Winner '95:
First Saw It:
Braveheart
February 16, 1996, at the Sony Fresh Pond in Cambridge, MA
Bridesmaids: Apollo 13, Babe, Il Postino, Sense and Sensibility
My Vote: Babe, and when Sidney Poitier made that "B" sound, I was sure the little pig had won it
Overlooked: Safe, The Bridges of Madison County, Toy Story, Nixon, Dead Man Walking


Braveheart
Reviewed in March 2004
Director: Mel Gibson. Cast: Mel Gibson, Patrick McGoohan, Sophie Marceau, Catherine McCormack, Angus McFadyen, Brendan Gleeson, James Cosmo, David O'Hara, Peter Hanly, Stephen Billington, Ian Bannen, Brian Cox, Jeanne Marine, Tommy Flanagan, Sean Lawlor, James Robinson, Niall O'Brien, Peter Mullan, Gerard McSorley. Screenplay: Randall Wallace.

Photo © 1995 Paramount Pictures/Icon Productions
Mel Gibson is barely a director, and certainly not a storyteller. He is an Enforcer, putting his audiences on lock-down because, dammit, some tales are too important to be pussy-footed around with a lot of character development, historical fidelity, or stylistic finesse. That shit is for wimps, Commies, fairies, what have you, not to mention that howling crowd of liberal journalists, those winged Eumenides of political correctness, who according to Gibson's interviews are perpetually out to get him. Mel Gibson himself seems even more paranoid than his Jerry in Conspiracy Theory, more heedlessly single-minded than his characters in Ransom or Payback, and just about everything else he's appeared in since Hollywood called.

These manias manifest themselves in his movies in a stunning literalism; more than any other filmmaker in Hollywood, Gibson hews to a style that is visually elaborate without ever being visually complicated, scraping away the traces of any irony or texturing dimension from every shot, every scene. Because he is smart enough to employ really talented cinematographers (Donald McAlpine, John Toll, and Caleb Deschanel so far), the images in his films often achieve heft and allure, even when the immediate purposes to which they are bound are dubious. Watching any given sequence is a little like reading a paragraph where every sentence is declarative and ends in an exclamation point: "The highlands are gorgeous! They stretch far and wide! People live there! They are happy! They are dancing!"

Even at its best—and occasionally a stretch of a Gibson film can really work—the emphatic straightforwardness of Gibson's style derives equally from the impassioned, muscular conviction he has attempted to trademark for himself and from a profound personal defensiveness that he refuses to admit (which is really a symptom of the very problem in question). Gibson recurrently bases his movies on ideas that only achieve the guise of simplicity through the most thunderous, inconvenient disavowals. The Man Without a Face is about the friendship between a man and a boy, except in the book the man was gay, except omigosh he better not be in my movie, I am playing this person! Braveheart is a Scottish historical epic with the wildest, most romantic notions of Scottish history. The Passion of the Christ is a chronicle of Jesusí death that is and yet isnít based on the delirious ecstasies of a fundamentalist German mystic. It is amazing to see the traces of these disavowals forever resurfacing in his movies, marking them out not as repudiations but as genuine obsessions. Gibson, like another Hollywood actor who later became a President, would be nothing without his hatreds and phobias in tow; he has to conjure them over and over, pretending it's all against his will, so that he can demonstrate his own manly quelling of them before our admiring eyes.

So when Braveheart begins with a disembodied narrator stating, "I shall tell you of William Wallace!", the line bears the ring not of Homeric exaltation but of hasty self-acquittal: all I am doing is telling a true story about this guy! That is all I am doing, you doubters. Certainly, I'm not really telling you of myself, Mel Gibson, loosely repackaged and greased-up as this pseudo-historical phantasm "William Wallace," and if you allege as much, I will deny it and call you my persecutor! The self-defense isn't even subtextual, since the opening narration quickly announces that "English historians will call me a liar, but history is written by those who have hanged heroes." Not ten minutes into Braveheart, we are treated to a cottage full of hanged heroes, their grimacing bodies strung from the rafters in remarkably uniform pattern. This is an extremely inefficient and rather punctilious means of killing; in the three hours that follow, chock-full of daggering, pitch-pouring, impaling, and beheading, we sure don't see any such disciplined and poetic method of mass murder again. What we have of course, besides an art-director's slicked-up notion of death, is the old Gibson literalism: I told you they hang heroes! Do you see what I mean?

