Who would have thought a kilt could look so good on a dark horse? When Braveheart, directed by and starring Mel Gibson, was first released in May of last year, it engendered decent reviews, solid box office, and much confusion with the other bagpipes-‘n’-brogues drama then in release, Rob Roy. But oddly, after Braveheart disappeared from theaters, its word of mouth kept right on growing, eventually blooming into a 10-category sweep of the 1995 Oscar nominations, more than any other film. A lot of people seem to have been stunned, but the signs were there all along, especially on the fan-cult greenhouse known as the Internet: There’s a weekly chat about the film on America Online, not to mention a brace of unofficial Braveheart websites (dig the crazy tartan background at http://www. chs hico.k12.ca.us/marg/wallace.html).
The Braveheart mania does have its limits — two theatrical rereleases, the second following the announcement of the Oscar nominations, haven’t measurably increased the movie’s grosses but there is the sense that a well-made film is at last getting real respect. And Braveheart‘s video release this week brings Gibson’s drama to the masses with impeccable timing.
It’s a shame that TV is just about the worst place to see it.
Make no mistake: This three-hour epic on the life of medieval Scottish rebel William Wallace is worth a rental. Gibson the director has moved from the two-person intimacy of his 1993 debut, The Man Without a Face, to a teeming historical passion play — and, in the bargain, has delivered some of the most visceral battle scenes in recent movie memory. As Wallace’s ragtag Scots take on the English soldiers of arrogant Edward I (Patrick McGoohan), the engagements are fought with masses of bodies, gouts of blood, frighteningly lethal arrows, and huge, nasty mallets that look like hyperthyroid veal hammers. Impressively, Gibson keeps the larger maneuvers of such conflicts as 1297’s Battle of Stirling Bridge easy to follow, even as he plunges the audience into the appalling frontline carnage. But where those scenes were overpoweringly vivid on a theater screen, they can’t help but be hampered by a 27-inch TV screen. Epic films have always faced this problem on video — they become history writ small — but it seems an especial loss given the muddy, breakthrough unromanticism of Braveheart‘s battles.
Yet just as video distances a viewer from Gibson’s broader canvas, it brings the quieter, dramatic scenes into greater focus. That works just fine for Braveheart, even if the all-encompassing medieval squalor now and then approaches Monty Python territory. The director makes a dashing star, of course, but there’s something more: The playful high spirits that have always been Gibson’s calling card are present even in this Scottish storybook national hero, only gradually becoming ground down by duty and, eventually, desperation. That spark sets his William Wallace apart from such dull fellows dourly met as, say, Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood.
In other ways, Braveheart is closer to Hollywood than Birnam Wood. Wallace, leading a popular uprising against England, represents a threat to the complacent Scottish nobles led by idealistic young Robert the Bruce (Angus MacFadyen); the resulting home-court politics are portrayed superficially while swamping the movie’s back third. Meanwhile, in England, McGoohan’s icy King Edward is dealing with a nellie of a son (Braveheart‘s most controversial, politically incorrect subplot) and sending his daughter-in-law Isabelle, the lovely princess of Wales (Sophie Marceau), to parley with Wallace. Since this is a Mel Gibson movie, you can guess what happens when those two meet.
Unfortunately, there’s no historical evidence that Wallace ever met her — which is not to spoil a fine entertainment, just to mark the point at which Braveheart becomes primarily that. Much like the real William Wallace — whose legend in Scotland has grown to Superman proportions — Braveheart is good enough to make you wish that it were better. What saves it, even on TV, is the visual flourishes that show Gibson growing as a director and his knack for kinetic drama. Perhaps next time he’ll take his sword and really cut loose. B