Paramount // 1995 // 177 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // September 14th, 2009
Every man dies, not every man really lives.
At the beginning of the 1990s, there was no bigger star than Mel Gibson. He was a giant, a multimillion dollar international man of action who had translated his meager Mad Max beginnings into a position as one of Hollywood's heaviest hitters. Eager to get behind the camera and make the movies he wanted to see, 1993 saw Gibson take Malcolm MacRury' adaptation of Isabelle Holland's novel, The Man Without a Face and turn it into a qualified box office hit. Many saw promise in the behind the camera talent of this smaller personal film. Few could have predicted that his next effort would dominate 1995's critical conversation up and through the Oscars. Braveheart beat out sentimental favorites such as Babe and Apollo 13 that year, while Gibson bested directors such as Mike Figgis and Chris Noonan. It was the start of a surreal rollercoaster that would see the actor's commercial clout continue, only to watch as his personal life pulsated wildly out of control. Looking back, Gibson's run in with the tabloids definitely tainted his current mainstream cache. A trip back to this brilliant bravura cinematic turn is all one needs to be reminded of his ever-present abilities. Braveheart is just that good.
As a young boy, William Wallace (Mel Gibson, Ransom) watched as the English stormed his country of Scotland, killing anyone who disagreed with their territorial demands. When his father and brother die at the hands of the invading hordes, he is forced to live with his Uncle Argyle (Brian Cox, Manhunter). It's a stroke of luck as the nobleman educated William in the ways of the world, taking him on travels to France and Italy. By the time he returns to Scotland, the young man is intelligent and erudite. He's also angry to see how Longshanks, King Edward I (Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner) continues to treat his country. The most horrific of policies is prima nocte, in which British invaders have the exclusive right to sleep with any new bride on her wedding night. Rebelling against this cruel concept, Wallace weds his beloved Murron (Catherine McCormack, 28 Weeks Later) in secret.
A tragedy finds him fighting the local Lord, desperate to get back what he's lost. Thus begins a rebellion that sees Wallace bringing together various disenfranchised factions to fight. They include longtime friend Hamish (Brendan Gleason, In Bruges), and Irish ex-patriot Stephen (David O'Hara, Doomsday). While he wins battles and occupies towns, the Scottish nobles are intent on negotiation. Rightful heir to the throne Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen, Saw III) wants to support Wallace, but his ailing father and his factions do not. Longshanks simply wants the troublemaker dead, and decides to ambush him. Intrigued by his story (and her hatred for her fey royal husband), the Princess of Wales, Isabella (Sophie Marceau, The World is Not Enough) vows to help him. Slowly, Wallace gets Scotland to stand on its own, a position that will cost him the very thing he longs for -- freedom!
Braveheart remains the very definition of an epic. Everything about it -- its heart, its heroism, its wholly shameless retrofitting of history -- is massive in scope and larger than life. Gibson can be accused of a lot of things (many of them having little to do with his chosen profession) but it's impossible to deny his vision here. This is what moviemaking is all about -- the sweeping shots of far away glens, the battlefield attacks with their brutal aggression, the uncompromising virtues of honor and duty, the champion's twinkle in Gibson's ultra-blue eyes. Like a primer for everything Peter Jackson would pump up for his equally enthralling Lord of the Rings film, Braveheart oozes emotion and sprays testosterone. If it wasn't for the occasional glimpse of the female form, you'd swear the whole of the UK was populated via hairy he-man osmosis. From casting that uncovers a wealth of future familiar faces to a standout performance from a forgotten stalwart, Braveheart establishes its excellence early and never ever backs down.
Gibson deserves credit for his shameless devotion to sentiment. This entire story is built of a love lost and a rule so repugnant that anyone in their right mind would take up arms and fight (all historical accuracy aside, of course). From there, he builds on Wallace's walking wounded iconography, turning him into the classic man with nothing to loose. As a result, we root for his antics from the very beginning, enjoying every sword thrust and throat cut with vicarious abandon. By the time McGoohan shows up to ooze pure evil (he is truly magnificent here), we are primed for the face-off -- and for the next two hours, Gibson gives us his best. Aside from The Man Without a Face, his entire directing oeuvre is locked within the mythic confrontation -- Christ vs. the cross, the Indian peasants vs. the scared, murderous ruling class -- but Braveheart is where he learned the ropes. By making sure his actors never miss the import of a moment, by ensuring that his filmmaking acumen will accent these sequences with sharp, recognizable reveals, we get lost in the world they all inhabit and find ourselves cheering along as Wallace works his way toward a final smackdown with Longshanks.
