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Braveheart: the Worst Film for Best Picture

Thesis Mel Gibson’s Braveheart is routinely named in polls of film critics as the worst movie ever to have won the Academy Award for best picture, and it is easy to see why. The acting in the film ranges from the blandly unmemorable to the mortifying. Negligible as Scottish history, but it is undeniably a political film. Gibson clearly did not intend to venture into a political debate—the film is structurally and visually standard Hollywood fare, a costume drama of the sort normally considered a “prestige picture” or “Oscar bait,” and the Academy swallowed it whole and awarded Braveheart the 1995 Academy Award for Best Picture.

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Coincidently the 1995 release date would coincide with the political push towards Scottish “devolution” from the United Kingdom—with the establishment of a separate and independent Scottish Parliament—in 1997. I hope to ultimately show that not only is Braveheart a political film—not unlike those of Leni Riefensthal—it is precisely in keeping with Riefensthal’s fascist aesthetic. Braveheart: The Worst Film for Best Picture

While I will concede that this questionably semi-historical, legend based film is meant to romanticize the audience with its use of raw human emotions like love, honor, deceitfulness, and war to keep the viewers immersed in the action, the cliches used within the film were ad nauseam. The crudity of Gibson’s overall directorial style can be seen by contrasting the cinematography and editing, I will give example from two scenes: the erotic encounter between William and his bride Murron, and the scene in which Edward Longshanks kills Philip.

The sex scene finds Gibson as William roaming in the gloaming, whereupon he flirts with Catherine McCormack as Murron by tossing stones. The natural light filming here is used to great effect by filming during the actual gloaming, the quality of long twilight found in the northern highlands of Scotland, and thus their long kiss is filmed in dusky light. Soon they elope to the forest by night, where they pledge marriage vows with a friar (in again what seems to be a Shakespearean borrowing) beside a Celtic stone cross: the camera then pans out, leaving the framed figures in moonlight to hold in a tableau that looks like religious iconography.

Gibson’s production company is clearly called “Icon” for a reason. Then follows the most mortifying scene in the entire film, the sexual encounter in which Gibson and McCormack walk around naked by moonlight, in which their hairstyles and indeed their breasts look remarkably similar under slivers of silvery light. The simple answer here is that a frank sex scene would have broken the faux-primitive / pastoral magic of the film’s utterly lurid (and dishonest) imagination of the past.

Here, a manifestly un-sexy coupling—Wallace and Murron have no chemistry whatsoever, and Gibson merely looks elderly doing the playful stone toss to get her attention—is made to seem chastely erotic by the purposefully atmospheric lighting and framing. We can contrast this with the cinematography in a very different scene, one which is morally ugly rather than aesthetically ghastly, the scene where Edward Longshanks throws his son’s catamite out the window.

Here, Gibson is still filming by natural light: it is a bright sunny day outside, and indoors there are lit candles but the somber tones of the costumes here (like the Bayeux tapestry) are caught by the bright sunlight. The scene opens with Edward the Second fussing: then he sits down and pouts, pulling long faces like Carol Burnett until his father strides in the room. The scene pauses for a rustic messenger to deliver a scroll announcing the sack of York, and a severed head in a basket.

This apparently prompts Philip (young Edward’s boyfriend) into offering Baywatch-breathless political advice until Patrick McGoohan flings him off the roof, whereupon he lands as comically as the cow lands upon Graham Chapman in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It is a murder played for laughs, and the bright sunny light streaming in renders unreal the ensuing drama as young Edward pulls a dagger on his father and is slapped to the ground. Yet what astonishes is the long theatrical length of the scene here, with no change of location.

The comedy lands so badly- not only because it is morally offensive, but also because the dramaturgy here is as creaky and antiquated as a Feydeau farce. On the basis of these two scenes it is possible to generalize about the editing: Gibson has a taste for long stretches of purely aestheticized schmaltz, with full-on mood lighting, constructed as manipulatively as possible, whether for a crude laugh or a ludicrous Thomas Kinkaid style descent into soft-core erotica. The wooing of Murran by Wallace intersperses brief boring scenes devoted to plot, then wastes long stretches with dreary Celtic piping laying over two nude people demonstrating a complete lack of sexual chemistry by moonlight. The editing is usually content to show us everything, although there will be cutting away to imply unseen action, as in the final torturing of Wallace when we watch reaction shots—including the oddly sexual look of satisfaction on Murren’s face as the axe comes down—which imply the grotesque tortures inflicted on his body while not showing a drop of blood. The camera is usually angled wide to catch some more of the dreary Scottish countryside.

