Braveheart (1995)

Dir. Mel Gibson. Starring Mel Gibson, Patrick McGoohan, Sophie Marceau

There are a bunch of different movies in Braveheart, and that wouldn’t be a problem if that were purposeful.

The good first: I find Wallace (Gibson) surprisingly compelling, and I don’t think his limited motivations limit the character. He gets into the revolution business to avenge the death of his wife; he stays in it because he’s decided, not unintelligently, that Scottish freedom from England would prevent future dead wives. Lawrence of Arabia, which is metrically similar to Braveheart but otherwise completely different, does not give T.E. Lawrence much more motivation. He wants to help the Arabs get out from under the thumb of the British, and his thirst to prove himself turns into a belief in his own invincibility. Hardly more complex on the surface. But where both movies see something of a messiah, Lawrence problematizes the notion and Braveheart bleeds all over it. It’s the reason why Lawrence of Arabia is more interesting than Braveheart as opposed to merely better, and the messiah problem in Braveheart is the nucleus of the movie’s weird faults.

I guess I would like Braveheart more if John Waters had directed it. I think I would like it more even if John Waters’ name were on the movie instead of Mel Gibson’s, and the movie itself were totally identical. If there is a single flaw to Braveheart, it is not its politics or its misplaced allegory or its general cluelessness. It is in the movie’s sense of self-importance, as if by the fact of the movie’s references to Christ or its historical influence or its connection to a star such as Gibson it deserves to be taken seriously off the bat. There are plenty of movies which are alternately messianic, based in real life, homosocial, and bloody and which earn seriousness. But there’s nothing more serious in Braveheart than what we see in a vaudeville, professional wrestling, or very serious episodes of popular sitcoms, and say what you will about those: they aren’t three hours long.*

*The movie would be, oh, a cool 150 minutes if there wasn’t so much slow motion.

Wallace is a man of simple tastes, rather like Jesus was supposed to have been. The film presents Wallace and Jesus with similar narrative arcs. Wallace’s unprecedented revenge for the murder of his wife is his first miracle, like Jesus’ reluctant performance of the miracle at Cana. He gains a following of unlikely sorts, from the half-crazed Irishman Stephen (David O’Hara) to his own “Sons of Thunder,” the Campbells. The elder Campbell (James Cosmo) is a gruff old man who fights through various gruesome injuries; the younger, Hamish (Brendan Gleeson), is a childhood friend of Wallace. (The American-Australian Gibson playing a Scotsman is what it is. Having the Dublin-born Gleeson play Scottish while the Glasgow-born O’Hara play Irish is a little hysterical.) After performing his first miracle, Wallace becomes an active threat to the imperialist English—Edward I (McGoohan) is an apt enough substitute for Pilate in this story—and is ultimately betrayed by someone he holds dear. Robert the Bruce (Angus McFadyen), the one man in Scotland who Wallace says he would follow as his king, turns out to be a real backstabber. Because this is not literally the same story, Robert turns out to be Simon Peter as well; after Wallace’s execution, the Bruce turns out to be the rock on which Wallace will build Scotland thanks to the former’s stunning victory at Bannockburn. This is all unsaid! And if it were unsaid, then I suppose that would be heavy-handed but manageable. But Wallace is killed on a cross?

The crucifixion of William Wallace sees him humiliated, tortured, and tempted, in variable order, just as Jesus suffered. But where Jesus’ last words on the Cross are mystical and powerful, culminating with a statement of reunion between himself and God the Father. Wallace’s last word is a giant “FREEEEDOOOOOOM” which visibly shudders his once-jeering audience. This is the great difference between the Jesus of Scotland Wallace has in mind and the Jesus who is frequently prayed to. (Usually I have to watch thirteen hours of Evelyn Waugh adaptation to complain this much about excessive Catholicism in my plot.) What if, Gibson seems to wonder, if Jesus were also really good at killing people with a big sword? Braveheart wanders into this territory a few times too often for its own good, assuming that if there’s a lot of guts and death and stuff that it would be taken seriously. Given what happened to the movie in 1995 and 1996, that was a good assumption! After another twenty years of Gibson movies and Gibson scandal, it is admittedly difficult to look at Braveheart without the context of The Passion of the Actual, Swordless Christ or Apocalypto or Hacksaw Ridge. The Passion of the Christ isn’t funny enough to support an argument that it’s campy, and its anti-Semitic ideology would take the joy out of it even if there were more moments like the one where Jesus invents the table. Braveheart presents no such challenges. Just as weird as Jesus’s forward-thinking carpentry is the movie’s suggestion that Wallace manages to complete everyone’s favorite move on the English line of succession: the Half-Prima nocte, in which a man cuckolds the king and then the queen tells the king about it on his deathbed.

At Stirling Bridge, Wallace and his men show up with individual blue face paint and rouse their fellows by lifting their kilts to expose their genitalia and then their buttocks to the English soldiers across the way, who are put out in a fittingly English way. (We in the audience get the same view as the Englishmen: no need to be vulgar). This is a routine not unlike the kind of things we see professional wrestlers engage in, albeit tamer, in what is America’s most popular display of camp anymore. Performative masculine actions—killing and chopping, muscles and hirsute bodies, less talk and more stab—are the order of the movie’s most pivotal scenes. How exciting it is, indeed, for people who would be nervous about killing a cockroach with their shoes in the safety of their homes. All this is capped with the alphabet soup slogan, “They can take our lives but they’ll never take our freedom!” which would be something for Crow or Tom Servo to make fun of the production values were worse. Stirling Bridge has become a shorthand for masculinity in movies of the past twenty-five years, which is indicative of the fragile state of masculinity in our own popular consciousness. If the movie were taken from Edward I’s perspective, no doubt the same men who find the pre-battle exposure of the Scots so gutsy and funny would decry it as, ah, “gay.”

The movie’s own track record on homosexuality is par for the course for Clinton administration America. The future Edward II (Peter Hanly) is hopelessly effete. Thin, curly-haired, and constantly surrounded by foppish men in gaudy clothes, he has no interest in his beautiful French wife, Isabella (Marceau). The actual Edward II may well have been bonking Piers Gaveston, who has a forerunner in the movie whom Edward I defenestrates, but historical accuracy is not high on Braveheart’s list of goals. No, Edward’s homosexuality is meant to be synonymous to weakness and indecision, playing into the old stereotypes for…humor? characterization? Certainly he is compared to Wallace, who actually does bang Isabella, and of course Wallace is the true man’s man where Edward is the arch “girlie man.” Wallace is also surrounded by men at all times except when he’s making love; there is, of course, nothing gay about Wallace’s preference for butch guys. It is a fine example of the movie’s “Nothing to see here!” ethos, even if it is a minor thread in the overall story.

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