Release Date: May 24th, 1995 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Mel Gibson Actors: Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Catherine McCormack, Brendan Gleeson, Brian Cox, Patrick McGoohan, Angus Macfadyen, Stephen Billington
bold masterpiece of epic proportions, Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” engagingly competes with the classic historical dramas that preceded it – in grandeur and in length – including “Ben-Hur,” “Spartacus,” “El Cid,” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” It’s an energetic picture that encompasses all of the finest methods of filmmaking, never forgetting to present a passionate and powerful story above its other technical and artistic feats. Awe-inspiring, brutal, and action-packed, “Braveheart” boasts several of the most memorable and pulse-pounding shots in contemporary cinema – and would be awarded for its visual accomplishments with Oscars for Cinematography and Makeup.
In 1280 Scotland, young William Wallace learns the hardships of life as reigning King Edward the Longshanks claims the Scottish throne for himself and lays down a strict and merciless rule. When a group of noblemen go to negotiate with the local lords, they are slaughtered by order of the king, with William’s father dying in the ensuing fight. Wallace (Mel Gibson) leaves for a time to study in neighboring countries and to gain skills in combat, even though he hopes to eventually come home to raise a family and crops.
Upon his return, Wallace marries his childhood sweetheart Murron (Catherine McCormack), in secret, due to the king’s reinstatement of a law that allows the lord of the land to spend the first night with every newlywed bride. But English soldiers still end up attacking Murron, forcing Wallace to defend her; this soon leads to her death at the hands of the governing magistrate, who stages a public execution as a deterrent to rebuffing authorities. In a fit of rage, Wallace overthrows the garrison in his village, slays the offending official, and begins gathering troops to take back control of Scotland.
It’s not entirely shocking that Mel Gibson wasn’t lauded for his portrayal of William Wallace, a sensationally exaggerated yet thunderously heroic persona that blends components of Mad Max and Martin Riggs with a Scottish accent and vivid war paint. Skills behind the camera were instead given significant recognition (Gibson won the Academy Award for Best Director), though his starring turn doesn’t hurt the impact of the production and is certainly delivered with photogenic enthusiasm. Enjoyable supporting performances, including those by the miserly King Edward (Patrick McGoohan), madman Stephen (David O’Hara), the treacherous Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen), the seductive Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau), and thousands of extras in monumental battle setups, nicely supplement the strong emotions and technical prowess of this decades-spanning adventure.
The scene trailing Murron’s early demise is perhaps the finest of the film, demonstrating passion, precise choreography, and excitement like few projects before or after. Filmed nearly all in slow-motion, with goosebump-activating, steely-eyed glances and spontaneous, bloodthirsty bravado, Wallace takes revenge on his immediate oppressor and initiates the campaign to free Scotland from England’s tyranny; what could have been the climax is instead the main catalyst for warfare. The action sequences that follow, including many famously colossal skirmishes, are superbly chaotic and grisly (sprinkled with a touch of humor) and augmented to perfection by James Horner’s outstanding score.
Equalizing the boisterousness is a moving romance (or two), highlighted by Wallace’s continued sacrifices and struggles for the moments in his dreams that he can be momentarily reunited with his true love. “Every man dies,” he tells the Princess of Wales, who sympathizes with his cause and admires his bravery. “Not every man really lives.” Betrayal, retribution, crafty counterplay, and unshakeable courage all abound in this Best Picture Oscar winner, which regularly opts for cinematic magnificence over documented authenticity (as would be frequently pointed out by critics and scholars), proving that great historical entertainment doesn’t have to be entirely – or even somewhat – accurate.
– Mike Massie