10 January 2011

Movie Adaptations: Braveheart

By Blythe Gifford

Most of the blogs you will read this month will talk about how wonderful the movie is and how much the author loved it.

That is not this post.

Yet 1995s Braveheart is a movie loved and admired by many. Scottish author Lin Anderson credited the movie with mobilizing Scotland's national spirit, helping to lead to re-establishment of a Scottish Parliament. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won five, including Best Picture.

Yet I find myself arguing with the screen right up until the end when I burst into tears and reach for a tissue.

For those who haven't seen it, Braveheart tells the legend of William Wallace, one of Scotland's national heroes, who rallied the people to fight against England, achieving one of Scotland's few, and one of its most noteworthy, victories at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.

Ultimately (SPOILER ALERT!), he was captured by a fellow Scot, turned over to the English, and killed for treason, murder, thievery, and sacrilege.

I will not belabor my problems, and those of many others, with the movie. Suffice it to say they include homophobia, Anglophobia, a plodding pace (it's nearly three hours long), a somewhat tedious overuse of medieval violence (which led to an "R" rating), and a blatant, even proudly aggressive, disregard for historical accuracy.

Screenwriter Randall Wallace (yes, THAT Wallace) has said he did not research until he had completed his work. It shows. The film should come with a warning label of AHH-17: "Abandon hope of history, all ye who enter here."

In addition, since it stars and was directed by Mel Gibson, one watches through a haze of subsequent accusations of anti-Semitism, domestic violence, racism, and drunkenness.

Still, the movie works. And as a writer, I have some thoughts on why, and they are traits that, I think, can also make books work for the reader.

The hero is magnificent. William Wallace is the epitome of the term "larger than life." He's a warrior without equal. A natural leader of men who is handed leadership he does not seek. He seeks (or claims to) nothing more than a wife, children, a home and a quiet life. (To be a good dad!) He has a sense of humor. He speaks four languages. He's good with women, but he's a romantic at heart who loves beyond the grave. He is true to his own code, never swayed by anyone else's, and dies holding fast to it. And when he is lead to execution he is strapped to a cross. Really.

Did I mention he leaps tall buildings at a single bound?

Gibson did not receive an acting nomination for this role, but he did make it live.
It's personal, not political. Some of the most memorable scenes in the movie feature stirring cries of freedom for Scotland, but it's really the story of Wallace's search for revenge. First, he seeks vengeance against the English who killed his wife. Then, it's retribution against the nobles who abandoned him at the Battle of Falkirk.

We feel the betrayal and rejoice at his revenge. Even when he traps English soldiers in a cell of wooden sticks and burns them alive we do not wonder whether this is as heartless as any crime of the English.

The script pays lip service to Wallace's desire to bring political peace. He is unwilling to compromise, however, so he cannot be the one to bring it. But as viewers, we do not care about the greater political good. Like Wallace, when wounded, we want to strike out. We want an eye for an eye. And this film gives us that.

Emotion. Emotion. Emotion. The movie wears its heart on its sleeve. Panoramas of the landscape? So beautiful we want to be Scots. Music? Should have won an Academy Award. It stands up to repeated listening and I should know, since I used it as a soundtrack when I wrote HIS BORDER BRIDE. The good, like Wallace's wife, are very very good. The evil, like the English king, are horrid. Romantic interludes at the appropriate points. There's even steadfast friendship and just the Shakespearean amount of comic relief. The audience is played like a harp. Which is exactly what we want when we enter a story.

So while I may spend two hours and fifty minutes grousing at the screen, I still cry at the end. As the screenwriter said, "it spoke to my heart and that's what matters to me."
How about you? Are you a Braveheart fan or foe?

Blythe Gifford has written five, 14th century medieval romances for Harlequin Historicals featuring characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket, most recently HIS BORDER BRIDE in May 2010. The Chicago Tribune called her work "the perfect balance between history and romance." She is working on her next book, which will again be set on the Scottish Borders.


Savannah said...


I have to say it's one of my favorites and for all of the reasons you mentioned.

I think you get sucked into his heartache so much so that you overlook any of his wrong doing. I love when stories do that.

Great post!

Elaine Golden said...

Hi Blythe,

I've always liked it. Despite some historical inaccuracies, I find it epic.

I listen to the soundtrack, too, as background music for writing!


Cathie Dunn said...

Great argument, Blythe. :-)

Well, I loved the skirmishes, the music and the scenery (what better advertising for Scotland). But as I'd researched Scottish history in detail just in the year before the movie came out, I groaned throughout it. I wasn't any good at taking off my 'historian's hat' back then...

But most of all perhaps, I didn't like Gibson in the main role. He was too small, too fake, too unbelievable, though Patrick McGoohan made a fabulously evil Edward.

Blythe Gifford said...

Cathie - I soooo hear you on the history, though I'll admit Mel worked for me better than for you. I think it was the sense of humor he brought. Elaine - it is "epic," but also personal. As Savannah said, it is easy to get sucked into the emotion, too. But far, far from a "perfect" movie.

librarypat said...

I have tried to watch this move about 6 times. kI never made it past his wife being killed but once, then stopped when he reciprocated with the englishman who killed her. Mel Gibson's movies are epic and I have watched many of his others. the are just filled with too much cruelty and graphic violence.

My other complaint is the historical inaccuracy. Students remember little enough as it is. Lets not confuse them even more by presenting them with a rousing historic epic that is wrong. They will remember the movie, not the lectures and lessons.

Blythe Gifford said...

LibraryPat-I can see my problems with this movie are not mine alone!

Maria said...

I'll admit that I have not seen the movie from start to finish in one sitting...though this last time I did watch most of the movie...I too had some of the same issues- historical inaccuracy, plodding plot, and Mel Gibson as William Wallace....though I have to applaud him for trying to tackle the part. I can't respect any screenwriter who doesn't do his research for a historical film ...just shows an appaling lack of respect for both the past and his craft!

Blythe Gifford said...

Maria: As an author who spends a lot of time trying to get it right, I did consider using the entire Braveheart post to correct the historical record. Decided it would go on too long.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear blythe,
Braveheart is just a movie which has been awarded 5 Oscars and was nominated for 5 more. Even though it lacked historical evidence, it doesn't prove or even show peoples' views on Mel Gibson. I believe Mel is probably one of the best in the movie business. Also I hear only jealousy in your words. How come all author believe their poo doesn't stink? You should really take the sliver from your own eyes before you pluck from another's, if you get my draft. Trust me do think anyone cares what you think? or even me? Everyone has their own opinions, doesn't make them correct. Anyways, I don't even know who you are, I have never herd of you books, never knew you were an author, Hell your name won't even pop up on wikipedia...but Mel Gibson does.