I watched Braveheart again today. I saw it when it was out, roughly two decades ago and I rather liked it. So as is usual for me, I read everything I could find about the history of William Wallace and Edward I. Of course, I found the film was about as far on the fiction side of “historical fiction” as a movie could get. But I left it at that and didn’t think a great deal more about it. But seeing it today really brought all of this into perspective.
The main thing that jumped out at me was how much the film turned both Wallace and Edward into caricatures of themselves. Both were smart and even learned men. Wallace spent the last several years of his life on what turned out to be a hopeless diplomatic effort to get France and Rome to intervene in the Scottish conflict. And Edward, cruel as he was to the Scottish nobility (And the English nobility for that matter!) was hugely important in reforming common law. He also set up the first permanent English Parliament. So these were warriors, but not evil by the mores of their time.
The worst part of the movie is at the end. Wallace has been captured and if only he will admit to treason, they will kill him quickly. He will not. So they are going to torture him to death. So the queen comes to him and gives him some opium to be able to deal with the pain. But he refuses it. And then the executioner cuts off his genitals and even then, Wallace yells a defiant, “Freedom!” Really, the whole thing is just too much.
What really happened is that Edward wanted to send a message. Wallace had been thoroughly vilified in England. Like many other military leaders at many other times, Wallace used his disadvantage as a smaller force to his advantage by using what we would now call guerrilla tactics. From the English perspective, this was not cricket! I’m sure they saw it very much the way we see the use of improvised explosive devices and suicide bombs. So it isn’t surprising that Edward acted as he did to the applause of his people.
Of course, we know that people don’t respond to torture as is presented in Braveheart. For one thing, the English cut open his gut, pulled out his intestines, and set them on fire. I don’t think you yell “freedom” when that happens; if you yell anything, it is not words but screams of pain — Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and all. But the torture scene is not there because of Wallace. It doesn’t really matter. Wallace is important because of what he did before, not because of his execution. The torture is there because Mel Gibson is a very troubled man who clearly gets some kind of sexual thrill from torture. (That puts The Passion of the Christ into a new perspective, don’t it?!)
As it is, the film ends rather strangely. After Wallace is killed, the film jumps ahead a decade to when Robert the Bruce beats the weaker King Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn. So the Scots get their independent monarchy again. That would be a fine way to end the film if Bruce had been the main character. The way the script reads, it is more like a revenge tragedy where Wallace gets back at England for killing his wife. But Gibson wants to provide some kind of thematic layer on the film about the importance of the Scottish people having their very own royalty to oppress them. I suspect that this discontinuity was imposed upon screenwriter Randall Wallace. Gibson has been known to push his own unfortunate fetishes on other writers.
I don’t have a problem with movies that take large liberties with history. But if one is going to show a story about such people, it makes most sense to at least be true to who they were. Edward comes off as a psychopath who cares only for power. Wallace comes off as a man only interested revenge who only wraps himself in Scottish independence in pursuit of that revenge. And in the end, it is all about Gibson’s own obsessions with pain endurance.