Sunday, October 7, 2012

An Extended Look at "Braveheart" (1995)

(This is a long, far too long for NonModern formats, review I did several years ago. It cam e to mind again as I am attending a screening of the film tomorrow where its Christian themes will be addressed.)

Braveheart tells the story of Scotland’s fight for independence, and a Scottish freedom fighter, William Wallace. Wallace is a historical figure who lived at the end of the thirteenth century, during the reign of Edward I of England. The movie, however, plays fast and loose with the historical facts. This is done in typical Hollywood fashion, in an effort to create plot elements that increase the tension and add to the story.

The movie begins with panoramic vistas of the Scottish countryside and a narration overdub from one of the main characters: Robert the Bruce. He sets the stage by telling the viewers that he is going to relay to them the story of William Wallace. Perhaps in an effort to justify the historical failings of the film, he reminds us that the story up till now has been told by the English, as the victorious parties tell all history. He claims that he will tell what really happened.

In a prologue of sorts, we get a glimpse into Wallace’s childhood. Edward I “Longshanks” of England has betrayed the Scottish nobles who have been suddenly left kingless. He lures them into a truce talk, weaponless, and has them all abruptly hung. When William, his father, and brother discover the betrayal, the two elder Wallaces set out to repay Longshanks with a band of fellow clansmen. They are both killed in the attack. Wallace is adopted by a wise old uncle, and taken away from his homeland to be educated.

There are a couple of key sequences in this section of the movie that will be important later in the story. Both his father and his uncle repeatedly tell Wallace, that, while he can fight, he is not yet a man. His father tells him that wits make the man, and his uncle echoes the same thought telling Wallace he must learn to use his head before he can effectively fight. Another idea is introduced in a dream episode Wallace has the night after his father dies. He sees his father’s dead body, which turns and tells him, “Your heart is free, have the courage to follow it.” This theme of freedom is the essence of the movie. The movie focuses on freedom, on the fact that few really have it and that those who do fight for it and value it above life itself. Life is not worth living, the movie attempts to say, without freedom to live as one pleases.

We are now brought up to the time of Wallace's adulthood, and the main time of the events of the film. Before we see Wallace as an adult, however, we are introduced to Longshanks himself, whom we have only heard about up till now, and his son. The scene is the wedding of Longshank’s son to the daughter of his enemy, the king of France. This is perhaps one of the more outstanding historical flaws. In the movie, Longshanks is at war with France, just as history tells us he was during these years. The problem is in that Edward’s son and the princess are not married until years after the events depicted in the movie, when England and France achieve peace. It is an acceptable story element though, as the character of the princess is a great addition to the plot. In this scene we also learn another key fact. Not only is the son of Edward not very manly, as the Bruce informs us in overdub, but we see that he is in all likelihood a practicing homosexual, as his looks to his lover and the uninspired kiss of the bride demonstrate.

The next scene continues to show us events at the castle in England, as Longshanks discusses with his advisors how he should handle the rebellious Scots. He decides to reenact an old practice called “Prima Noctis” to encourage his English nobles to relocate to Scotland and breed them out. Prima Noctis, which in fact did not exist, gave the noblemen the right to sleep with all brides on their wedding nights.

In a brief scene, Bruce is finally introduced to us as the leading contender for the crown of Scotland among the nobles at Edinburgh. We hear that he follows the advice of his father, who is supposed to be in France, but whom is in hiding in Edinburgh, a fact only known to Bruce himself. Later we will discover that he has leprosy.

We finally see Wallace as an adult, returning to his old homeland in time for a wedding celebration. The predictable occurs and at the end of the day, an English nobleman arrives to claim his right to “Prima Nocte.” This is an emotionally devastating scene, stirring up hatred on the part of the viewer for the English. We see and identify with, at a most intimate level, the lack of freedom that the Scots possess. Wallace refuses however, to join in with the rebellious faction of the clan, stating that he simply wants to live at peace, raise a family, and farm. He has in fact, already chosen a girl that he would like to marry. We have seen her once before as a child at the Wallace funeral, where she comforted him with a thistle flower. Her name is Murron.

He courts her in spite of her father’s doubts. (He thinks Wallace is going to be trouble.) During the courtship scenes, we get a glimpse of the education Wallace has received. He knows Latin and French, and has been both to Rome and Paris. We also see that he has never forgotten Murron, as he has saved the flower she gave him so many years ago. They are married in secret to avoid the “Prima Nocte.” There troubles begin the next day, though not because of the marriage.

As Murron goes about her business in the garrison and village the next day, an English guard sees her, and decides to rape her. Wallace comes to the rescue, but in defending her he instigates a fight and the entire English guard descend upon them. Murron and William split up and he tries to draw the English after him. She is caught however, and when it is discovered that she is married, they kill her, both as a punishment and in an attempt to bring out Wallace from hiding. The feelings evoked at her death are similar to the ones brought on at the end of the wedding feast. Once again a strong hatred for the oppressor is felt. We are placed in the skin of these oppressed people.

