Braveheart (1995) / Drama-War

MPAA Rated: R for pervasive brutal violence, sexuality, nudity, and some language
Running Time: 177 min.

Cast: Mel Gibson, Patrick McGoohan, Brendan Gleeson, Sophie Marceau, Angus McFadyen, Alun Armstrong, David O'Hara, Catherine McCormack, Liam Carney, Peter Hanley, Ian Bannen, James Cosmo, James Robinson, Jeanne Marine, Brian Cox, Tommy Flanagan, Julie Austin, Michael Byrne
Director: Mel Gibson
Screenplay: Randall Wallace
Review published February 19, 2008

Introductions are hardly necessary for the Best Picture winner of 1995, and a bit of an odd pick for the Academy, given the rather graphic violence and grim battles that fill up much of the nearly three hours of run time.  Directed by Mel Gibson (Apocalypto, The Passion of the Christ), who would also take home Oscar gold for his efforts, it would show Mel's penchant for stories about martyrs attacked from all sides without mercy, with plenty of torture, disembowelings and severed limbs on display.  Historians would be first to note that the history lesson in Randall Wallace's (The Man in the Iron Mask, Pearl Harbor) screenplay is barely reminiscent of the facts (much taken from the Blind Harry poem, which is generally disregarded as romanticized folklore), but taken as a work of mostly fiction, it is still a rousing and well-executed tale of the inspirational fight for the right not to live under tyranny that has a universal appeal.

The story plays fairly loosely with the real-life struggles of William Wallace (Gibson, Lethal Weapon 3), a Scotsman who would end up being the catalyst for his people to make a major play to assert their independence from the oppressive rule of the English monarchy.  Orphaned as a young lad, William would learn a good deal about the world and various cultures before coming back home to his Scottish village to secretly court the girl he befriended before his departure, Murron (McCormack, Shadow of the Vampire).  The two would wed privately, avoiding the Primae Noctis privilege given to English lords, but tragedy would soon strike as Murron is killed during a scuffle, causing an uprising among the village when Wallace seeks retribution.  With their first taste of freedom in ages, Wallace successfully leads the Scots to continue to pursue their freedom by proactively attacking the English before they have a chance to strategize.  However, with a vast army and wealth at King Edward I's (McGoohan, Silver Streak) disposal, not all of the Scottish nobles are willing to go all in to fight for the freedom that Wallace seeks so tenaciously.

Braveheart's strengths lie mostly in the visceral storytelling of its director.  Gibson rarely cuts away from the bloodiness of battle, as fluids gush, arms and legs fly, and soldiers are impaled in fashions that will either excite or sicken, depending on one's tolerance for such displays of brutality.  While I'm no fan of excessive violence, given the medieval setting and almost lawless environs, the grimness is all part of the culture, as executions are viewed as a form of entertainment for the masses, who actually root for the deaths without any inkling of mercy. 

Although it seems like a big movie nowadays, Braveheart wasn't a particularly big hit at the box office at the time of its release, only really making its money back after the Academy Award for Best Picture fueled its interest in home video.  It plays like an epic action movie, and was marketed the same, given its late-May release, but the 3-hour length was a daunting proposition and cut into the total showings per day, not to mention being a story largely unfamiliar to the public.  Nowadays, it's accepted as a classic war film and minor hit as a romance, even with the goriness. 

Braveheart is a very good film with some genuine moments of greatness, and a few missteps as well.  Gibson's choice to give Wallace a grandiose mystique makes the story difficult to take as anything but a tall tale, especially as he applies the war paint and storms in and out of castles on horseback.  Gibson looks a bit silly with his "hair metal" hair style, and, by his own admission, looks far too old to play Wallace as a young man, but his acting chops are formidable, with a supporting cast fine tuned perfectly to their respective parts.  It's hard to imagine a more perfectly sinister Longshanks than McGoohan or as lovely a Princess Isabelle as Marceau (The World is Not Enough, Alex & Emma).  That the entire notion of a meeting, never mind a romantic dalliance between the Wallace and Isabelle is ludicrous, especially in the final reveal during the climax,I can't really complain about the inclusion for the sake of dramatic resonance.

Gibson encroaches into schmaltz on occasion, but the ending is still quite powerful, especially as played out over James Horner's rousing score.  From the famous speech delivered on horseback to his men to the final word uttered using his (literal) last breath, Gibson knows how to punctuate the crucial scenes with the precision of a veteran.  If all directors had his fierce brand of passion, today's films would prove much more interesting.

Qwipster's rating:

2008 Vince Leo