This is how you watch a movie that Mel Gibson has directed, or even one like The Patriot, of which Gibson was not technically the director but on which he still managed to impress his own pugilistic, ungiving stamp of deranged sincerity. All you have to do is connect the dots, which are so obviously laid out, it's as though one is listening to a book-on-tape recorded for kindergartners. The narrator said the English hang heroes, and here they have hanged some Scots...I guess that means the Scots really are heroes! The blue filter on the lens sure gives that mass-hanging scene an eerie, sort of "afterlifey" tinge; I guess those people in every other scene with a blue filter must be dead, too. I'd figured as much, given how I witnessed the slaughter of most of them first-hand earlier in the film. But this innovative approach saves me from my own thickness or inattention, and helps me understand that Wallace's mission is so great that people return from the grave to encourage him. Gee, whiz!

Gibson's memoes to himself and to us continue:
"Whenever Wallace is riding into certain torture or assault, he could spread his arms out crossways, and this way people will see that he is a martyr (viz. His Holiness, etc.) Include a scene where Wallace strategizes his upcoming battle against the English—'We'll make spears! Long ones! Twice as long as a man!', I'll say—even though the fetishizing close-ups on these spears and on their grisly achievements surely provide their own explanation. For god's sake, though, we don't want the audience to get bored, so we'll wake 'em up every now and then with a good cock joke:

Wallace's friend Hamish: "Twice as long as a man? Some men are longer than others!"
Hamish's father: "Your mother's been telling stories about me again, eh?"

"Ha! Audiences love this stuff, they'll eat it right up. Plus, when you think about it, a long spear really is kind of like, you know, a cock. Actually, let's have the soldiers flash their actual cocks at the charging English, too—I do not want anyone to mistake this most excellent analogy, and I certainly want them to know that all freedom-fighters are 100% male."


Gender, speaking of, is clearly one of the concepts that most discomforts Gibson, which is ironic, given that his on-screen demeanor with gals who live long enough to actually speak with him is all chummy, possessive, loosey-goosey bravado. The scene in Braveheart where Wallace proposes to his lass Murron (Catherine McCormack) is a perfect case-in-point. Apropos of nothing, but with a sidelong grin, he lets on that he could really make do with some children to help work his farm. "Is that a proposal?" asks Murron. "Well, yeah," he chuckles back, pleased as punch by his own gross, chauvinist chutzpah and his certain knowledge that he'll get away with it. Any further declaration of love would just be sentimental twaddle, right?

Such is the pretense, except that it's impossible to imagine Gibson proposing to his female lead in any less caddish way. Sincerity is an attitude Gibson can only muster for his jumbled, inarticulate speeches about freedom and leadership and how Scotsmen "fight like warrior-poets" (??). Matters of the heart make him cower, partly because there's nothing especially likable about the screenplay's Wallace or about Gibson's portrayal of him. We're asked to believe that women would swoon for a fellow who takes them bareback riding in highland downpours, gives them flat-pressed orchids he's had stuck to his sweaty chest, and proves his years of Continental enlightenment and language instruction with the occasional "mair-see." A less deserving suitor, I suppose, would have bonged Murron over the head and dragged her onto the wet stallion's back. Apparently, we need these scenes of Wallace's and Murron's happiness together, because otherwise we wouldn't feel bad enough when she gets her throat cut by English baddies. And certainly we can't be expected to understand a historical scenario through reference to historical factors: a metaphor to love betrayed is better, nay, necessary! The audience is not to be trusted! In fact, in case this backstory isn't clear to us while watching, we will later be treated to a plot précis when the Princess of Wales' handmaid recounts all of the above to her mistress, who closes her eyes in sublime appreciation—such chivalry is mythic even in its own time. (There again is that redundant Gibson Touch again again. If Braveheart's script were trimmed of its repetitions and if all the slow-motion played at regular speed, I swear the film would be an hour long.)

