Why I Hated “Braveheart” 23 Years Ago

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Mel Gibson: “I never go anywhere without a phallic symbol.”

“Most of our pictures have little, if any, real substance. Our fear of what
the censors will do keeps us from portraying life the way it really is. We
wind up with a lot of empty fairy tales that do not have much relation to
anyone.” — Samuel Goldwyn, Hollywood powerbroker, 1938

Entertainment-wise, Braveheart, the story of Scotland’s national hero
William Wallace, keeps you going for about half of its nearly three-hour
length. There are the dazzling Scottish and Irish landscapes, a melodic,
never overbearing musical accompaniment, and an at times inspiring tale of a
downtrodden folk fighting for their freedom. In fact, the early part of this
historical drama, the part which chronicles the childhood of William Wallace,
is nigh perfect.

Then producer/director/actor Mel Gibson comes on screen, and it’s soon
obvious everyone was afraid to say, “No!” to him. It quickly becomes clear
that Gibson has distorted history, when he has not totally reinvented it,
bringing his off-screen homophobia to celluloid, and displaying an ego that
has grown to zeppelin proportions. He’s also about ten years too old and much too contemporary in body language for the part. (Wallace was executed as a traitor when he was approximately 35. Gibson enters the action looking older than his 39 years — and he’s supposed to be, at that point, in his early
twenties.)

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Peter Hanley as Edward II in Braveheart

Well, where shall we start? First, the concrete facts available on William
Wallace’s personal life are indeed limited. Asks Thomas B. Costain in his
“The Three Edwards” (Doubleday & Company, 1962): “Was he tall or short? Dark or fair? Was he handsome of mien? There is not a scrap of reliable evidence on any such points.” Many details surrounding Wallace are mythic and come from the 300 pages of rhyming verse attributed to a 15th century poet known as Blind Harry, who based his verse on 200-year-old legends.

Not having the poem at hand, I conferred with a few encyclopedias, scoured
the Internet and the New York Public Library. Gibson, on the other hand, was
possibly too busy having his tresses braided and staging odd Lethal Weapon
scenes for his opus (e.g. he and his horse jumping out of a window into the
river below).

Notes Costain: “Wallace had two brothers, but supposedly left his father’s
household with his mother “at some crisis to find protection in the household
of a powerful relative at Kilspindie in the Carse of Gowrie and to have
completed his education, such as it was, at the seminary attached to the
cathedral of Dundee.” In Braveheart, Gibson has one brother, no mother, and he runs around in filth. When his father and sibling are killed in battle,
his uncle comes to take him away and educate him.

(Please take stock of how in the early scenes, everyone is covered with filth
but has great teeth, something Pasolini never let occur.)

Compton’s: “Wallace as a young man killed an Englishman who insulted him. For this he was outlawed. He then collected a band of followers and began a
struggle against the English rule of Edward I.” In Braveheart, Wallace’s
wife Murron (the very fine actress Catherine McCormack), has her throat slit
after refusing to be raped by the Brits. Costain: “[Wallace] was not
married.”

The Hirsute Richard II that Gibson Ignored

The Columbia Encyclopedia (Columbia University Press, 1993) chronicles that Wallace’s first major battle against the forces of Edward I occurred when he “marched on Scone and met an English force of more than 50,000 before
Stirling Castle in September 1297. The English, trying to cross a narrow
bridge over the Forth River, were killed as they crossed, and their army was
routed.” The action has been transferred to a field. Killing the enemy as
they crossed a bridge probably wasn’t macho enough.

Compton’s: “In 1307, King Edward, then seventy years old, led an army toward Scotland but died before he reached the border.” Here he dies in bed, a rather broken villain.

Most idiotic of all is the premise that Edward III, Edward II’s son, was in
actuality sired by Wallace. The idea that Princess Isabella (Sophie Marceau),
Edward II’s wife, even came into contact with Wallace is preposterous. In
fact, Edward II had not even married Isabella until four years after
Wallace’s body had been cut into quarters and distributed for display in
Stirling, Perth, Newcastle and Berwick. She was 13 at the time of her
marriage. Nine at Wallace’s carving up.

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Mel Gibson, in Braveheart makeup, guests on South Park.

But very few of us expect historical accuracy in Hollywood biopics. What’s
exasperating here is not the hundreds of nonsensical inventions that pop up
throughout the feature, but the lengths Gibson and his writer Randall Wallace
have gone to make Edward II into an unsympathetic nelly queen.

Compton’s: “He was tall and handsome like his father, but he was a coward in
battle.”

C. Warren Hollister, in his The Making of England: 55B.C. to 1399 (D.C.
Heath and Company, 1992), quotes a contemporary of Edward as describing him “fair of body and great of strength.”

The Bishop William Stubbs adds: “He was a trifler, an amateur farmer, a
breeder of horses, a patron of playwrights, a contriver of masques, a
smatterer in mechanical arts; he was, it may be, an adept in rowing and a
practiced whip; he could dig a pit or thatch a barn; somewhat varied and
inconsistent accomplishments, but all testifying to be skillful hand rather
than the thoughtful head.”

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Mel Gibson get tortured far too late in Braveheart.

Well, just because you are born into royalty doesn’t mean you should be
competent to rule. Edward II couldn’t. His reign was a disaster on almost all
levels. Yet just because you’re a bisexual or a gay King doesn’t mean you
wear lipstick, rouge and lady’s dresses plus mince around. The Effigy of
Edward II in Glocester Cathedral shows an attractive bearded and mustached
man, not Quentin Crisp in a ball gown.

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The superb Quentin Crisp in a gown in Orlando.

In the most insufferable scene of the film, Edward I in a tiff throws his
son’s paramour, probably meant to be Piers Gaveston, out a window to his
death. This is played for laughs. There is no sympathy for the son or the
lover. The fact that this never occurred makes the moment even more
horrifying. In a world where it’s too often been and still is fair game to
bash and slaughter gays and lesbians and get away with it, it’s frightening
to see the matter made light of in such an abominable way by the Hollywood of the 1990's.

(For another view of the king, rent the late Derek Jarman’s low-budgeted film
“Edward II,” which captured the turmoil of Edward’s brief inept reign.
Jarman’s end product was a work of art that created a full-bodied person with
a soul — and made the man’s life relevant to us today.)

Gibson will never have this mastery, and it’s sad that Paramount Pictures
which has many gay employees has stooped to release such a flawed work of
bigotry and forced them to stand behind it.

Arthur Bell, the late Village Voice columnist and founder of the Gay
Activists Alliance, wrote on March 3, 1974 that “our revolution came late in
1969. But our stereotypes continue. Our screen image is alive and sick and in
need of a euthanasic ending and a liberated beginning.” He then added that
the people making Hollywood films “are either unconscious of what they’re
doing or homophobic enough to want to perpetrate age-old stereotypes that gay is bad, an equivalent to black is ugly and one which the gay movement is
working to obliterate.”

The Gay and Lesbian Defamation League will be leafletting theaters in nine
cities (e.g. Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis) to raise
awareness about the homophobic content in “Braveheart.” See the film, join
them if you will, and then write a letter to Paramount and Mel Gibson,
letting them know you don’t want to spend $7.50 for intolerance when you can get it free in your streets.

© Copyright Brandon Judell for Critics’ Choice 1995. All Rights Reserved.

Brandon Judell has published in The Village Voice, The Advocate, and 50 or so other outlets. He is currently a lecturer at The City College of New York.

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