Back in the '90s, the three-hour epic film was still a fairly rare thing, restricted pretty much to a pair of wildly-fictionalized accounts of historical events. The second and most successful was James Cameron's Titanic in 1997, but the other was the ultimate Mel Gibson vanity project, Braveheart. When I was a young lad, I remember being amazed when my parents rented this movie from Blockbuster and it came as a set of two VHS tapes. TWO OF THEM. Nowadays, the LotR series has made us all accustomed to extremely long movies filled with sprawling battles, gorgeous vistas, and a love story tacked on just for fun, but it was still a pretty big deal when Braveheart was made almost twenty years ago.
So, what does this film have to offer now? Though Mel Gibson has become pretty ridiculous nowadays, there's no denying he's a good actor and a skilled director, who's unafraid to take risks to put his vision on screen. It's kindof a shame this particular vision sacrifices historical accuracy for cartoonish villains and “look at how handsome I am” cinematography, but that doesn't make it any less fun to watch. On the contrary, Braveheart is worth watching today because it's a serious film, but is selectively over-the-top just often enough that it never gets dry.
~Life of the Party:
Mel Gibson was a huge star in the '90s, with enough clout to put together a truly epic film. The multiple battle scenes, filmed on location in Scotland and Ireland with as many as 1600 actors on the field at one time, call to mind the “cast of thousands” Cecil B. DeMille features of old Hollywood, which inspired Gibson to make the movie in the first place. The major difference from those classics is that Braveheart's fight scenes are extremely intense, with gore and grit to spare. Supposedly, the violence had to be trimmed down to avoid an NC-17 rating, because much like Ironclad (why do I keep comparing stuff to that movie?) the fight choreography is unashamed of how visceral medieval combat with swords and pikes actually was. The massed ranks of knights in colorful heraldry and Wallace's stirring speeches about loyalty and patriotism are an excellent contrast to the violence, displaying lofty ideals both chivalric and modern, even though each battle is a painful, tragic affair in the end.
The movie isn't only about warfare, however, and the cast are all talented and portray their characters well. Patrick McGoohan, though getting on in years, plays the oppressive English King Edward “Longshanks” as the quintessential regal villain, seeming cunning, intelligent, and almost reptilian in his complete disregard for human life. Though it is ludicrous just how pointlessly evil the English are in this film, McGoohan's performance somehow makes you totally buy it – he was just that good an actor, I guess, and you can tell he's having fun in the role. Other supporting characters are also enjoyable as comic relief that doesn't feel like standard comic relief, particularly the show-stealing Hamish (that name is just great, say it to yourself: Hamish) and a character whose name I never caught, but everybody who watches this movie just calls him “the Irish Guy” and you probably will, too. He's awesome. The romance subplot, which takes up a large part of the first act but helps balance out all the sword-fighting that comes later, is fairly simple, but nice. It's a lot of montages, running through fields, and other pretty basic “love stuff,” but the imagery of the romance keeps reappearing throughout the film to provide motivation to the hero, which is a nice touch of character development.
It's hard to talk too much about this film, because most people already know a lot about it, even if they haven't sat down and watched the whole thing. It was made by skilled people, has a stirring dramatic story, and looks amazing. Really, there are very few reasons not to watch it if you haven't picked it up already.
Flex a little harder there, Mel, I'm not sure the housewives are fully satisfied yet.
That said, the film is over three hours, and doesn't have the advantage that Return of the King did, namely, the ability to cut back and forth between three or four different groups of heroes having different adventures. Once the Scottish revolt gets properly started, there are pretty much just two kinds of scenes: battle sequences, or old guys arguing about one thing or another in drafty-looking medieval conference rooms. We get that the major tension of the film is between Wallace, who is willing to fight for Scottish independence, and the more traditional nobles who value peace more than freedom, but sometimes it seems like the characters are just having the same conversations over and over again. The final act, after Wallace has been captured by the English and slated for execution, is also somewhat dull, as the endless tearful, whispered conversations between Mel and the secondary love interest will make you really miss the action during the middle parts. The film ends appropriately and dramatically, just not on the most exciting note.