Wallace and the rebellious faction of the clan storm the garrison and kill the magistrate. The revenge is unfulfilling. Wallace has killed the wrongdoer, but Murron is gone. He now simply fights for freedom and longs for a normal life he will never have. This is demonstrated in another dream he has later in the film after the sacking of York. In it he sees Murron in a forest at night. He immediately realizes he is dreaming, and she tells him he must awake. “I don’t want to wake,” he says, “I want to stay here with you!” This scene shows Wallace not as a warrior, a man who loves the fight. He longs for peace, but knows that peace without freedom is slavery. He says as much upon waking from the dream, when he meets the princess for the first time.

This first portion of the movie serves to set the stage, place all the characters, and give the viewer the mindset for viewing the rest of the film. Wallace, a peace-loving man who just wants to live his life, has realized that without true freedom he will never be able to do so. He sees the need for freedom clearly enough that he knows that life without it is a pointless life. Therefore, he is willing to die for freedom. This passion ignites the same desire among his countrymen who flock to him willing to risk life and limb for freedom. They fight impossible battle after battle, doing things with Wallace’s wits and the sheer passion of the men that no one could believe was possible.

As the rebellion grows, a comparison is set up between three characters. It is a study of leadership models, what causes men to have power over others. Longshanks is a picture of absolute ruthlessness. He shows power by never showing mercy. He talks of peace while setting up ambushes, as Wallace saw when he was child. People follow him because they must to survive.

The Scottish noble system is another picture of leadership. It is embodied in Robert the Bruce as he listens to his father’s ideas of compromise and “playing the game.” These ideas turn out to be as decrepit as his leprous body. Robert has on the other side the example of William Wallace. Wallace is a common man, and yet men have flocked to him and died for him. In reality however, the men around Wallace are dying for themselves and their families. Wallace is merely fighting alongside them and giving them direction. His passion for his ideals is what drives the men. His ideals are for everyone, not just self-gain schemes like the nobles have.

The scene following the Battle of Stirling is a moving picture of the impotence of the nobles division. They knight Wallace and pronounce him guardian of the realm, and instantly they all try to get him to support their claim to the throne. Wallace leaves in disgust, telling them as he leaves that while they think the people exist to provide for them; reality is that the nobles exist to provide the people with freedom. In the end it is this very system of compromise and power hunger that causes the Bruce to betray Wallace in battle, and the nobles to betray Wallace to England. Bruce's betrayal and the affects it has on Wallace and the Scottish people are powerful lessons that finally push him on to the side of the right, away from his father’s bad advice. Unfortunately it is his father that orchestrates the nobles’ betrayal that sells Wallace to Longshanks in exchange for Bruce’s crown.

In England, Wallace is tried for treason, even though he has never sworn himself a subject of the king. Since he will not now swear allegiance, he is tortured to death, instead of merely being executed. The torture scene is incredibly powerful, more moving than all the emotional punches thrown thus far in this intensely gruesome film. The crowd is initially relishing in the event, but Wallace is so strong in his conviction, and the torture so cruel, that even the crowd begins to beg for mercy. Wallace will not however, and focuses his attention on the face of a child in the crowd inspiring his resolution. When he finally does muster up the strength to speak, he cries not for mercy, but merely shouts the word, “Freedom!” As he is about to die he sees Murron walking among the crowd, his inspiration and motivation, his fight is over.

Wallace’s death does not achieve its intended result. Instead of warning against further rebellion, he became a martyr for the cause, and Scotland rallied under Bruce and gains its freedom.

This film is rated R with justification. The battle scenes are some of the goriest ever shot, depicting realistically the terrible nature of Mid-evil warfare. The language is rough in some places, and a small amount of totally needless nudity is shown. This film is at the same time one of the best ever made. It is epic in scale and it touches serious subjects without softening the harder edges. It attempts to walk the line between depicting realistic war without glorifying violence. The true greatness of the film is found however, in the themes it expounds: freedom, unity, leadership, love, human dignity, etc. There are so many important themes in this nearly three hour long movie in fact that they cannot be spoken of in this short review format.

From a Christian point of view, this movie gives a picture of spiritual freedom in a sinful world, and the spiritual warfare the Christian faces in this life. No man is free; we are all bound in slavery to sin. It is a ruthless lord, and life in sin is no life. When a person’s eyes are opened to the freedom in Christ, one can no longer live under bondage. Just like in the movie, we can not merely live in the freedom we have found. We must begin a battle with sin from the day we are saved that will not let up until the day we die.

In this battle we are not alone. The church is a body of fellow believers who share the fight. Just like the nobles however, we fight amongst ourselves more than with the enemy. And just like the nobles, it causes us to fail instead of succeed.

Finally, Wallace is the picture of the fanatic, the person we all admire and yet fear to be. To stand up so strongly for such convictions is dangerous, because we could be wrong in our ideals, or worse we could be martyred for what we believe. Wallace is the picture of who we need to be, unwavering in our fight for freedom, and passionate for the unification of fellow believers.

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