads a rebellion that eventually pushes Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan), the king of England, to the brink of defeat.
What makes “Braveheart” so good? For one, it takes the phrase “war is hell” and makes it “war is really really hell” by showing the most gruesome medieval combat to ever come down the Hollywood pipe. After “Braveheart” changed the way filmmakers looked at not only medieval combat but combat in war movies in general, anything short of making battle scenes as gruesome and as hellish as possible becomes a letdown. Consider the John Woo World War II movie, “Windtalkers,” which looked like a trip to summer camp compared to Spielberg’s “Ryan” and Terrence Malick’s “Thin Red Line.” War is hell, and it started here with “Braveheart.”
Besides its breakthrough treatment of warfare, “Braveheart” also has a very good sense of romanticism, which might seem like a contradiction in a movie about men smashing each other over the head with hammers and slicing off each other’s limbs at will. But “Braveheart” makes it work, mostly because the actors sell their roles so well, and director Gibson is able to translate the script of Randall Wallace (“We Were Soldiers”) to screen by making it accessible and, dare I say it, flesh and blood.
The film is really bookended by two love stories, one in the beginning with Wallace and Murron, and a second in the second half with Wallace and Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau). The romance between Wallace and Isabelle is unexpected, but works in the confines of the movie. It also gives us a breather by taking us away from the bloodbaths in the battlefield and makes the movie, once again, seem within our reach (we all know about new love, but how many of us have cleaved someone’s head off at the shoulders with a sword?). All the credit goes to Gibson for being able to balance two very opposite themes with near perfection.
It can’t be stressed enough how magnificent this film is, especially in light of the fact that it was only the second film directed by Mel Gibson (who has not directed another movie since). Besides having a firm grasp on the film’s romantics, Gibson shows an incredible feeling for the battle scenes. The movie is exceptionally well balanced between the romance and the violence. The sheer logistics of the film’s gigantic battle sequences alone would drive a veteran director insane, and yet under Gibson’s care, the film feels coherent even when nothing seems so onscreen.
Critics might say the film takes too many liberties with history, and in fact it does. There are numerous examples, but this is by no means a “true account” type of film. In fact, the movie’s main hero (William Wallace) is a legend on the scale of Joan of Arc, and no one is really sure he actually existed in the first place! Does it matter? Of course not. “Braveheart” is a movie that is best looked on as sheer fantasy entertainment — one that breaks every single rule and creates new ones for others to follow.
And if you think Gibson and writer Randall Wallace (no relation to the character) are afraid to break with tradition, consider the movie’s ending. It’s a brave film, and even braver filmmakers, who refuses to let his main character be gloriously killed off in battle, but instead Wallace is dispatched by way of…
Well, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen this gem. But needless to say, you will never see the twist coming, and the ending is as poetic as any film I’ve seen.
If you want to compare “Braveheart” to another film, only Malick’s “Thin Red Line” comes close. Both films are violent, about violent men doing violent things, but through it all, they manage to remain very human.
Mel Gibson (director) / Randall Wallace (screenplay)
CAST: Mel Gibson …. William Wallace
Patrick McGoohan …. Longshanks
Peter Hanly …. Prince Edward
Sophie Marceau …. Princess Isabelle
Stephen Billington …. Phillip