Top critical review
All passion and no brains.
on May 28, 2004
Braveheart comes with an impressive list of credentials. It is regarded as one of Mel Gibson's best performances. It won five Academy Awarts, including Best Picture. The musical score by James Horner is one of the all time favorites. And it is one of the most popular movies of all time. Billed as an epic historical saga filled with history, love and battle, Braveheart apparently is Hollywood at its best. But is it really worth all the hype, and is the emperor really wearing any clothes?
First of all, the movie takes many historical liberties, deviating substantially from the real account of William Wallace. For instance, both the "prima nocta" legislation, and the suggestion that Wallace fathered a child with Princess Isobelle are fictional. But poetic license in movie making is not new, and can hardly be sufficient reason for trashing a movie - Braveheart never pretends to be a reconstruction of history. But it does pretend to be an epic of cinema, and its success in that regard is debatable.
The basic plot of Braveheart is quite simple: Man loves woman. Woman gets killed by English. Man gets angry and takes revenge on English killers of woman. Man helps lead Scotland to freedom from English. Notice something? While William Wallace is lauded for his efforts to free Scotland, the reality is that he is motivated more by personal revenge and anger over what happened to his wife. His character is ruled more by murderous passion, lust and revenge, than by politics; His actions are more the result of uncontrollable rage than the result of an intelligent desire to liberate his country. In the process, Wallace stoops to commit some of the same evils as his English oppressors. Just like the English tried to take his wife, so Wallace ends up bedding the wife of the English crown prince, rather than honoring her marriage to her own husband (who is admittedly a fool, but this doesn't justify adultery). In principle, Wallace's adultery is just as heinous and dishonoring to her husband as the English's treatment of Wallace's wife dishonored him. But by this point most viewers have already been manipulated to think that this sexual conquest is a good thing; Braveheart clearly presents this adulterous tryst as a delightful thing, and even rewards the adulterous union with a child.
This is typical of the moral confusion evident throughout the entire movie. While it pretends to be an epic about a struggle for freedom, in reality it is little more than a gory action movie with lots of fighting and passion, where the action is governed more by primitive and barbarian feelings and lusts than by reasoned and thoughtful intelligence. The reasons behind the cry "Freedom!" are never explained, aside from the fact that Wallace is filled with rage at losing his wife, and this motivates him to fearless (and at times foolish and unbelievable) acts of "bravery". He's a larger-than-life hero governed by passion without reason; is motivated more by a vengeful passion over his murdered bride than a passion for his country. It's not surprising that Braveheart is nonetheless popular, because perhaps the masses today are largely governed by the same passions. This kind of hero is appealing to those accustomed to the ongoing media spectacle which lauds mindless macho men, and brainless brawn. Despite our advanced technological and educated era, popular culture is largely rendered passive and mindless through the influence of the mass media and thoughtless entertainment. Perhaps then it's little wonder that we find Braveheart so appealing, that we fail to realize that its attraction is no more enduring than the emperor's new clothes. And that today we find a more intelligent movie about a principled statesman and leader like "A Man For All Seasons" rather boring.
Not to say that Braveheart is all bad (although be warned that the violence and gore more than justifies the R rating). I found it appealing that the movie didn't resort to a feel-good everyone-lived-happily-ever-after type ending. The final tragic note is powerful, and is not altogether unlike its imitator "Gladiator" (2000). The battle scenes featuring medieval weapons and hundreds of extras create an epic feel, and have to be admired for what they are - although at times the drama is exaggerated. But when all is said and done, this movie pretends to be more than what it really is. Braveheart turns history into a blood and brainless love story. It's no more one of the heights of cinema than the Emperor's new clothes are the heights of fashion. - GODLY GADFLY