Much has been said elsewhere about this film's dearth of historical accuracy, both in terms of literal events in the story that never could have actually happened, and how the characters and ethnic groups are depicted as absurdly broad stereotypes. The iconic “Braveheart” costume, for example, complete with kilt, leather brigandine, and blue barbarian facepaint, is wrong for the time period in so many ways that it's almost a disservice to the historical figure of Sir William Wallace. Costume-wise, it's equivalent to making a movie about Malcolm X and dressing him in a dashiki and feathered Zulu headress. In the end, it's just more fun to watch the heavily-armored juggernaut of the English army get their asses handed to them by a bunch of unwashed, rag-clad Scottish underdogs, but it's still a bit irksome if you have any passion for history. It doesn't make the movie any less enjoyable, just don't expect it to be an accurate depiction of what actually happened.
One thing that just bugs me, though, is that Mel Gibson couldn't grow a damn beard for this role. He sports an impressive mane of long hair, sure, but it seems like preserving his status as one of the sexiest men in pop culture was more important than looking the part, and so he's clean-shaven throughout the film to preserve those ruggedly handsome closeups. Interestingly, in this movie's universe, only two kinds of men don't have beards: characters that are heavily implied to be homosexuals, and Mel Gibson. Come on, dude, it's not like growing a beard would have instantanously ruined your career.
~The Vibe (Guy's Night, Date Night, Casual Gathering):
As a big-budget blockbuster, Braveheart was carefully designed to be attractive to a broad audience, and so it would make good viewing for couples who want a classy viewing experience, or groups of bros who like violence (and beards). It was basically the 300 of its decade, a comic-book version of history that combined badass war scenes with a touch of romance and some beefcake just for the ladies. It seems that there are two good ways to watch this movie: as the sprawling epic it was meant to be, or as a three-part "miniseries." I watched this film split up over three consecutive nights, with the parts divided thusly:
Part 1: William's childhood, romance, and first strike against the English
Part 2: William's military campaign up until the point where he is betrayed
Part 3: William's legend and eventual death
Conveniently, the movie is already structured such that these three "acts" are each about 55 minutes long, so if you can sit through an episode of Doctor Who, you can enjoy Braveheart the exact same way. Alternately, make a big event out of this movie using the drinking game posted below.
+ An expertly-made epic war drama with the spirit of old Hollywood
+ Great visuals with hundreds of actors on screen and gorgeous locations
+ Good balance of different dramatic elements spread throughout the film
+ Unflinchingly brutal battle sequences
+/- Not historically accurate
- Last section is a bit underwhelming
- One too few beards (seriously, it looked great on Mel in Hamlet)
~Drinking Game Suggestions:
This drinking game has a lot of rules, but that’s because we’ve got a lot of movie to cover. It’s been scientifically designed to let you be relaxed and attentive during the quiet dialogue sections, and yet it’s positively brutal during the fight scenes. Recommended drinks include Scotch, some kind of nice, high-proof sipping beers (or anything by Highland Brewing Co.), and anyone taking the Highlander Test of Bravery, below, will probably want some Olde English to kill during the battles (GET IT?).
~Drink whenever bagpipes start playing on the soundtrack
~Drink every time thistles or that thistle-embroidered handkerchief appear on screen
~Drink for each severed limb or crushed skull
~Drink every time somebody tells a legend regarding William Wallace
~Drink for each instance of slow-motion
~Drink each time Longshanks does something mustache-twirlingly evil for no reason at all
~Whenever you see a man's ass, drink once per cheek
~Drink for each "freedom," FINISH your drink for each "FFFFFFRRREEEEEEDOOOOOMMMMMM!!!!"
~Hard Mode: Take a shot whenever the camera just lingers on Mel's handsome countenance entirely for vanity purposes
~Nerd Mode: Have a drink whenever someone can point out a blatant historical inaccuracy
~HIGHLANDER TEST OF BRAVERY MODE: During the first major battle scene, when the English cavalry begin their charge, start drinking, and keep drinking throughout the entire "Hold... Hold... HOLD!" sequence. Anyone who fails to stand their ground must take penalty shots equal to the number of "Holds" that were remaining when they stopped drinking.