Every man dies, but not every man truly lives.
When Scotland's future looked most grim, a hero arose of mythic proportions. William Wallace (1272?-1305) remains to this day the most revered national hero of Scotland, legendary for his courage, cunning, stature, wisdom, and military insight. Wallace, the landless second son of an insignificant nobleman, was able to unite the common people of his fractious country and win almost miraculous victories against the dreaded "Southrons." In an era when the natural leaders betrayed their country for their own selfish ends, William Wallace shines forth as the one man who never swerved in his devotion to Scotland and its liberty.
In 1995 director Mel Gibson brought this era of history to popular attention with Braveheart. For many Americans, this sweeping historical epic was our first exposure to the exploits of Anglicorum Malleus, the Hammer of the English, and his battles against the forces of Edward I. Braveheart garnered five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director honors for Gibson. The film is widely regarded as one of the finest of the 1990s. Paramount has now released Braveheart on a disc that attempts to do justice to the blood and passion of this cinematic masterpiece.
Facts of the Case
Braveheart begins as young William Wallace witnesses his father's involvement in a Scottish uprising against King Edward I of England. King Edward (Patrick McGoohan, A Time to Kill, The Phantom, Scanners), known as "Longshanks," has completed his conquest of Wales and is turning his attentions to the subjugation of Scotland. Malcolm Wallace (Sean Lawlor, Space Truckers, In the Name of the Father, Trojan Eddie) is a patriot, and is killed fighting the English. Young William is adopted by his uncle Argyle (Brian Cox—TNT's Nuremberg, Rushmore, Kiss the Girls), who promises to educate William in mind and in body.
Years pass, and William (Mel Gibson, Lethal Weapon, Hamlet, The Road Warrior) returns to his home village, where he is content to live in peace, tend his fields, and raise a family. At a wedding celebration he meets Murron (Catherine McCormack, Dangerous Beauty, Dancing at Lughnasa, Shadow of the Vampire) whom he knew as a child but who has grown into a stunning beauty. He is also reunited with Hamish (Brendan Gleeson, Lake Placid, Michael Collins, Far and Away), a childhood friend whom Wallace bests in a test of strength and wits. This wedding provides the first glimpse of the cruelty of English rule in Scotland. In an effort to attract more of his supporters to lands in Scotland, Longshanks has granted the right of prima nocte or "first night" to his nobles, giving them sexual rights to any female commoner in their territory on her wedding night. The bride avoids violence between her husband and the English soldiers by going with the lord willingly.
This is part of a larger pattern of oppression and growing tensions between the Scots and their English overlords. Wallace avoids the conflict as long as he can. He woos and marries Murron, keeping their union secret so that no English lord can claim her. However, when English soldiers attack her Wallace comes to her aid, assaulting several of the king's men in the process. In the confusion Wallace escapes from the village but Murron does not. Murron is summarily executed for the attack on the king's men. This leads William to strike back, attacking the local garrison and exacting his vengeance on the man who killed his love. This marks Wallace's entry into the conflict, and as his fame and battlefield successes grow he becomes a focal point for the Scottish cause. He attracts a large following, including the mad Stephen of Ireland (David O'Hara—CBS's Jesus miniseries, Fever, The Devil's Own) who becomes one of his closest confidants and advisors.
Wallace's greatest victory comes at the battle of Stirling Bridge, in 1297. In one of the greatest scenes in the film Wallace rallies his countrymen with an impassioned speech celebrating freedom and liberty. He then goes to "pick a fight" by insulting the English commander and ensuring that the Scottish nobles with him do not negotiate a reward for themselves and surrender without a battle. It is at Stirling that Wallace defeats an English heavy cavalry charge through the use of the schiltrom, a close-knit infantry formation of men with long spears. This marks the first time in over 200 years that an infantry formation has held against a charge of the heavy horse. This tactic was so successful that it became the basis for British infantry tactics until the end of the nineteenth century.
As a result of Wallace's rout of the English he is knighted by the Scottish establishment and named Guardian of Scotland. Almost immediately he is drawn into the infighting amongst the Scottish clans over the succession to the throne. The leading contenders are Robert the Bruce (Angus McFayden) and John de Balliol (Bernard Horsfall). Each is bound by a web of conflicting alliances and obligations to the Scots and to Edward Longshanks himself. Each is also wary of Wallace's growing influence with the commoners.
Wallace's military victories do not last, and he eventually falls victim to the political maneuvering of the Scottish lords. He is betrayed by his own countrymen and brought to London where he is tried and executed in a most grisly fashion. Even as he suffers and dies he maintains his single-minded devotion to freedom, and in death he becomes a powerful martyr to the Scottish cause.
After the death of Wallace, Robert the Bruce ascends the throne of Scotland. Rather than live as Longshanks' puppet, he fights on in the name of independence. He exhorts his countrymen: "You have bled with Wallace, now bleed with me!"
While Braveheart tells an ostensibly historical tale, that alone cannot account for its riveting appeal. The names and places may be real, the events may all have happened but Braveheart transcends all that, reaching the level of an epic myth. Indeed, the record of Wallace's life and achievements owes a great deal to the epic poem of Blind Harry the Minstrel, a source more akin to Homer or Euripides than the Encyclopedia Britannica. The entire plot could have been cribbed wholesale from Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It grips the viewer on a primal level and does not let go for almost three solid hours.
