February 2017 Blindspot: Braveheart

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The Blindspot Series is a series of twelve posts spread throughout the year designed to offer bloggers a chance to catch up classic films we somehow may have missed. Started by The Matinee, here is my list of Blindspot films for 2017. Next up for February is Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.

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Braveheart is one of those movies that lives and dies on its ability to deliver spectacle. A lot of great films are like that, though I feel that if it’s truly a great film, it’ll have something else going for it too. I’m not quite sure Braveheart gets there, but I still feel a little bit bad hating on it when I watched it on Netflix in the comfort of my own home.

Braveheart is the mythical (not to be confused with historical) tale of William Wallace (Mel Gibson), a revolutionary figure in 13th century Scotland who attempted the unify the different Scottish clans to end English rule. Needless to say, it didn’t work out so well for him. Gibson’s film focuses on the scale and the scope, and straightforward emotions that everybody can get behind, like valor, freedom, and fighting for the right to not have your family raped and/or killed by an oppressive government. There’s really little nuance to be had here. That doesn’t really make it bad movie per se, it’s just what the film is interested in doing. Nevertheless, it left a little bit to be desired, even though there were some high points and a bit of humor.

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Our story starts when Wallace is about ten, and looses his father to a failed rebellion against the English. Fast forward about fifteen or twenty years, and Wallace is back in Scotland after travelling the world and getting an education. Now he’s looking to settle down and marries Murron (Catherine McCormack), a girl he’s known since childhood. They marry in secret due to the policy of prima nocte, in which an English lord is given the right to rape any commoner bride on her wedding night. The king of England, Edward Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan), reinsituted the rule in the aim of taking over Scotland once and for all so his son can have more territory to rule over after he’s dead. Though it initially seems as if Murron has avoided this horrific fate, some English soldiers just decide to rape her in the town square one day anyway, and she is killed for resisting. Wallace kills the lord and all the English soldiers in the town in revenge, and for good measure, tries to drive the rest of the English from Scotland for good.

Easier said than done. Though they win battle after battle, unifying all the clans is difficult when many of them believe sucking up to English will keep the peace and also make them rich in the process (they’re not wrong). Wallace puts his faith in Robert the Bruce (Angus MacFadyen), whom he sees as the rightful king of Scotland, only to be betrayed and tortured by the English after the Bruce betrays him at his father’s urging. He is also helped by Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau), who is married to the king’s son and sent to distract Wallace from the English troop movements with a bribe, but ends up falling in love with him and warning him instead.

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The film overall makes sense, and I don’t want to imply with what I’m about to say that it doesn’t, but it also seems like a few things are rushed and go unexplained. Most of this relates to subplot involving Murron, but also some stuff between Robert the Bruce and his father is a bit confusing. It just feel like there are a few scenes that would have given some more depth to the film and justified some of the things the characters were saying and doing. I will concede that I watched this at home and it’s about three hours long, so you better believe I stopped the film a few times to go and do other things. When you do that you’re bound to miss some stuff, so that could very well be what happened here. I’m not advocating that the film be longer because I wanted more Braveheart, just that maybe it should have been to fill in some of the gaps that I saw (or thought I saw).

The battle scenes are at least done more coherently than the larger plot. They are shot in a way that isn’t so chaotic you can’t understand what’s happening, and paced well enough that there are perfect rests in the action for characters to explain their plans. The strategy behind each battle is pretty well laid out as well, and I’d say that’s the main thing the film has going for it.

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I probably don’t have to say this because no one would really expect anything otherwise from a film like this, but it really does not treat its female characters too well. Murron is just a device to get the seemingly rational and educated Wallace to cut out the throats of Englishman with proper ruthlessness, and she keeps appearing over and over again as a ghost to remind us of her total lack of personality. Since recorded history doesn’t have a lot of facts about Wallace anyway, they could have just used his father’s death and shortened the movie a bit. This would have avoided the inclusion of a female character who’s only purpose is to die in order to justify the main male character’s actions. It’s one of those things that is not so much the fault of the individual film but rather pop culture as a whole, but still makes you mad when you see an instance of it. Isabelle is handled better, even though she’s in love with Wallace without demanding anything in return, it’s an extreme situation so it makes sense as far as it goes. She is shown to be pretty calculating so I suppose that’s something.

Braveheart is the type of film that a lot of Blindspots end up being, the type of film you’re glad to have seen once but are not particularly keen to go back to. On my part, it comes with the huge caveat that I didn’t see it on the big screen. That robs the film of its main attraction, which is the scope of the whole thing. It’s fine and enjoyable enough, but it also has some flaws and it’s not really a movie I ended up super caring about.

I’m not too surprised that the Academy felt differently though, it fits right into the mold of Ben-Hur and even more so the later Gladiator (also Spartacus, but that film didn’t win). Call it a sword and kilt epic, if you will. At the 68th Academy Awards for the year of 1995, the film ended up winning five out of its ten nominations. Braveheart beat out Apollo 13, Babe, Il Postino, and Sense and Sensibility for best picture. It also took home director for Gibson, cinematography for John Toll, as well as sound editing and makeup. It lost out on original screenplay, costume design, sound, film editing, and original score. I have to imagine that Apollo 13 was the only serious challenger that year, though modern viewers will note that The Usual Suspects and Se7en came out that year as well. I gotta say though, none of them say best picture to me. Clearly I need to explore 1995 a bit more.

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“FREEDOOOOOMMMM!!!!”

Long story short: 3/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert review
The New York Times review
The Guardian article on historical accuracy

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