Then, of course, there's the related issue that Gibson has no sense of what a love story is really for, or what it should be about. Murron, after all, is only briefly summoned here so that she can die, horribly, at the hands of English marauders, and motivate Wallace's violent campaign in somewhat more flattering terms. The Princess of Wales herself (French actress Sophie Marceau) realizes her dreams and sleeps with Gibson after braving royal punishment and narrative implausibility to secretly inform him of British plots on his life.

Wallace: "Why do you help me?"
Princess: "Because of the way you are looking at me right now!"

Lots of matinee-idol movie stars have fallen victim to the temptation of incongruous or one-dimensional love-plots in stories that don't need them, but among today's directors, only Gibson has both the hubris and the naÔveté not just to supply two tokenistic sexual liaisons in Braveheart (the women involved are virtually the only women in the film) but to relentlessly dwell on the simping, fine-boned, curly-haired Prince Edward (Peter Hanly), famed sodomite of history, so that we can all glimpse the exact contour of Gibson's own nightmares of effeminate manhood. The "subliminal" logic of the Wallace/Princess roll in the tent is that she has been sex-starved by her political marriage to Prince Edward, whose homosexuality is conveyed less through attraction to his consort Phillip (Stephen Billington) than through spine-twisting, nostril-flaring revulsion at the lovely, Adjani-lite Marceau. Equally obvious is that it is Gibson, as much as the Princess, who is driven to despair by the thought of Edward, and who hauls the occasional damsel into his frat-fantasy epic so that no one will get the wrong idea. The libidinal structure and homo-anxities of Braveheart are so perfectly evident that they'd almost be funny if they weren't so callous and cruel.

If you're starting to feel like I've dwelled at length on Braveheart's and Gibson's shortcomings without giving much sense of the plot, you're right, but you're also asking for what you may not receive, even from the horse's mouth. The freedom-fighting in Braveheart is a little hard to follow, because scripter Randall Wallace scrambles for the illusion of historical detail amidst a random jumble of important-sounding words: freedom, liberation, clan wars, heirs, freedom, taxes, invasions, revenge, FRREEEEEEDOM!, to name some favored examples. Essentially, the Scots want the English to stop raping their women and running their show.

William Wallace, his face streaked in blue war-paint, is the rabble-rousing axe-swinger of the nascent revolutionary movement, but the movie ensures that it's extremely hard at all times to gauge precisely how effective or important Wallace's skirmishes actually are. The most propitious victory seems to be the successful siege of York, over the English border, but Gibson cuts from the shot of his kilted brigands battering down the town gate to the next day, when King Edward Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan) throws a hissy fit about it and, as a result, throws Edward's lover out a window: an action that only logically follows in a Gibson movie. Meanwhile, though the battles are bloody and gritty, they are almost wholly abstracted from any context or specific stakes. Is Wallace, among other things, a sensational diversion, an emblem of nationalist ambitions that are actually being pressed in more private, rarefied realms? Occasionally, the movie dares to venture into the musty halls of actual power, where the disputive heirs to the Scottish throne are probably settling the question among themselves. One of these, Robert the Bruce (Angus McFadyen), is exhorted by William on multiple occasions to get his shit together and lead, a verb that does all its own work in Braveheart, as though we will all understand what's at issue. How is Robert supposed to unite Scottish clans that apparently hate each other as much as they hate England? What could Robert do to confer order, and secure his own throne? Should we be rooting for him, or is he just as buyable and morally decrepit as the rest of the aristocracy? Of course, if Robert is decrepit, you know who's really decrepit? His father. You know how we know? He is a leper—talk about decrepit! (Get it?)

