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"History Is Written By Those Who Have Hanged Heroes"

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | October 21, 2009 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Film | October 21, 2009 |

“There’s a difference between us. You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom.” -William Wallace

When embarking on troublemaking in high school (which was fairly often, I was a regular rapscallion), my friends and I would call our parents and tell them that we were going to be at so-and-so’s house watching Braveheart. It was a credible movie for a bunch of teenage guys to be watching, without being particularly parentally unacceptable, in addition to being 3 hours long, thus giving a decent sized window of supposedly accounted-for time. My parents got me Braveheart on VHS for Christmas my senior year of high school since I had watched it with my friends at least two dozen times. It was a dreadful moment Christmas morning, staring down at the double-VHS box, realizing that in all the times I’d used it for an excuse, I’d never actually seen the movie.

Braveheart was Mel Gibson’s baby, a big budget affair that studios didn’t much want to get behind. Of course, it then made back its budget four times over in theaters and won five Oscars, including one for Gibson’s direction and one for best picture. It sparked a resurgence in Scottish nationalism, which had been simmering for centuries and hovering just below a boil since the discovery of North Sea oil off the Scottish coast. Memorials were erected to William Wallace at the sites of his battles (many fictional), culminating with the 13-ton sculpture bearing Gibson’s face and the title “Freedom” that was installed outside of the centuries-old Wallace Monument. In a savage blow for irony, repeated defacements led to the installation of a cage to protect the statue. In 1997, spurred on by the film’s popularity, Scotland managed to win its own parliament, devolved from that of the UK. It’s like a normal parliament, except everyone wears kilts and the committees fight like warrior-poets.

Not bad for a film with a script constructed of pure and unadulterated bullshit. Kilts weren’t invented for another three hundred years, Wallace probably didn’t knock up Isabelle since she was only ten when he was executed, and what little of Wallace remains in the historical record is hardly valedictory. He was a landowner, knight and medieval warrior, which made him much closer to an illiterate thug than the proto-nationalist freedom-phile featured in Braveheart.

There is a tension in story-telling between the need for drama and the duty to historical accuracy. It’s easy to complain about anachronisms like kilts or democratic philosophy three hundred years before its time. It’s even easier to nitpick that Wallace was an uneducated savage or that prima noctis was never implemented during Wallace’s lifetime in Scotland. But these sorts of complaints are peripheral to the real problem, that the story in Braveheart would be historically inaccurate even with all of those details fixed. Braveheart cannot possibly be true to history because it is not true to people in the first place. Take shows like “Rome” or “Deadwood”, or the plays of the late great Billy Shakespeare. They can be nitpicked to death on historical accuracy just as much as Braveheart, but the difference is that they fundamentally get the way people are.

Wallace is effectively an angel, Longshanks effectively a devil. There is never any question of motivation, the English are right bastards down to the lowest rapist soldier, the Scottish peasants innocent though brutal victims, the corrupt on both sides weaklings. It’s an artificially constructed situation, an elaborate straw man glorification of political violence. You see, it admits that violence is horrific, the battle scenes terrible enough that they had to be cut down in order not to get an NC-17 rating, but the film posits that violence is sometimes necessary and then presents the most extreme case possible as justification. It’s like admitting that killing your husband is a terrible crime, and then pointing out a situation in which the husband is Hitler, you just interrupted him while he was torturing a blind puppy, he already had paid off the corrupt police, and you just happened to have a loaded revolver in hand. That kind of cheap drama trivializes everything that real people go through. Sometimes horrible things are necessary, but it’s never as easy a moral decision as Gibson seem to insist.

Reality is mostly bereft of angels and devils, every one of us is a walking, talking gray area. The mundane face of evil, the ultimate lesson of the twentieth century, is something popcorn fiction avoids. If you can pile all the blame onto the shoulders of devils, the world seems a safer place, but it makes you a more dangerous person because you see a world only of good and evil, and those who anger you can only fit into one side of that schema. And if you pile all of the responsibility onto the shoulders of angels, then you forfeit to any savior that comes along all the moral responsibility of action.

That bitching aside — bitching that equally could be applied to about a dozen films a year churned out by Hollywood — Braveheart is far from a bad film. It constructs a beautiful fantasy, a sort of updating of the fable of Robin Hood. Love, betrayal, blood, honor, good and evil. And we can’t forget: freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeedom!

“You admire this man, this William Wallace. Uncompromising men are easy to admire. He has courage; so does a dog. But it is exactly the ability to *compromise* that makes a man noble.” - the elder Robert the Bruce

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.