Tuesday, January 29, 2013

BRAVEHEART (1995)


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BRAVEHEART (DIR: MEL GIBSON) (SCR: RANDALL WALLACE)

Mel Gibson's BRAVEHEART was an obvious choice for the Academy, given as how it was a big historical epic with exciting battle scenes not unlike 1959's winner BEN HUR; along with being a throw back to the "cast of thousands" kind of filmmaking that was so rarely done in the 90's, it was a personal triumph for Gibson as both director and star.  Like Kevin Costner's win for DANCES WITH WOLVES in 1990, Gibson's award seemed to be partly given to him just for being able to successfully complete a big budget pet project and turn it into a box office hit.  And while I personally enjoyed other films that year more, it's still a great looking and often thrilling film.

It all began when an eight year old Randall Wallace heard stories about famous thirteenth-century Scottish clansman William Wallace (no known relation to Randall) from his relatives, who mentioned statutes in Scotland that had been built in his honor.  Years later the adult Randall determined to write a film about William.  Research was not easy, but a reproduction of an old book, written by a poet named Blind Harry, provided some anecdotes about the famed clansman.  Eventually, he finished the script and got it to Gibson, who had just made his directoral debut in 1993 with THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE.  At first, Gibson wanted to only direct the film, thinking that he was too old to play William, but funding for the sure to be expensive film could only be green lit if he agreed to star as well.  Once that was settled, the film quickly came together: the rest of the cast was filled with mostly unknown British actors, and it was shot on locations in Ireland and Scotland, using thousands of extras, many of whom were Irish army reservists who's training came in handy for the battle scenes.  Although Gibson had to trim the film's violence to avoid an NC-17 rating, he was still able to keep its three hour length; the final budget for the film was over $70,000,000, and, after a somewhat slow opening weekend, it would go on to make around $75,000,000, making it a reasonable, if not spectacular, success.

Set in the thirteenth century, it tells the story of Scottish clansman William Wallace(Gibson): after his wife(Catherine McCormack)  is executed for attacking an English soldier who tried to rape her,  William leads a Scottish rebellion against the rule of King Edward I of England(Patrick McGoohan).  After a few successful battles against the English, he is eventually defeated by England's overwhelming forces and is put to death, although his memory lives on to inspire the Scottish people.

Mel Gibson

It's hard to believe that Mel Gibson was once known primarily for his charm and good looks instead of his excessive, alcohol fueled behavior, but that certainly was the case in the 1980's and 90's.  Also, as this film proves, he was a confident director (he would win an Oscar for his direction) who could handle both big battles and smaller scaled scenes with equal skill (cinematographer John Toll also won a well deserved Oscar for making the constantly overcast European locations look beautiful).  Although the film is too long and far from subtle, it mostly works as an exciting  action filled period piece that can certainly be held up favorably to the epics of past years, especially SPARTACUS, which has a slightly similar plot.
I've already mentioned the connections this film shares with Costner's DANCES WITH WOLVES, and here's another connection; just like Costner, Gibson seemed fully aware of his star persona and how best to utilize that on film.  He first rose to fame in action films like 1981's THE ROAD WARRIOR, so he seems right at home in the film's action scenes, yet he was also a sex symbol, so there are also plenty of romantic scenes too, in which his soft spoken sexuality and animal magnetism are winning.  (He seduces Sophie Marceau's princess Isabelle after only meeting her twice, and we completely understand her attraction!).  He also really nails the rousing speech he gives to his men before leading them into battle, which also gears the audience up for what is sure to be an epic fight.
And that fight, in which William leads his rag tag army to victory over the English, is the film's really outstanding moment. With skillful use of slow motion and editing, Gibson builds great tension as the two armies race towards each other like huge crashing waves, and he doesn't skimp on the bloody nature of battle, making it all the more realistic and powerful.  I also like that we completely understand how William's army can win against superior forces by using clever strategy and playing their opponents over confidence against them.   This probably ranks as one of the best epic battle scenes in movie history; if it has a flaw, it's that it comes at about the half way point in the film, and the later fight scenes just don't hold up to it.

The exciting battle scene begins


Some historians have criticized the film's inaccuracies, but, since this is a tale based on poems written years after the life of William Wallace, that doesn't bother me, especially since the film itself shows William's exploits being exaggerated as they pass from person to person; clearly this is intended to be a historical fairy tale.  So it makes perfect sense that William is an almost indestructible warrior, and that the complexities of the British political scene at that time can be boiled down to the evil English (Patrick  McGoohan makes a great slimy villain as King Edward) exploiting the noble Scotsmen. In many ways William Wallace is a lot like another near mythical character: Robin Hood, who both fight against injustice with a loyal army of rebels.  He even has a little John character in the towering Hamish (Brendan Gleeson). It is also not surprising that the film was popular in the US, given that its theme of a rebellious army standing up to English repression is similar to what the American colonies did a few centuries later.
I've already mentioned that I think the film is too long; this is especially true in the film's pleasant but pointless opening scenes in which we see William as a child.  Even worse are the torture sequences towards the film's end; Gibson indulges in heavy handed  Christ figure imagery as William is brutally tortured to death in an absurdly drawn out moment that becomes a kind of torture for the audience, although it is interesting in that it appears to be a dry run for Gibson's later and even more popular film, 2004's THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.  Still, one really gets the sense that BRAVEHEART was a special movie for Gibson, one that he hated to see end, so the film still works, overlong as it is.

The movie's most troubling flaw comes in the portrayal of the gay prince Edward (Peter Hanley), who shows every negative stereotype about gay men possible: he's narcissistic, weak and simpering.  Even worse, when the disgusted king Edward pushes the prince's lover out a window to his death, it's played for dark humor, implying that he had it coming!  Although the character's homosexuality does play a part in the plot, (his refusal to have sex with the Queen pushes her into William's arms) it feels more like an excuse to make his villainous character a  weakling.  It also didn't help that Gibson had already made homophobic comments in the press before making this film.   Not surprisingly, gay rights groups objected to the character, but for the most part, Gibson refused to apologize.  Personally, while I do find the Prince offensive, he's a minor enough character that I can just cringe when he's onscreen and then forget about him when he's gone, and  I still find myself enjoying the film  despite this stereotypical character, just as modern audiences can enjoy a film like 1956's THE SEARCHERS despite its essentially racist storyline.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

While I think BRAVEHEART is an impressive achievement, it was not my favorite film of the year; for it's powerful portrayal of the serious topic of the death penalty, I think Tim Robbins's DEAD MAN WALKING  was a truly great film, one of the best Hollywood films made in the 90's, and therefore more worthy of a best picture award.  But I can understand why the Academy was more drawn towards Gibson's uplifting epic than Robbins's more controversial film, and so I don't begrudge their choice.