Even when indoors for scenes involving the English villains, there is usually a wide frame so that we can see Edward the Second mincing around with his nonplussed bride and his hunky boy-toy. Most of the film takes place outdoors in natural light; the relatively small portion of the film which takes place indoors has effects intended to mimic the available sources of light in the Middle Ages. Firelight or torches are used; in the long and ludicrous sex scene between Wallace and his bride (before she is raped and killed by the English) Gibson contrives to film everything by moonlight.

The color is largely lush and saturated, although dream sequences or certain sequences seen through the eyes of the young William Wallace are given an icy blue desaturated tint which matches the color of Wallace’s eyes. The camera is usually at a middle distance and a straightforward angle; in conversations between two characters Gibson tends to hold both in frame so that we can see them interact, rather than cut back and forth with two separate shots over the actors’ shoulders.

If the camera moves at all, it is slowly and on a dolly: there is nothing unsteady or hand-held about anything, certainly not the battle scenes, which are filmed with a steady solid focus on Gibson himself striding with face-paint through the smoke and carnage. Framing usually includes two characters in dialogue. The camera is mostly objective—even subjective effects such as young William seeing his dead father’s corpse speak platitudes are noted with a change in color saturation to signpost the shift. There are no special effects in Braveheart.

The dialogue in Braveheart is corny and stilted in English: I cannot vouch for the style of the dialogue in French or in ecclesiastical Latin. The music sounds like leftovers from the composer’s wastebasket for Titanic, although Braveheart mercifully spares us Celine Dion. The voiceover provided by MacFadyen as Robert the Bruce is meant to be a testimony to Wallace by the political leader who carried on in his wake—unfortunately Bruce is so tangential to the invented personal narrative of Wallace that he only stands as a kind of vague nod in the direction of historical accuracy.

Sophie Marceau is luminously beautiful but dull in Braveheart—she reads like a second-rate Catherine Deneuve without the blonde and all the crazy removed, then what is left over is not very interesting. When Marceau speaks English she sounds faintly like Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles or Gilda Radner voicing “Baba Wawa”; when she speaks French she seems a little more relaxed. Brian Cox is reliably good but seems to be hiding behind his beard, as though he were appearing in a particularly violent but nonetheless embarrassing Christmas episode of “Monarch of the Glen. Angus MacFadyen as Robert the Bruce seems to have confused bugging his eyes with something that might pass for acting. Patrick McGoohan strides around as though Edward Longshanks were the particularly grim Victorian protagonist of a Hammer horror film. Gibson uses Brendan Gleeson not as an actor, but more as a prop, a large lump of ginger suet to be ladled on whenever the film seems insufficiently Pictish. Gibson himself does not act so much as mug his way through Braveheart. His facial expressions are ludicrous: with his shaggy wild-man mullet, he looks like the late Phil Hartman playing the Cave Man Lawyer on amphetamines.

His face is almost over expressive: his eyes flash like a bipolar bartender out on a bender, or roll heavenward in a broad and wildly anachronistic faux-cute double-take, his forehead wrinkles like an accordion to express depth of thought, and just as in the Lethal Weapon movies Gibson seems to specializing in mimicking the facial contortions of a man being tortured. (The only difference is that, in the Lethal Weapon movies, he survives. ) If the film had not won the Oscar, it would be termed “forgettable”.

Gibson’s directing style is rudimentary and strangely unsophisticated for an actor-turned-director he does not demonstrate any particular finesse or subtlety in handling actors: McGoohan plays Edward Longshanks as though he were Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man shorn of all wit and irony. It’s an oddly shallow villainy, but it fits with Gibson’s overall intentions in approaching this subject matter, which is rather unwholesome. Similarly, in the beginning if the movie, Gibson’s camera is obsessed with the wide outdoors panoramic views. Scene after scene is shot in the rich oggy-looking greenery of the rugged and picturesque landscape north of Hadrian’s Wall. The opening is depicted entirely in terms of what Pauline Kael, in her review of the Edvard Grieg bio-pic Song of Norway, termed “cliches you never even knew that you knew”. We hear female voices singing in medieval-style polyphony and the plucking of harp strings before the camera even starts swooping over the craggy highlands: by the time the haunting skirl o’ the bagpipes makes its way into the soupy soundtrack, it seems like pure pleonasm for the opening titles to announce “SCOTLAND 1280 A. D. ” Did Gibson think we might mistake it for Ireland?

Fortunately the first Tartan kilts appear by minute two, so no-one has a chance to make the mistake. Meanwhile, a solemn voiceover intones solemnly: “I shall tell you of William Wallace, Historians from England will say I am a liar, but history is written by those who have hanged heroes. The King of Scotland had died without a son, and the King of England—a cruel pagan known as Edward the Longshanks—claimed the throne of Scotland for himself. ” (Braveheart 1995) In other words, we are already in the realm of revisionist history despite the fact that most viewers of this film will not know the historical episode upon which it is based.

