Friday, January 25, 2013

Stubs - Braveheart

Braveheart (1995) Starring Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan, Catherine McCormack. Directed by Mel Gibson. Produced by Mel Gibson, Alan Ladd. Jr., and Bruce Davey  Screenplay by Randall Wallace. Run Time: 177 minutes. U.S.  Color. Historical, Biography.

The fact that a film wins an Academy Award for best picture is not a guarantee that the film is great. A great film is one that has all the usual qualities: directing, acting, writing and production values that come together to create a film of quality, but also one that people will want to view over and over again. What films can be called great is very subjective. Scope, scale and running time do not necessarily make a film great, neither is box office an indicator.

As you can tell by the setup, that despite its winning best picture for 1995, I don’t consider Braveheart to be a great film. That is not to take away from the size and scope of the movie, on that scale this is a great, as in big, film.

Braveheart is long by any standard. Only a few minutes under three hours the run time is epic length for sure. But despite being billed as an action movie, the first hour seems to drag, which only seems to make the film seem longer.

Braveheart is long by any standard. And a little frustrating, too.

Historical films can be tricky. There are certain expectations the audience has with the genre. First we don’t want the film to assume we know too much about the subject so that events occur and we’re just supposed to know what they are without any explanation or exposition. Secondly, we want the historical events to be shown in a realistic and fascinating way. We didn’t come to the movies for history class, we came to be entertained.

I believe Braveheart unfortunately fails to really do a good job of teaching us the history it’s depicting. There appears to be an assumption that telling us a battlefield, say Falkirk, is supposed to spark a shared remembrance, say along the lines of Gettysburg. The history of Scotland is not something most Americans learn in school. And while the film is epic and a spectacle, it seems really thin on historical accuracy.

To begin with, the intricacies of Medieval Scottish politics is not something many of us have ever been exposed to and Braveheart could have done a better job explaining the players. I did get the overall “Nobility bad” message, but I will admit the nobility of England and of Scotland seemed to be mushed together and I’m not sure if that was true across the board and, if so, how could Scotland also have a king, Robert the Bruce?

There is little known about William Wallace, which presents a problem for the filmmakers. However, this film not only makes up historical events, but it also makes changes to history that don’t really make sense. The Battle of Stirling Bridge, a real battle, is fought in the film without the bridge. Wallace’s wife name isn’t Murron, but Marian, like in Robin Hood, but it was changed. In the film, the English noblemen claim the right of Prima Nocta, the hideous idea that the lord of the estate has first right to take the bride’s virginity on her wedding night, but that is something that never happened in England. And the list goes on and on.

While I usually don’t want to pick apart a historical film for its poetic license, this one really takes license to a new level. The relationship between William Wallace (Mel Gibson) and Princess Isabella of France (Sophia Marceau) is beautifully told. The Princess is stuck in a loveless, but politically astute marrage, with Prince Edward (Peter Hanly). When her lady in waiting relates to the Princess Wallace’s love for his wife Murron MacClannough (Catherine McCormack) and how he is revenging her death at the hands of an English sheriff, the princess is driven to tears.
William Wallace and Murron MacClannough in happier times.

The Princess and William meet when she is sent as an envoy of King Edward I (Patrick McGoohan) to negotiate with him. The heat between the two is noticeable and later explodes into a night of passion that ends with the Princess pregnant with Wallace’s son. 

All of this is beautifully told, but it’s really a load of BS. In reality, Princess Isabella was only 10 years old and still living in France when Wallace dies. So the subplot that runs throughout and which helps humanize Wallace, couldn’t have happened. That’s sort of a big error when the film is supposed to be historically based.

As is, the depiction of Edward II has a grain of truth to it, but while it was rumored he had affairs with men, he did in fact have five children with two separate wives. He’s not the effeminate Gibson portrays him to be. But while the film depicts King Edward throwing his son’s lover, Phillip (Stephen Billington), out a window, Piers Gaveston, the real person the character Phillip represents, survived into Edward II’s reign. Again dramatic effect shouldn’t trump history if you’re trying to be realistic.

I would blame a lot of this on the screenplay by Randall Wallace, since much of this misguided fleshing out lies at his feet. Just because there isn’t that much biographical information available doesn’t give you carte blanche to make things up and still pretend you’re telling someone’s real story.

There are a lot of great production values in the film. The assemblage of the armies and their pitch battles is something to behold. The outfit the Princess wears when she first meets Wallace is really exquisite and the multitude of costumes, armor and make up must have been a Herculean task to pull off. And like any widescreen film shooting a gorgeous landscape, the film looks really good.

Princess Isabella of France (Sophia Marceau) 
But there is a real reason why this film is rated R. The battles are grisly and brutal. After having watched 300 recently, these battles reminded me of them, with the stabbings, arrows flying, limbs being cut off and heads being decapitated. If I don’t see another intense battle scene for a while, that will be fine with me.

Let the bludgeoning begin.
While Braveheart is certainly an epic film, the historical inaccuracies (of which I’ve only mentioned a few) detract from the film. Part of the blame falls on the script, but should also be shared by the director (Mel Gibson) and the producers (Gibson, Alan Ladd Jr. and Bruce Davey) who jettisoned showing real events for the sake of epic entertainment disguised as telling real events.

Sometimes, you wonder why the Academy votes the way it does. In the case of this being that year’s best film, you wonder why this one got picked. The Academy can get it wrong and it appears they did in this case.

Having seen Braveheart once, I don’t anticipate a situation wherein I want to watch it again. I wouldn’t recommend this film. In fact, if you’re ginning for a film from 1995 to watch, I’d recommend Babe over this.

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