Braveheart, released 20 years old today, is a lot of things. It is a Best Picture winner, it is cheesy, it is hammy, it is long, it is violent, it is funny (both intentionally and unintentionally), it is widely regarded as one of the least historically accurate movies ever made, it is Anglophobic, it is homophobic, it is dirty, it is vast, and it isn’t very good.
And yet it is a ridiculously compelling movie. It occurred to me as I watched this movie yesterday on Netflix that, outside of the Godfather movies and Lord of the Rings, this might be the three hour movie that I have watched more than any other. If I am watching TV and this movie comes on I will first make a scoffing noise and say, ‘Ugh, Braveheart.’ And then I will watch every second of the movie that follows. I will make jokes and point out bits I find silly, but I will watch until the bitter end. No other movie of this length has this ability over me.
This article is a hard one to write because, try as I might, I have yet to solve the riddle of Braveheart’s watchability. If you asked me if I wanted to watch a hideously cheesy movie in which the English (my people!) are portrayed as murderers, rapists, and psychopaths, with the only sympathetic character being a whimpering weakling who the movie seems to be saying is that way because of his homosexuality, I would say, “No. Good lord, no.” And yet I sat and watched it yesterday.
But did I enjoy it?
Let’s get the bad out of the way now so we can end talking about the good. First, the film is hammy. It is cloying at times with its dialogue, its shots, its speeches, and its ending. I can imagine myself at 12 watching this in 1996 and being choked up by the emotions on screen but now, 18 years later, not so much. There are some great moments that put a lump in your throat (the death of Hamish’s father being one), but, for the most part, every big emotive moment is handled with the light touch of a sledgehammer.
The Anglophobia doesn’t really bother me. It was made a huge deal of back at the movie’s release with a lot of English watchers being so offended by the portrayal of the English in this movie that their monocles fell right out of their eyes and into their tea cups. But historically the English have been terribly villainous and the way the English are depicted in this movie is so over the top that you could digitally replace King Edward with Darth Vader and no one would notice.
The homophobia did bother me. The Prince being an ineffective leader is one thing but the insinuation that it is his sexuality that is behind this is offensive. It doesn’t help that when the Prince’s lover is defenestrated by the King it feels as though it is played for laughs rather than horror (as evidenced by a YouTube video of that scene in which the top comment is “Funniest scene in the movie”). Mel Gibson has said in interviews that the humour was unintentional but then he has also said some pretty messed up things about homosexuals in interviews too.
Another criticism aimed at this movie is about its factual inaccuracy. Apparently it’s quicker to point out things that were true rather than the things that were made up. Again, this doesn’t bother me. Gibson has said that some things needed to be changed to make them more cinematic, and I agree with this approach. Unfortunately, history does not always play out in a satisfying three act structure so changes must be made. I can understand why this would drive historians mad though, but there’s always the chance of a book deal for a history book explaining why this movie is mostly based on bullshit.
So what’s good?
It is intensely satisfying to see a movie of this scale that seems to be relatively CGI-free. The armies are there, the castles are there, the blood isn’t added later. The battles are bloody and violent, and chances are a few people were really kicking lumps out of each other when Gibson yelled “Action!” The movie feels organic in a way that doesn’t really happen anymore (except for Fury Road – praise its name!), and that is always nice to watch.
Twenty years later, what is this movie’s legacy? I recently discussed with Diego Crespo the idea that Avatar, the biggest movie ever for a time, has left no cultural imprint and has faded from view like a meme. Braveheart has not. Looking on IMDBs connections tab on the Braveheart page lists that TV shows aired last year were still using a shout of ‘Freedom!’ as a punchline. And images from this movie of blue painted faces or the sword flying through the air have taken on a life of their own.
The film is also a reminder that once upon a time Mel Gibson wasn’t a horrible human being (or wasn’t so publicly horrible) and could make something that was enjoyable while being intensely violent (I’ve got a lot of love for Apocalypto). He also exudes charm in every scene, no matter how cheesy/hammy the dialogue is, and he is believable as a man who these clans would want to unite for and follow. It’s just a shame that now he’s publicly horrible.