' Cinema Romantico: Wistfully '95: Braveheart

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Wistfully '95: Braveheart

Since I could finally both drive and get into R-rated movies in 1995, it doubled as the year in which I fell head over heels in love for the experience of Going To The Movies. And so, here in the future in 2015, we will periodically re-visit a handful of the offerings to which I first paid homage in various multiplex cathedrals of Des Moines, Iowa.

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There is a moment in Mel Gibson’s Academy Award behemoth “Braveheart” when Isabella (Sophie Marceau) is flouncing around the King’s Castle with her feudal version of Carrie Fisher in “When Harry Met Sally”, discussing the Scottish rogue, William Wallace (Gibson), instigating a rebellion against dastardly England. “Knowing his passion for his lost love,” Nicolette explains, “they next plotted to take him by desecrating the graves of his father and brother and setting an ambush at the grave of his wife. He fought his way through the trap and carried her body to a secret place.” Isabella swoons. “Now that is romance, oui?” wonders Nicolette. “I wouldn’t know,” replies Isabella like she’s Judy Garland in “Meet Me In St. Louis” talking about the boy next door. What strikes me most about this conversation isn’t the romantic absurdity, which I adore, so much as how we are simply left to take Nicolette at her word. We never see the story in question. As director, Gibson chooses not to lay it over the speech. For all we know, it’s made up, or a brewing folktale, passed down from person to person, like a game of medieval telephone.


That’s a significant part of “Braveheart.” Yes, we all remember the Gibson’s fiery speech in blue war paint but what’s also memorable is the pair of Scots who dismiss the notion that he is William Wallace. “William Wallace is seven feet tall,” says one. Wallace himself retorts: “Yes, I've heard. Kills men by the hundreds. And if he were here, he'd consume the English with fireballs from his eyes, and bolts of lightning from his arse.” Everyone has a good laugh. It’s a funny joke! He is William Wallace! Yet, he’s not really. He’s less the actual William Wallace, whoever the historians say that is, than the version of William Wallace that shoots bolts of lightning from his arse. Why I’m tempted to surmise that Randall Wallace’s original screenplay contained a scene where William Wallace shot bolts of lightning from his arse until Mel Gibson nicked it at the last second.

After all, “Braveheart” has been labeled one of the ten most historically inaccurate movies of all time. Or, to say it another way, as said Sharon Krossa said it: “The events aren't accurate, the dates aren't accurate, the characters aren't accurate, the names aren't accurate, the clothes aren't accurate -- in short, just about nothing is accurate.” Uff da. Here’s an article from Kathryn Warner that takes a deep dive into the historically inaccuracy in “Braveheart” surrounding Isabella and her baby - namely, that there is no way whatsoever that William Wallace could have fathered it. She points out, amongst a myriad of other damning details that are easy for anyone in the interwebs age to fact check on their own, that, uh, well, Isabella would have been a whopping nine years old at the time of real life William Wallace’s execution……and still in France. Alex von Tunzelmann offers a fairly concise roundup of the film’s fiction over at The Guardian, closing with the sort of line these kinds of lists usually employ, writing that “regardless of whether you read English or Scottish historians on the matter, Braveheart still serves up a great big steaming haggis of lies.” Sick burn.

It’s not like Randall Wallace went all high and mighty a la Ridley Scott and his “real” account of the very much mostly mythical Robin Hood. No, Wallace made it well known that his script was based predominantly on Blind Harry’s Wallace, an epic 11,877 stanza poem purported, per mostlymedevial.com, to be taken from “the writings of John Blair, a childhood friend of Wallace's who became a Benedictine monk.” The majority of it, however, seems rooted not in any kind of factual evidence, but in evidence of the heart. “Is Blind Harry true?” Wallace asked rhetorically in Lin Anderson’s book “Braveheart: From Hollywood to Hollyrood.” “I don't know. I know that it spoke to my heart and that's what matters to me, that it spoke to my heart.”


“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” You’ve heard that line thousands of times. Literally (figuratively), thousands. It was recited in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, John Ford’s film from 1964, one exploring the disconnect between real history and fanciful revisions of history. And at some point, fanciful revisions of history became antithetical to the movie-going experience. Print the legend instead of the fact and people flip. Twitter ignites.

And I get it. Honest, I do. There are valid points to be made about the fallout of a film’s intentions. Perhaps “Braveheart” thrust William Wallace directly into the spotlight, a place this long forgotten rebel never would have been again, but at what cost? Are misunderstandings about the real person on account of the film's messy remembrance of the facts a plague on real history? Do people watch “Braveheart” and simply assume the English are all hate mongers? I compared Wallace to Robin Hood earlier but Robin Hood, for all the modern day detective work, remains wholly a myth, a man in tights winning archery contests, Errol Flynn guffawing. Perhaps Wallace retained the right to be known as he really was just as it might be important for people to know that Emanuel Leutze’s rendering of Washington Crossing the Delaware is an oil canvas of poppycock. But then, Leutze wasn’t painting fact; he was painting the legend. So was Gibson.

I love that painting. It’s my favorite painting in the whole world. I’m a fanatic for Revolutionary War history but I’m also a fiend for romance, and why can’t the two co-exist? The Washington in Leutze’s painting is the most gallant motherfucker in the whole world, the G.W. more in line with the one that chopped down a cherry tree and hurled a silver dollar across the Potomac. And the Wallace of “Braveheart”, the one that gave an heir to Isabella and sacked York and wore belted plaid (scandal!), has more in common with that Washington. It’s not history; it’s histrionic. So what?

1 comment:

Fisti said...

What a GREAT post! I love how you dissected this film and it's intentions and made the film almost more palatable because of that. I'm not a fan of this, mostly because it feels like Mel Gibson directed a self congratulatory violent soap opera, and it just never sat well with me, but I love how you exposed so many of the film's weaknesses and basically made them strengths. Such a well balanced and well rounded review/essay!