Wags enjoy razzing the 13th-century Scottish epic Braveheart, starring Mel Gibson in the role of freedom fighter William Wallace, as Die Hard in a kilt. Wait till they get to the knobby question of how Gibson’s knees stack up against Liam Neeson’s in Rob Roy. No matter. Gibson gets the last laugh. Braveheart resists glib categorization. This rousing, romantic adventure is laced with sorrow and savagery. The audacity Gibson shows as the film’s director extends to the running time, which is nearly three hours. Hamlet, with Gibson playing the melancholy Dane, was shorter, and Braveheart isn’t Shakespeare. Don’t panic. Though the film dawdles a bit with the shimmery, dappled love stuff involving Wallace with a Scottish peasant and a French princess, the action will pin you to your seat. With breathtaking skill, Gibson captures the exhilaration and horror of combat in some of the most vivid battle scenes ever filmed.
Wallace was knighted for leading his people in the fight against domination by England. Few facts are known about his personal life, which frees Gibson and screenwriter Randall Wallace (no relation) to run with the legend passed down mostly from the rhyming verse of a poet known as Blind Harry. It’s a shame that Harry predates Hollywood by five centuries — he could have made a killing cranking out kick-ass crowd pleasers.
Gibson’s Wallace is a potent blend of Robin Hood, Attila the Hun and, yes, the wags were right, Detective John McClane in Die Hard. Wallace could relate to any story that pits one pissed-off fighter against the system. He faced an English army led by bad-to-the-bone King Edward the Longshanks, played by Patrick McGooban in a classic portrait of slithering sadism. Wallace also had to inspire Scottish peasants and nobles to follow his lead against daunting odds.
It’s a ripping yarn, and Gibson could have slid by with the usual hack heroics. Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves did just that and still earned a pile. Gibson does it the hard way with attention to detail. He has retained the keen eye for character he showed in The Man Without a Face, his promising 1993 directing debut. Wallace doesn’t spring to life as a full-blown legend, though he does speak Latin and French when he returns to his village in Scotland to settle down as a farmer and marry Murron (the meltingly lovely Catherine McCormack), his childhood sweetheart. It’s the brutal fate dished out to Murron by the English that makes the farmer an outlaw.
That’s when Wallace organizes the villagers into a ragtag militia. Brendon Gleeson’s Hamish, James Cosmo’s Campbell and Alun Armstrong’s Mornay register strongly, as does David O’Hara’s Stephen, the Irish warrior who joins the Scottish cause. The teasing camaraderie botched in Robin Hood is expertly handled here. Gibson’s impassioned performance as the hero who would not trade his freedom for English gold doesn’t shrink from showing the barbarian who emerges at a call to arms.
“Are you ready for war?” Wallace shouts to his outnumbered troops at Stirling. It’s the film’s first major battle scene and a triumph for Gibson. Trying to stir hundreds of fatigued soldiers to action, Wallace rides his horse back and forth in a frantic effort to be heard. In most historical films, the stationary star manages to move multitudes with a throaty whisper. Gibson jettisons the Hollywood fakery. Riding among the men, his face streaked with woad (a blue dye used to terrify the enemy) and his voice hoarse from yelling. Wallace is a demon warrior crying out for vengeance.
Cinematographer John Toll, an Oscar winner for Legends of the Fall, thrusts the audience into the brutal frays at Stirling, York and Falkirk. Superbly edited by Steven Rosenblum (Glory), these sequences recall the blood poetry of Welles’ Chimes at Midnight and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Sophisticated weaponry was centuries away. The Scots used hammers, axes, picks, swords, chains and even farm tools to crack skulls as they battered the English in the mud. They also set oil traps on the ground to burn their enemies, though shields and chain mail offered scant protection against the rain of English arrows. “Quite the lovely gathering.” says Longshanks, surveying the carnage and dispatching his officers to send in Irish volunteers instead of expert English archers. “Arrows cost money,” he sneers.
Gibson’s handling of Wallace at war is so thrillingly done that one regrets the subplots that distract from the action. Wallace’s flirtation with the king’s French daughter-in-law, Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau), is fanciful fluff that undercuts his undying love for Murron, and the king’s homophobic revenge on his preening son, Prince Edward (Peter Hanly), and the son’s boy toy, Phillip (Stephen Billington), comes off as inexplicable gay baiting. Judicious cutting might have sharpened the film’s focus and impact.
Still, don’t get your kilt in a bunch over a spectacle that provokes such lively debate about the method and madness of war. Filmed with furious energy and surprising gravity, Braveheart takes the measure of a hero with a taste for blood to match his taste for honor. Wallace is an inspiring, unsettling role, and Gibson plays him, aptly, like a gathering storm.