In Braveheart's epilogue, after it's finished with the real agenda of canonizing St. William Wallace, we discover that Robert the Bruce is in fact the disembodied narrator whose intonation commenced the picture but whom we haven't heard from in about two and a half hours. And we see him riding into battle against an English general, delivering a brief version of one of the film's many Agincourt speeches. Forget that, if he, the future King of Scotland, is telling us that history is only reported by those who hang heroes, then he must be...never mind. Soon enough, as the Scots and Brits clash one final time, the dead William Wallace himself suddenly takes over as narrator (though without a blue filter over the image—maybe he's not really dead!) and he assures us that "in the year of our lord 1314, patriots of Scotland, strong and outnumbered...fought like Scotsmen, and won their freedom." Braveheart is forced to tell, rather than show, this happy, happy outcome, because nothing in Wallace's life or approach, even the hagiographic versions thereof which Braveheart doles out to us, can remotely account for the eventual "liberation" of the Scots (if liberation, indeed, is the word we're ultimately looking for). With its disjunctive narrative, its dim and disingenuous sense of the real workings of power, its silly costumes and atrocious editing—never has stuntwork been less concealed—Braveheart doesn't for a moment suggest that it's really got its finger on the truth of the matters at hand, nor that Gibson has really figured out how to mount a seamless entertainment (again, if entertainment is the word we're ultimately looking for).

If the picture holds together at all, it's because the manifest falsity and pop-implausibility of the scenario is never interrupted: you can sit back and absorb it the way you do when your kids put on a Thanksgiving pageant at school. You marvel not at the sense of the thing but at the jejune, almost plaintive impulse we have in our culture to tell ourselves versions of history that we know can't possibly be true. And there's some delicious camp to savor, like the frame-skips that bashfully intercede when a kilted Mel kicks an English baddie in the head (another artifact thus lost to history!), or Patrick McGoohan's half-authoritative, half-embarrassed turn as Edward Longshanks ("cruel pagan!"), which is written and performed like one of those spiteful-spinster terrorists Bette Davis played in the 1960s. John Toll somehow fits his cameras into the most improbable places during the battle sequences, which have a vivid if hermetic pizzazz, and James Horner has glossed the whole caboodle with one of his keening, nostalgic scores.

By the degraded standards of, say, shoebox diorama, Braveheart isn't an outright failure, but everyone stands in place a lot and hopes that the gravitas of history and the fighting human spirit will somehow pour into the vacuum around them and turn this claptrap into a real movie. As psychological case study, in which an unusually self-disclosing caveman-idealist shows us just who he'd like to be (a sword-shaking folk hero) and just who he's glad he isn't (a woman, a catamite, an English Royal Guard), it is all right there for our interested perusal—if interest is really the word... Gibson's Oscar victory as Best Director for this self-indulgent mishmash is even more galling than the film's own sham victory as Best Picture, but he clearly isn't one to tinker with a model AMPAS failed to say was broke. The Passion of the Christ is, of course, full of slo-mo and it, too, flirts with the semblance of palatial power in the Pilate scenes, even though the movie's zealous heart clearly lies elsewhere. If only Jesus had seen Braveheart, he might have noticed that the light in Gethsemane was filtered blue, and then he could have sprinted out of there—like, pronto. The length and breadth of Gibson's directorial career may well be dictated by how many subjects he feels he can serve without adjusting his recipe of images, montage, and perspective one single bit. The Passion survives this refusal to budge, and is in fact a better film than Braveheart, since the story itself is so elemental that it very nearly supports an auteur who despises complexity and gets flustered by plot. But what other story will so insulate Gibson from his own manifest deficiencies?

Of course, I can hear it now. Who are you calling deficient? I bet I know where you're deficient! And why on earth should I change my aesthetic? To kowtow to a bunch of film-critic snobs who wouldn't know Freedom if it bit 'em in the ass? I should say not! Sissies! C–


Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Mel Gibson
Best Original Screenplay: Randall Wallace
Best Cinematography: John Toll
Best Costume Design: Charles Knode
Best Film Editing: Steven Rosenblum
Best Original Score: James Horner
Best Sound: Andy Nelson, Scott Millan, Anna Behlmer, and Brian Simmons
Best Sound Effects: Lon Bender & Per Hallberg
Best Makeup: Peter Frampton, Paul Pattison, and Lois Burwell

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Mel Gibson
Best Screenplay: Randall Wallace
Best Original Score: James Horner

Other Awards:
Writers Guild of America: Best Original Screenplay
National Board of Review: Special Achievement in Filmmaking (Gibson)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Cinematography; Best Costume Design; Best Sound

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