But we are in a Hollywood film, so we must not look for history when myth is what is being constructed. Braveheart constructs emotional meanings that only afterwards may be understood as political. For example, there is scarcely an interior scene in the film—and the majority of interior scenes that do exist mainly depict the king and his circle. When Wallace goes indoors, the results are never good—as when, as a boy, he discovers the hanged corpses of the Scots lairds betrayed in parley by perfidious Albion.

The ultimate effect of all this “outdoorsiness” is to portray the Scots as noble savages. But it has a Leni Riefensthal vibe to it, especially because of its dishonesty as serious history. Houston Rab, speaking on behalf of Scottish historians, is quick to note that historians are quick to rise above national and sectarian differences to emphasize that Braveheart’s version of history is nonsense: As superstitious professional actors allegedly say ‘the Scottish play’ rather than ‘Macbeth’, professional historians try not to mention ‘the Mel Gibson film’. Hollywood in a kilt’ (but filmed mostly in Ireland, where the tax breaks are better), Braveheart (1995) is an enjoyable Highland fling, but laughably inaccurate, hardly a scene without a travesty. To take just the alleged women in his life, there is no hard evidence that William Wallace had a wife, let alone that she endured ‘droit de seigneur’ on her wedding night (the idea of the ‘first night’ was a Victorian hang-up); she is shown being buried in a ‘long-cist’ grave characteristic of AD 400 not 1300; he cannot have met Isabella, let alone committed adultery with her (she married Edward II in 1308, three years after Wallace was executed). Rab 2008). In other words, Gibson is presenting a theme-park version of Scottish history. Likewise, the opening sentences of the voiceover describe Edward the First as “a cruel pagan,” which is not only historically inaccurate but is undercut by Braveheart itself, which offers its initial depiction of Edward the First as presiding over his son’s quite-obviously-Christian marriage ceremony to Isabella of France.

But Gibson is not employing his theme-park version of history to tell an ordinary story—he is working up to a specific mixture of violence, ugly caricature verging on hate-speech while at the same time seemingly obsessed with aesthetics of the male body, and particularly with aestheticizing that body in pain. On the one hand, Gibson preens over himself with a vanity that might make Angelina Jolie blush: the shade of Celtic blue war-paint worn by Wallace for the film’s victorious battle sequence is made to perfectly match Gibson’s own eye color.

It is very much the same way that the 1940s studio technicians used to do for Gene Tierney’s lavish Technicolor girly comedies. It seems odd that he would choose to tart himself up in that way, while at the same time insisting on the absolutely brutal savagery of the world depicted. Practically the first scene of the movie depicts the boy Wallace horsing around with his large ginger friend, and by way of affectionate horseplay that hulking ginger belts Wallace in the face. It looks outright painful, but Gibson plays it (rather coarsely) for laughs.

With such an attitude toward physical pain, then, it is noteworthy that Braveheart’s depiction of the disemboweling of Wallace at its climax now seems, in context, like a warm up for Gibson’s later obsessive focus on gruesome physical torture. The voice of Robert the Bruce narrates how King Edward I himself arranged with the King of France for his son, Edward II of England to marry Princess Isabelle of France. It then eludes that Edward II was not interested in the marriage, (having his eye on his best friend Phillip).

Later scenes show Isabella as sad and forlorn, unloved and cruelly ignored by new young and overly feminine husband Prince Edward II. Braveheart noxious, and ultimately jarring (in terms of the historical period depicted), attitude towards homosexuals seems to come from a deeply personal place within Gibson—as example on how he portrayed Edward II, and his lover, presumably intended to be Piers Gaveston but named “Philip”. History, however, does not record Edward the First as having personally defenestrated Gaveston (or anyone) in frustration over his son’s inclinations toward buggery.

This seems like a particularly malicious invention on Gibson’s part, and the scene in question honestly resembles the earlier depiction of an effeminate “princeling” (played by Terry Jones) in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But Gibson’s point is rather ugly: the scene in which Edward Longshanks throws his son’s mincing catamite through a stone casement is played in response to the military defeat of the English and the sack of York (with the severed head of King Edward’s nephew sent in a basket).

Homosexuality is meant to be understood as a signifier of moral rot, and at the same time the death of Philip is played for laughs by Gibson, in the most morally and humanly appalling way possible. It is at this point that I should make it clear that overall, I agree with Colin McArthur’s assessment of Braveheart in his 2003 monograph Brigadoon, Braveheart and the Scots: distortions of Scotland in Hollywood cinema. McArthur does not merely find Braveheart to be a bad film; he finds it to be an offensive and a dangerous one as well.

