In the United States, politicians routinely try to score brownie points by sounding off against the film industry. Quite the reverse is true in Scotland, where major political parties have been elbowing each other aside to claim an affinity with a film that opened there recently.
The film is “Braveheart,” directed by and starring Mel Gibson; he plays Scottish patriot rebel leader William Wallace, who defeated the English at the battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. Recently, Wallace has become a focal point for Scottish politicians of varying persuasions.
Jostling started with the European premiere of “Braveheart” in Stirling, Scotland, earlier this month. The Scottish Nationalist Party, which favors a Scottish government independent from England, distributed recruitment leaflets bearing Gibson’s picture at the premiere. The party has also passed out leaflets at Scottish cinemas since the film’s general release.
“It’s not just Bravehearts who choose independence,” they say. “It’s also wise heads: And they use the ballot box.”
Party leader Alex Salmond, who sits as a lawmaker in London’s House of Commons, said he had no qualms about using “Braveheart” for the recruitment drive. “William Wallace was a campaigner for Scottish independence,” he said. “I would have been on his side at the battle of Stirling Bridge.”
But Gibson denounced the leaflets as unauthorized. He had not intended “Braveheart” to be used for political ends.
The Scottish Nationalist Party was upstaged at the premiere by the conservative British government. Michael Forsyth, secretary of state for Scotland, had already dined with Gibson and sought his advice on how to strengthen Scotland’s film industry.
Forsyth, a Scot representing a government based in England, was booed by waiting crowds at the premiere but praised Wallace as “a man who stood up for Scotland.”
Salmond and Forsyth attended a post-premiere bash, as did the Labor Party’s George Robertson, who would be Scottish secretary of state if Labor wins Britain’s next general election. The presence of Forsyth and Robertson enraged one Scottish Nationalist Party councilor, who accused them of betraying “all that Wallace fought and died for.” They were, he added, “tartan traitors.”
The “Braveheart” controversy has commandeered hundreds of column inches in the Scottish press, where it has been widely noted that Gibson, an American-born resident of Australia, is an odd symbol of Scottish independence.
Historians have savaged the film. “Randall Wallace, the writer of ‘Braveheart,’ is presumably ignorant, but he has made no effort to repair the deficiency,” wrote Scot historian Allan Massie. “It would be a perversion of truth to call his way with history cavalier. He has no way with history at all.”
In the London Daily Telegraph, Massie went on to list the film’s historical inaccuracies, starting with the fact that Isabella, Princess of Wales (played by Sophie Marceau), did not come from France until two or three years after Wallace’s execution and therefore could not have had an affair with him.
“Bad history is potentially dangerous,” Massie wrote. “In this case, ‘Braveheart’ can scarcely fail to feed the growing Anglophobia which is, to many Scotsmen, a pernicious feature of our country today. If it does so, it will be not only a bad film but a deplorable and damaging one.”
Ian Bell, biographer of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, asked: “Do we need to reach back so far to find a mascot? This tribal symbolism, whatever it once meant, means nothing now. Legends are dangerous things. We can do better than Wallace, the man formerly not known as Braveheart.”
British film critics mainly liked the film and praised Gibson’s direction of the epic battle scenes. Brian Prendreigh, of Scotland’s national newspaper, the Scotsman, said of Gibson: “His accent is very good. People might go to mock the film, but they will be pleasantly surprised.”
He was not surprised that “Braveheart” was being regarded as a call to independence: “It is very much a Scotland versus England story. Freedom is equated with independence. Lots of insults are thrown at the English.”
“Braveheart” opened in the United States in May, grossing about $60 million, and was relaunched last weekend. On its first weekend in British theaters it was the No. 1 film, grossing about $2 million on 289 screens--a healthy total for a three-hour picture.