Braveheart makes a myth of a real person and real events; in that respect, it’s a heavily flawed film. Yet, in my eyes, Mel Gibson’s epic will always be one of the finest films ever made. No film has struck me emotionally quite like Braveheart. William Wallace (Mel Gibson) was the first freedom fighter I ever truly knew, and his trials and tribulations against the British awed me for every second of its vast 3-hour runtime. When I first saw the film, I was struck hard by the end. Watching those men charge the fields of Bannockburn, I realised I had unwittingly become attached to this film forever. So, 25 years after its initial release, I thought I would write on what makes this best picture winner my personal favourite movie.
For those who don’t know, Braveheart loosely follows the story of William Wallace and the Scottish revolt he led against King Edward I of England (AKA Longshanks). It tells of his courage and his love, and while there’s more fiction than fact, Braveheart is a powerful and captivating example of how to glorify an individual from a bygone era.
We see the battles of Stirling and Falkirk with all their intense rebel vigour and inspirational message of independence. Those battles and all the others are brutal. The infantry swings their weapons with reckless abandon resulting in plenty of bloody impalements and crushings. The combat sequences were so ambitious in scale they required 1600 extras to film, and the final result is breath-taking. Indeed, they are engrossing and memorable in their execution, but Braveheart offers so much more.
We also witness love in a time where hatred ruled. From his tragic relationship with his wife Murron (Catherine McCormack), the death of whom acts as a catalyst for the rebellion. To the unrequited dedication, Wallace receives from Princess Isabell (Sophie Marceau), the incredibly brave daughter in law of Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan). We experience a depth and emotional development that few epics ever get close to by comparison.
There are many other complexities to the narrative; betrayal and internal Scottish politics to name a couple, but the film is only bettered by them and never gets bogged down in over-explaining specific points. Rather than exploring the dry world of politics, Braveheart opts to grow its massive heart ever larger. In the process, Mel Gibson proved, as he did with Hacksaw Ridge, that he can endear you to lost causes from the past, ones many of his audience cannot relate to, but they nonetheless feel for and champion. And that’s precisely why this film redefined what an epic was to me. I’m an Australian of English and Irish descent, and Scotland’s independence becomes my number one issue every time I sit down to watch, just purely because of the overwhelming emotion that washes over me from beginning to end.
To that point, despite the monumental amount of work which went into the film, I would label it effortlessly epic. For all it’s false depictions, some of which are brazenly obvious, Braveheart feels real. Maybe because Randall Wallace wrote with his feelings more so than his mind; generating an atmosphere which emphasises the mythical nature of everything, earning the film forgiveness for all the falsehoods. William Wallace is an all-time movie hero, whose cry of freedom is known worldwide as the ultimate piece of melodrama, and he is what makes this film the epic. Writing him with rigorous historical fact and via the means of meticulous recreation would only serve to distort Braveheart into a much lesser film.
Mel Gibson became a deserving Academy Award winner in the wake of Braveheart and there’s little to say to discredit his win. The way he captures both love and war will always be utterly evocative and mesmerising. He couldn’t have done it without his Academy Award-winning Cinematographer John Toll who stuns with his lens. And yet one person, who the Academy tragically failed to honour in 1996, adds more to this experience than maybe even Mel himself.
The late great James Horner is known first and foremost for composing Titanic, a monumental piece of work to be sure. But his efforts composing Braveheart with the London Symphony Orchestra is the stuff of dreams. From his “Outlawed Tunes on Outlawed Pipes” to “The Execution Bannockburn” Horner’s score is a cinematic achievement of the highest order. As the film comes to its conclusion, he hypnotises and escorts you to one of cinemas most magnificent crescendos both musically and narratively. His loss is irreparably tragic, and we should be forever thankful for the magic he skilfully made for us while he was alive.
Braveheart is a masterpiece, and remains as irresistibly epic as it always has.
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