Skip to main content

The trouble with Scotland is that it’s full of Scots.

Braveheart
(1995)

(SPOILERS) With some Best Picture Oscar winners, it's difficult to conceive the precise conflation of circumstances that compelled Academy members to plumb for a particular contender. So it is with Mel's ridiculous medieval martyrdom epic. My objections to Braveheart, however, aren't to do with its historical inaccuracies, be it the woad, the plaid, the facts of William Wallace's life, or the Battle of Stirling Bridge not taking place on a bridge; with the biopic (in its loosest sense), fidelity tends to fall away as a source of vexation if the overriding content passes muster. The problem with the picture is that it simply lacks the sensibility to fill the shoes it clearly wants to; if Eastwood's passage to director takes in the Siegel tradition, Gibson's goes via the Lethal Weapon route.


Which is a shame, as Mel's a much more talented filmmaker than Clint. But where the latter directs with reserve that sometimes verges on indifference (or torpor), Gibson cannot hide his passion for his material, and with projects like this or the recent Hacksaw Ridge – ironically, or tellingly, also nominated for Best Picture – tends to overspill into shameless melodrama, clodden clichés and brazen audience manipulation. The result is the most audience-baiting of '90s winners this side of Titanic (with which it shares a gag-inducingly evocative Celtic-tinged score from James Horner, apparently one of the best-selling soundtracks ever). It makes me think Gibson should stick to foreign-language movies going forward, as whatever I may think of The Passion of the Christ (not a lot) or Apocalypto (a near-masterpiece), there's a coherence to them that comes from a focus on visual storytelling rather than the slackening of grip that seems to ensue when characters are able to indulge overt, and corny, emoting.


Maybe Mel shouldn't have played Wallace (he had to really to get financing, and even then, it was a struggle). As soon as he made the decision, he brought the baggage of his star persona. It's not that he can't fit well enough into a period piece, in the the way Chuck Heston does in Ben-Hur or Kevin Costner does in Dances with Wolves; it's that by this point, he inevitably moulds it around that persona (compare and contrast with Gallipoli). So Walllace is now a designer Scotsman by way of Thunderdome with an uber mullett to match (the same one he has as a kid – no wonder Wallace grew up with such attitude, having to carry such a horrifically-coiffured burden on his shoulders all those years). At times with such accompanying laddish abandon, there's a feeling this is not so far from a very violent, thirteenth-century Police Academy, with Mel in the cheeky Steve Guttenberg role and Patrick McGoohan as Lieutenant Harris, taking exception to his disrespectfulness.


With that kind of sensibility, the reveal that Wallace, very much the man of the people and not the nobleman Wallace actually was, is also a cultured man of the people (and an artist to boot), one versed in Latin and French, who has even been to Rome, so as to show up those snooty, snotty English, is simply very, very cheesy (the cumulative effect is one of Bruce Willis in Hudson Hawk when he orders a menu item in perfect Italian before asking "Oh, and bring me a bottle of ketchup, will ya?" but minus the wall-to-wall irreverence for everything). Wallace also wants the quiet life ("If I can live in peace, I will") until poor dear Murron (Catherine McCormack) has her throat slit by the English bastards (Mel's determined to make you hate the English even if you are English).


At times, Gibson's so sincere, his approach verges on parody, such that dream sequences pock the narrative in very literal fashion, one of which segues into a silly bit where he rides a horse into Alun Armstrong's bedroom and then leaps into a moat; it's designed to feed into Wallace the myth, but because it's depicted as actually happening, there are times you half wonder if you're watching The Princess Bride. Then there's the – surprise, surprise – repetitive Christ imagery, from Wallace raising his hands (before raising a sword), to being dragged through the streets and spat on, to being tied on a cross board (before being thoroughly emasculated). 