McArthur states frankly that, in his estimation, “the most worrying aspect of Braveheart, its appeal to (neo-)fascist groups and to what might be called the proto-fascist psyche”—McArthur goes on to assert “that Braveheart is the modern ‘Ur-Fascist’ text par excellence,” adding that “this is not to accuse the film’s makers of being fascists, rather of having delivered a film which is a godsend to the proto-fascist psyche” (McArthur 2003, 5).

Rifkind and Farquharson demonstrate that this theoretical invocation of fascism as a term of aesthetic criticism has been mixed up in the more practical real-world applications of Braveheart to fascism as well: The more anti-establishment leanings of the film, moreover, have won it some rather unpleasant fans, and it is not merely the SNP that has used it in a recruitment drive. The Ku Klux Klan and other proto-fascistic American groups have also done so. One current KKK-sympathetic website asks readers to equate Wallace’s fighters with its members in the American South. Put yourself in Mel Gibson’s character . . . and imagine how you might react when pushed far enough. This may give you a sense of why the Klan was formed . . . In Braveheart, it was Wallace’s troops; in the South it was the Klan. All groups fighting for liberty against a tyrannical, overpowering force. ” According to Celeste Ray, a social anthropologist and the author of Scottish Americans in the American South, “creolisations” of Highland dress have appeared in the Deep South; with some mixing a kilt with civil war re-enactment uniforms, or a Confederate flag T-shirt. (Rifkind and Farquharson, 2005).

It is fascinating to realize that Rifkind and Farquharson are reporting these details on the tenth anniversary of Braveheart’s 1995 release, and that these facts pre-dated some of Mel Gibson’s more ugly personal statements (including rather lavish use of racial and ethnic slurs) over the past several years, which have earned him such opprobrium that he can become a punch line on shows like South Park and 30 Rock. Yet even at the time of Braveheart’s release, Gibson was treading close to a sort of quasi fascism through his father’s highly publicized and controversial religious and political writings.

As John Sutherland summarized the shameful details in an article on Gibson for the Guardian: “Hutton Gibson is a hard-line Catholic traditionalist. In 1994, (the year Mel was doing Braveheart) he published a virulent 500-page tirade, “The Enemy Is Here”. It proclaims (as Hutton had been long proclaiming in monthly newsletters) that since 1958, the Catholic Church has been abducted by anti-Popes – currently “Garrulous Karolus, the Koran Kisser”. For hardliners like Hutton the vernacular mass is an abomination. And, of course, the Gospel account that that the Jews killed Christ is, well, gospel truth.

Nor did six million die. Nor was Osama responsible for 9/11. ” (Sutherland 2003) The queasy fact is that Gibson’s version of Christianity is no more accurate than his version of history in Braveheart, and both are more like each other—and more manipulative—than it may seem at first glance. As Gregory Watkins has noted: “Not incidentally, students are so familiar with Mel Gibson’s violent secular films that his emphasis on the Passion narrative and the elimination of the rest of the Jesus’ life in The Passion of the Christ (2004) seemed to hem ‘‘like Gibson in Braveheart. ’’ Simply put, it seemed like Mel Gibson theology—more Lethal Weapon than Sermon on the Mount. Accustomed to horror and torture films, the students were uninterested in the media concerns that the film was anti- Semitic on one side and that it would bring new conversions to Catholicism on the other. ” (Watkins 2008) The fact is that, over a decade and a half after Braveheart’s initial release, the film does not grow in the sense of its accomplishment.

Even other films which have snared a best picture Oscar by allowing an unskilled director to take a minimal role while the cinematographer basically creates the film—which is true of Braveheart but also true of the Sam Mendes / Conrad Hall collaboration on American Beauty—do not seem quite as hollow as Braveheart. The large-scale battle scenes in the central sequences of the film may have looked in 1995 like what David Lean might have done if David Lean had less taste and a grant from the Scottish Film Council, but in the wake of more recent films like Peter Jackson’s Return of the King, Braveheart now resembles more a tissue of cliches.

What remains is the strange political import in which Gibson’s own complicated persona—somehow Australian and all-American and yet here playing a Scotsman in order to tap into latent American and Australian strains of Anglophobia—is used to create a kind of heavily aestheticized parable of political resentment and defiance, in which a loose conglomeration of men assembles for the purposes of insurrectionary violence, and the audience is expected to root for them.

Surely a film by Leni Riefensthal entitled The Beer-Hall Putsch would be selective in its handling of various historical particulars, but ultimately would it really be that different from the strange parable of wounded national vanity, personal sacrifice, and ultimately a sort of homoerotic sado-masochism which links Mel Gibson’s portrayal of William Wallace to Mel Gibson’s later depiction of Jesus Christ. All in all, Braveheart is best viewed as a kind of abstract political propaganda film, intended to stoke incendiary political grudges in an all-purpose xenophobic fashion.

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