Of course, many want to dispute Gibson's version of things, a more fictional approach to Scotland's struggle for independence. It's odd to blame the visionary when it's not his script to start with. Randal Wallace is responsible for the version of history here and while his liberties are monumental, his intentions are not. Dramatic license is needed to bring out the inherent themes in Braveheart. Watching nobles battle back and forth for land grants does little for the modern movie audience. Instead, Gibson takes Wallace's words, tweaks them with his own innate sense of the cinematic, and turns in a tour de force work of wonder. Who cares if Edward I never really issued the right of prima nocte? Does it matter that Isabella didn't marry the Prince until after Wallace was drawn and quartered? Braveheart is not a documentary. It's also not a bland, boring biography. It's the magic that movies do best, a combination of the real with the imaginary fused to create a complete and compelling mix. Believe in its elements or don't, but make no mistake -- Braveheart is a great film, and it's all because of what Mel Gibson brings to it as actor and director.
Ever since it hit theaters 14 years ago, fans have been praying for a home theater transfer that would approximate the visual grandeur and natural beauty that Gibson instilled into his film. Well fans, said wait is over -- at least until the next major format change. The Blu-ray of Braveheart is heartbreaking, astonishing in its depth, clarity, and optical magnitude. The 2.35:1 framing in a 1080p AVC encode brings the lush UK backdrops to life, several shots taking your breath away as Gibson lines up another careful composition. It's the detail that will provide most of the surprises: the skintones of Wallace's war-painted face as he rallies his ragtag troops to victory; McGoohan's skeletal façade as he suffers through the death throws; the verdant majesty of the faraway hills; the rip roaring redness of the ample blood. For nearly three hours the Blu-ray brings this often misunderstood movie back to life, replicating the theatrical experience as closely as technologically possible today.
The sound situation is equally as good. The Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 presentation is flawless, combining the many contradictory aural elements -- dialogue, music, sound F/X, etc. -- in an effortless balance between bombast and brittle. Sure, James Horner's score sounds like Enya-lite a lot of the time, but the digital format gives it a pristine polish that is hard to beat.
As for added content, we see three major extras from the 2007 Special Collector's Edition DVD ported over to this new release. They include the Mel Gibson commentary that first made an appearance on the 2000 release of the film. The superstar is gracious, up front, and very laid back. There are major gaps in the discussion, so don't expect a wall-to-wall overview of the production. Also present are a features labeled A Writer's Journey and Tales of William Wallace. The former follows the work of screenwriter Randall Wallace (a direct decedent of the hero) as he explains his approach, while the latter deals with all the fact/fiction controversy surrounding Scotland's sovereign son.
New to this Blu-ray version are a trio of documentaries (all in HD) listed under the collection caption Braveheart: A Look Back. They include "A Company of Equals" (which focuses on the cast and crew), "The Sound of Laughter" (the fun had onset) and "The Measure of a Film" (addressing the amount of material gathered for the movie). There is also an HD featurette on the town of Smithfield (which was prominent in the movie) and a CG offering that allows you to explore the Battlefields of the Scottish Rebellion. Add in a Braveheart timeline (matching history to what takes place in the film) and a collection of trailers, and you have quite the upgrade. It is definitely worth the double dip for the tech specs alone.
Having been MIA since 2004, it's disheartening that Mel Gibson's most recent return to prominence was once again as a TMZ whipping boy. The supposedly devoted father of several and longtime married man gave up his good Catholic values, divorced his wife, and knocked up a skeazy Russian musician, all in the name of what appears to be the standard middle aged male menopause. If his motive was to make a new name for himself, "joke" probably wasn't part of the proposed monikers. Still, with several new films in the works and an apparent clean break from his past life, Gibson may be ripe for a revival. While five years is forever in Hollywood, the talent he showed in Braveheart (and his two other films since then) argues for someone who will always have a place at the Tinseltown trough. It may not always be a front row seat, but as this amazing movie illustrates, his is a moviemaking skill set that just can't be ignored.
Not Guilty. Not even CLOSE! Braveheart deserved its Oscar win, and
represents one of the best films of the '90s.
Review content copyright © 2009 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 177 Minutes
Release Year: 1995
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Interactive Timelines