So what's there to like about Braveheart? Well, you can't make any headway at all without first making a caveat, but McGoohan – let's not forget Mel was considering a big screen The Prisoner at one point – hoodwinks you into believing you're in a much better film whenever he appears, despite a fake hooter that occasionally looks like it's in competition with Peter Sellers' dentist disguise in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (an Academy Award for Best Make-up right there). 


Yes, his King Edward I is a two-dimensional Disney villain, and much of his time is spent disapproving of his son (Peter Hanley), a stereotypical mincing queen despite Mel's protestations that he wasn't being homophobic, honest. But he's such a splendid rotter, you can't help but experience the picture meeting its full cartoonish potential whenever he opens his mouth. Apparently, Gibson was bewildered that anyone would find Edward's murder of his son's lover funny, but you don't have the king establishing a setup of "Then tell me, what advice would you offer on the present situation?" before delivering the punchline of throwing Phillip (Stephen Billington) out of the nearest window before he gets to answer if you don't intend it to be funny; I bet Mel laughed his socks off in the editing room on every single playback). 


CommanderI beg your pardon, sire. Won't we hit our own troops?
Edward IYes, but we'll hit theirs as well. We have reserves. Attack.

There's an – how intentional, it's hard to assess – Alan Rickman quality to the villainy here (it was only four years since Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). McGoohan quickly becomes the droll spur that hastens the proceedings, and it's highly enjoyable watching Longshanks storming into any scene in utterly unreconstituted fashion, whether it's insulting the Scots, the Irish (McGoohan's resigned "Irish…" when they change sides on the battlefield is perfection), the opposite gender ("That's what happens when you send a woman" he scoffs of Sophie Marceau's Princess Isabelle giving away the gold), or his blasé attitude to casualties among his own men. And he kind of wins, even if it's on his death bed, so if you're on board with McGoohan's performance, Braveheart almost has a happy ending.


Also on the plus side, even at this early stage in his directorial career, Mel's grasp of action choreography – he had good tutors in the likes of George Miller, Peter Weir and Richard Donner – is very impressive. Perhaps more so with the smaller scale catharsis of avenging the loss of Murron than later battle scenes, but he knows what he wants, and what he wants is viscera (although, having said that, there are a surprising number of obviously under-connecting blows in the picture).


The cast are mostly very good too. William's broadly colloquial camaraderie with his men 
is very watchable, thanks to the likes of Brendan Gleeson (who, incredibly, looks quite young), Brian Cox (who also managed to star in that year's other historical Scottish epic, Rob Roy), David O'Hara (as the Mad Irishman caricature – although all the characters are caricatures, so he's just one that stands out as wacky), Tommy Flanagan and Peter Mullan.


There's also Ian Bannen in some dodgy leper makeup (remember that Academy Award?) as Robert the Bruce's duplicitous father, and the Bruce himself (Angus Macfadyen – apparently, a sequel is planned with Macfadyen reprising his role). The Bruce is an intriguingly conflicted character, but Macfadyen never really has a chance to dig into him – all Mel really wanted was to cast someone who comes across as a bit weedy, because Wallace is all man.


In general, Braveheart doesn't have the vision, poetry or mythmaking of a true epic; it's rough and ready in tone, the aforementioned Lethal Weapon in a period setting and on a broad canvas, not even Peckinpah-esque in relishing the queasy beauty of violence. Mel's charm is very contemporary, and he doesn't shrug that off for something immersive, probably consciously, irrespective of the other anachronisms. What you’ll remember are the limbs being hacked, genitals sliced, buttocks pierced and skulls caved in. And hanging, drawing and… well we didn’t get to see the quartering. And that Mel may as well have got Rowan Atkinson as the battlefield nobleman who meets a nasty end, so risibly chinless is he. He really doesn't like those English.  You'll remember Mel's impassioned imploration for freedom, of course, and his supreme sacrifice for nationalism and shrugging off the English yolk. What you won't encounter is coherence over and above the grisly moments and odd rousing speech; even that other actor-turned-director Costner, in his much derided (latterly) Best Picture Oscar Winner Dances with Wolves, had that.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.