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

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

The protocol actually says that most Tersies will say this has to be a dream.

Jupiter Ascending (2015)
(SPOILERS) The Wachowski siblings’ wildly patchy career continues apace. They bespoiled a great thing with The Matrix sequels (I liked the first, not the second), misfired with Speed Racer (bubble-gum visuals aside, hijinks and comedy ain’t their forte) and recently delivered the Marmite Sense8 for Netflix (I was somewhere in between on it). Their only slam-dunk since The Matrix put them on the movie map is Cloud Atlas, and even that’s a case of rising above its limitations (mostly prosthetic-based). Jupiter Ascending, their latest cinema outing and first stab at space opera, elevates their lesser works by default, however. It manages to be tone deaf in all the areas that count, and sadly fetches up at the bottom of their filmography pile.

This is a case where the roundly damning verdicts have sadly been largely on the ball. What’s most baffling about the picture is that, after a reasonably engaging set-up, it determinedly bores the pants off you. I haven’t enco…

Seems silly, doesn't it? A wedding. Given everything that's going on.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010)
(SPOILERS) What’s good in the first part of the dubiously split (of course it was done for the art) final instalment in the Harry Potter saga is very good, let down somewhat by decisions to include material that would otherwise have been rightly excised and the sometimes-meandering travelogue. Even there, aspects of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I can be quite rewarding, taking on the tone of an apocalyptic ‘70s aftermath movie or episode of Survivors (the original version), as our teenage heroes (some now twentysomethings) sleep rough, squabble, and try to salvage a plan. The main problem is that the frequently strong material requires a robust structure to get the best from it.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

When I barked, I was enormous.

Dean Spanley (2008)
(SPOILERS) There is such a profusion of average, respectable – but immaculately made – British period drama held up for instant adulation, it’s hardly surprising that, when something truly worthy of acclaim comes along, it should be singularly ignored. To be fair, Dean Spanleywas well liked by critics upon its release, but its subsequent impact has proved disappointingly slight. Based on Lord Dunsany’s 1939 novella, My Talks with Dean Spanley, our narrator relates how the titular Dean’s imbibification of a moderate quantity of Imperial Tokay (“too syrupy”, is the conclusion reached by both members of the Fisk family regarding this Hungarian wine) precludes his recollection of a past life as a dog. 

Inevitably, reviews pounced on the chance to reference Dean Spanley as a literal shaggy dog story, so I shall get that out of the way now. While the phrase is more than fitting, it serves to underrepresent how affecting the picture is when it has cause to be, as does any re…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…