Braveheart (review)

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Positively Medieval

Braveheart is history the way it should be told, full of sex and treachery and battle and passion and Mel Gibson in a kilt. The story of William Wallace, the 13th-century Scottish national hero, is obviously something Gibson, Braveheart’s director and star, feels strongly about — this is an extraordinary film about a people always oppressed and still not truly free, handled with graphic realism and heartbreaking sensitivity.

Wallace (Gibson), a commoner, plans to live in peace as a farmer, but when he is affected personally by the cruelty of the English invaders — the cold-bloodedly evil English king Edward Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan) has stolen the Scottish throne — he retaliates and becomes an outlaw, one charismatic enough to gather around him men willing to die for him. Gibson puts his typical mad fury to good use — when Wallace gets that trademark Gibson glaze in his eyes, look out. As Wallace visits violent, outraged vengeance upon the English, Gibson — presaging the sickening realism of Saving Private Ryan — treats us to some of the most startlingly authentic battles ever filmed, bloody and brutal, sparing us none of the gore or the squishy, fleshy noises of medieval hand-to-hand combat with swords, animal horns, maces, cudgels, anything that will maim and kill. Likewise unvarnished is the reality of the nasty, brutish, short lives of the people of the time — we’re never quite sure whether the women picking through the bodies of the dead and dying in the aftermath of the battle at Falkirk are looking for their men or for loot.

Braveheart does not attempt to explain the contradictory nature of the Scots, at times their own worst enemies, showing us both the fortitude of the common people under their oppressive foreign lords as well as the squabbling of the nobles and clans over their own throne and their kowtowing to their invaders. Wallace himself, as much as he rails against the lords’ fealty to Longshanks, is so taken aback to discover the treachery of the leading Scot contender for the throne — Robert, the Earl of Bruce (Angus McFayden) — that his knees give way and he falls to the ground, tears welling, shattered by the betrayal.

By the time a crazy Irishman joins Wallace and asks, “If I risk my neck for you, will I get a chance to kill Englishmen?” even a devoted Anglophile such as myself wants in on the action. Braveheart has a primal, visceral power — as when Wallace, in the aftermath of a battle, stands over the carnage he’s wrought and screams in victory, nostrils flaring — that strikes straight to the heart of any hot-blooded Celt, or indeed anyone who values freedom and human dignity.

[reader comments on this review]

Oscars Best Picture 1995
unforgettable movie moment:
Just before the battle at Sterling, Wallace, masked in blue war paint, inspires his army, on the verge of going home: “You come to fight as free men, and free men you are… They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”

previous Best Picture:
1994: Forrest Gump
next Best Picture:
1996: The English Patient

go> the complete list of Oscar-winning Best Pictures

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