Braveheart‘s Torture Problem

BraveheartI 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.

6 thoughts on “Braveheart‘s Torture Problem

  1. I guess we saw different movies. I saw Braveheart the classic, full of romance, love, heartbreak, courage, daring, war, revenge and love of country. It’s not a biopic. Its a breathtaking epic. I realize its a movie, and so will embellish the truth and present things that might not be possible in real life. That’s why its a movie and not a dull history book.
    I saw nothing outrageous during Wallace’s torture scene… I did look it up online after. Seemed fairly in line with what happened so I’m not sure why the need to suggest this was due to some personal flaw of Gibson’s. As to the refusal of an unnamed drug, I saw that as an exhibition of the man’s personal strength and desire to stay true to his goals. It enhanced the story for me.
    Likewise, the personal opinions of "why" things were included in the film (words like fetish and sexual thrill) clearly made this less of a review of the film and more about something personal you have going against Gibson. As did unfounded implications that gibson strong armed the writer. Is there a factual basis for these comments? No? I always have a problem with people presenting as fact something that is nothing more than a personal biased opinion. It obscures reality and makes me wonder what else is unreliable in their comments.
    I adore Braveheart. It moves me. It makes me laugh and cry and cheer. And based on the uptick on twitter whenever AMC shows it on TV, a great many other people see it the same way. Maybe you should relax and just watch it for what it is… a MOVIE.

  2. Mel is also part of a right wing schism of the Catholic church. They don’t acknowledge Vatican 2, and have an explicit endorsement of patriarchy that resembles the Dominionist movement. So, I do not think Mel made this movie out of his admiration for the Scots. He just hates the English. Ultra right wing Catholics hate England because England broke up the church. I have in-laws who believe this stuff. Fortunately I don’t see them often. After Braveheart, we got it’s re-tread in different period costume The Patriot. I used to wonder if Mel’s next project would be a Zulu or Sepoy Mutiny epic. There are great stories to be told there, but Mel became fixated on the Jews instead. That and screaming at his ex wife and business partners. I think Gawker still has those up.

  3. @readsalot – The article is not a review of the film. I thought I was rather clear about that. I also said that it worked well as a film. Regarding my discussion of Gibson, that was not specific to this movie. The man has issues. For example, he had [i]Payback[/i] rewritten to put more torture in the beginning. There are many other examples from his career.

    The point of my article is that rather than show two heroic men as they were, Gibson wedges them into an ill-fitting box that says far more about his tortured soul than it does about them. This is part of a long line of articles I’ve written about how films increasingly devalue actual heroism by turning characters into demigods.

    You are allowed to like the film! Gibson is a fine director. But his obsessions are pernicious.

  4. @Lawrence – I don’t get the Vatican 2 thing. Scalia is the same way, driving a hundred miles out of his way each Sunday to go to a mass in Latin. The whole thing shows a shocking level of fear on these people’s parts. The terrible thing is that both Gibson and Scalia are smart and talented guys. They both seem to only admire masculinity in the most stereotypical way. It reminds me of in [i]The Amateurs[/i], where the closeted gay guy (played by Ted Danson) tries to pass by acting like a "real man" stereotype. I just want to tell these guys to calm down. The most manly thing you can do is just be comfortable with who you are.


    • Yes, it really does ruin the film. What was done to Wallace was truly horrific. But it doesn’t need to be in the film. And it certainly doesn’t need the emphasis. As I said: Gibson is a troubled man.

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