In “Braveheart,” Mel Gibson plays 13th-Century Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace, and, boy, is his heart ever brave. So are his eyes, his mane, his pecs, his knuckles. But he’s not just brave--he’s smart too. As the young William’s father tells the boy just before the British slaughter him, “It’s our wits that make us men.”
At close to three hours, “Braveheart” is a great big chunk of brogues and pillaging and whooping. Gibson, who also directed, is priming us for an epic experience--"Spartacus” in kilts. As a filmmaker, he lacks the epic gift, but the movie, scripted by Randall (no relation) Wallace, works on a fairly basic level as a hiss-the-English medieval Western. Gibson’s calisthenic efforts are clunky but they’re not boring, at least not until the film moves into battle overkill in the third hour and the soundtrack turns into one big aaarrgh .
Wallace, who leads a rebellion against the tyrannical English King Edward the Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan) after his wife (Catherine McCormack) is tragically sundered, is a celebrated Scottish hero about whom very little that isn’t legendary is known.
Gibson plunges straight into the folklore. Just before the battle of Stirling, where his men are hopelessly outnumbered against the British, Wallace rouses his troops with a speech that plays like a Classics Illustrated version of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”
Once he gets the fighting spirit early on, Wallace never lightens up, not even when he’s knocking around with his shaggy Wild Bunch of fellow liberators--the burly porcine Hamish (Brendan Gleeson), the Irish hothead Stephen (David O’Hara) and the old warrior Campbell (James Cosmo), who yanks arrows out of his chest with his bare hands and then laughs lustily. These guys aren’t just medieval: They’re practically Cro-Magnon.
Even though Wallace practically keens with a love for freedom, the real reason the Scots whoop and war in this film appears to be less than transcendent. With all the horrors inflicted by the English, the film portrays the Scots as perpetually ready-to-rumble, even among their own clans. Freedom is a guy thing. (In a recent New Yorker, a Ziegler cartoon depicts a clan of warring Scots with the caption, “Has it ever occurred to anyone that if we stopped wearing these damned skirts we wouldn’t have to march off to defend our manhood every five minutes?”)
With such a bunch, it would be a feat to hold up the English as much worse than anybody else. But Gibson has his ace in the hole: Patrick McGoohan is in possession of perhaps the most villainous enunciation in the history of acting. (Who can forget the way he ripped into the word scanners in “Scanners”?)
In actual history, King Edward came up with the idea of Parliament--no mean feat--but here he’s a lizardly terror. And he’s given a gay son, Prince Edward (Peter Hanly), who is depicted as such a mincing recidivist caricature that, when his father cautions him that he may one day become king, you half expect him to add, “or . . . queen?”
Gibson realizes he needs a love interest to soften up his Wide World of War so he periodically works in kissy pastoral interludes involving Wallace’s wife and, later, Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau), the daughter of the French king who is married to the prince but who hankers for the fiery Scot. The ruffian impresses her at their first powwow by speaking to her in French, then in Latin. When they clasp against sylvan settings, her fiery long tresses are twinned with his. Gibson’s longhaired look not only outdoes Liam Neeson in “Rob Roy,” it even trumps Brad Pitt in “Legends of the Fall.” (Did the title of that film refer to Pitt’s mane?)
The battle scenes are more impressive than the love scenes. From a commercial standpoint, Gibson may be wondering, particularly with his female fans: If they come to see me, will they stay for the beheadings? The skirmishes are well-staged. The rain of British arrows upon the Scots has an obscene horror--shot high into the air, they dart down deep into flesh. The Scots’ ingenious use of 14-foot sharpened poles at Stirling is a ringing endorsement of the wits-that-make-us-men stuff.
But Gibson, as a director, doesn’t go beyond the good guys/bad guys war plan. For the battle scenes to be great, they would have to show us how the Scots, especially when they pushed into York, were also driven into frenzies of inhumanity. The film never tries to confuse our loyalties or question the strategies of our hero or bring home the all-embracing soul-destroying horrors of war for all sides. “Braveheart” may be rip-roaring, but it isn’t all that brave.
* MPAA rating: R, for brutal medieval warfare. Times guidelines: It includes lots of graphic warfare not for the squeamish.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Mel Gibson: William Wallace
Sophie Marceau: Princess Isabelle
Patrick McGoohan: King Edward I
Catherine McCormack: Murron
A Paramount Pictures release of an Icon Productions/Ladd Co. production. Director Mel Gibson. Producers Mel Gibson, Alan Ladd Jr., Bruce Davey. Executive producer Stephen McEveety. Screenplay by Randall Wallace. Cinematographer John Toll. Editor Steven Rosenblum. Costumes Charles Knode. Music James Horner. Production design Tom Sanders. Set decorator Peter Howitt. Running time: 2 hours, 57 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.