The success of the film depends in no small measure to outstanding performances from the entire cast. Gibson's William Wallace is utterly convincing as a man of peace driven to unimaginable violence by the loss of his love and the cause of his country. McGoohan gives a performance as Longshanks that transcends even Machiavelli and revels in a whole new level of ruthless cunning. O'Hara as Stephen and Gleeson as Hamish bring exactly the right mix of humor and strength to their roles as Wallace's stout supporters and close friends. O'Hara in particular is given some wonderful opportunities by Randall Wallace's Oscar-nominated script. He takes full advantage, able to wring roaring laughter from even the tense moments before a bloody battle. Angus McFayden's portrayal of Robert the Bruce, future King of Scotland is very moving as he shows us a man torn between his conscience and political necessity.
No review of Braveheart would be complete without high praise for its technical achievements. John Toll's Oscar-winning cinematography brings medieval Scotland to life in every frame. The special effects, along with Gibson's direction and some of the best editing ever seen, bring the horrible reality of medieval warfare to the screen. All of this is infused with life and soul by James Horner's incredible score, also nominated for an Oscar.
Paramount's DVD release of Braveheart is a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. Picture quality is for the most part excellent, although there are more "blips" and assorted picture defects than one would expect. Not a lot, but they tend to appear in noticeable situations, such as extended close ups. Image quality varies, from razor-sharp to somewhat soft. In fact, there is a lot of the film that seems to be in slightly softer focus, and I tend to think that this is due to deliberate choices made by Gibson and Toll rather than any problems with the video transfer. Colors, most noticeably flesh tones, are dead on. Colors throughout the film are often muted by cloudy Scottish weather, but that is as it should be. There was only one instance of shimmer, seen in chain mail patterns, but it was hardly noticeable and quite forgiveable.
The sound mix is Dolby Digital 5.1. I found myself wishing for more battle noises from the rear surrounds, but overall the movie sounds great. I'm sure those of you with subwoofers will feel the English heavy horse charging straight through your home.
The extra content on the disc, while lacking in quantity, is of very good quality. Two theatrical trailers are provided in their original aspect ratio. There is a 28 minute documentary entitled "A Filmmaker's Passion: The Making of Braveheart." This documentary is very well done, and gives the viewer a lot of interesting information. However, the centerpiece of any film's extra content is the commentary track, and Braveheart is no exception. Gibson's commentary is one of the most interesting and informative I have ever heard, almost reaching the level of Ron Howard's Apollo 13 track. Gibson's comments are not wall-to-wall; he knows when to let the movie speak for itself. The commentary is full of Mel's observations, historical insights, and details of the filmmaking process. From defenestration to camera speeds to battle choreography he covers it all. He also points out with some relish different techniques that Steven Spielberg later "stole" from him for Saving Private Ryan.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have only one major objection to the storyline, and that is the introduction of a subplot involving the Princess of Wales. Sophie Marceau (The World Is Not Enough, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Lost and Found) is wonderful in her role, but this subplot feels tacked on, and stretches historical credibility just a bit too much. Her scenes with Wallace do reveal more of his depth and passion, but the suggestion that a Scottish rebel chieftain would ever meet the Princess of Wales, let alone form a passionate relationship, is completely unbelievable. Somehow it works as part of the movie, but objectively it seems pretty ludicrous. To his credit, Gibson acknowledges as much in his commentary track.
While the quality of the extra materials is great, the quantity is definitely lacking. Surely there must have been deleted scenes that would have been of interest. In a day and age when every studio is including text screens of cast and crew biographical information on even the most bare-bones release, surely Paramount could have thrown something together. Also, this film was nominated for ten Oscars and won five; would it have been too much to ask for a list of them all? Paramount has never been known for their extra content, and while they put more effort into Braveheart, I find them lacking. It is a shame, especially in light of the treatment that other studios give inferior flicks like Independence Day, Men in Black, and Armageddon, not to mention the upcoming release of The Patriot.
Finally, a bit of a warning. This movie is not for the faint of heart, and it is certainly not for viewing by young children. The battle scenes are presented with incredible skill and realism, but it is not for everyone. Some viewers will probably be quite shocked by the graphic and realistic portrayal of medieval combat. In my mind these battles are central to telling Wallace's story, but others may find them too much to stomach.
In the course of this review, I have tried to walk a fine line. I am as you can probably tell a great fan of this film, and I have endeavored to be objective. I have tried not to sound like a Paramount sales rep, but now I say this: if you have not bought this disc, go out and do so immediately. This is a respectable presentation of a great film, and it belongs in everyone's collection.
The film is acquitted on all counts. For even bringing it to trial the prosecutor is ordered to present himself before the court, place his head between his legs, and kiss his own…you know the rest.
Paramount is once again convicted of shortchanging one of their outstanding titles. Although this disc is much more complete and has a much better selection of extra material than Paramount's previous criminal record would lead us to expect, it is hardly sufficient treatment for such a wonderful film. They have proven themselves incorrigible; drawing and quartering would be too good for them.
* Note—William Mackay's outstanding book William Wallace: Brave Heart was indispensable in the preparation of this review, and much of my opening statement comes directly from his introduction.
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