Produced by Mel Gibson
Directed by Mel Gibson
Screenplay by Randall Wallace
Released by Paramount Pictures
In recent films, “angry white males” are generally portrayed as psychopaths, and it is, therefore, almost astonishing that even a good conservative like Mel Gibson should have chosen to make a movie on the life of William Wallace. Wallace in the late 13th century displayed all the characteristics deplored by our prevailing anti-European, anti-heterosexual male culture. The movie has evoked harsh criticism in New York because it appeals to all the things that New York despises, namely Christian devotion, populism, patriotism, home rule, self-defense, well-defined sex roles, traditional morality, and self-sacrifice for a noble cause. Hollywood’s usual condescending treatment of these virtues is refreshingly absent from Braveheart. Rather, Gibson presents Wallace and the Scots he led as old-fashioned and devout men. They formed a common, organic culture (a “nation” in the Biblical and historical sense) fighting for kin, community, and country against an imperialist aggressor (Edward I, played by Patrick McGoohan) and the twin scourges of political centralization and cultural genocide. At question was whether Scotland would be forcibly merged into a multicultural Plantagenet empire. It is a simple case of good against evil.
Braveheart is for the most part a historically accurate portrayal of Wallace’s quest for Scottish liberty; however, it does have its fictions: his romance with Princess Isabel of France, the love-starved wife of the homosexual Prince of Wales, the future Edward II; the omission of Andrew de Moray (Murray) and several other of Wallace’s notable compatriots; and the mischaracterization of Robert Bruce as a weakling. Other inaccuracies probably would go unnoticed by most viewers: for example, the fact that Wallace’s (and de Moray’s) great victory at Stirling Bridge was fought in the marshes of the river Forth beneath Stirling castle rather than on an open field. In addition, it is difficult for Hollywood actors to give convincing performances as late medieval Scots; they are simply not tough enough. Otherwise, Braveheart is pretty good history.
Apart from a few bits of gratuitous sex, the film seems aimed at Chronicles readers. The men are men, the women are women, and the in-betweens are portrayed as silly and incompetent. Gibson makes it clear that any nation ruled by Edward II will be headed for trouble. The Scots are not only brave, but they are pious as well, and Braveheart seems as much a testimonial to medieval religion as to Scottish courage. Several scenes might serve as editorials for the Latin Mass magazine, and Wallace’s Latinity is harped upon almost as much as his ferocity. Tough but pious men who speak Latin, love beautiful women, and fight for their liberty—what more could anyone want in a popular movie?
For American viewers, Braveheart offers some important historical parallels. Like the 13 colonies on the eve of the Revolution and like the antebellum South, late-medieval Scotland sought to secure and enjoy its liberty. Braveheart begins with young Wallace roaming the hills and glens of his native Selkirk Forest during the popular and prosperous reign of Alexander III (1249-86), the last of the Celtic house of Canmore. During the latter half of the 13th century, Scotland enjoyed a “Golden Age,” living in cautious peace with the ambitious Edward “Longshanks” (1272-1307) to the south. To assure continued peace, Alexander in 1278 had pledged to be Edward’s liege man, a submission that boded ill for Scotland’s future. When Alexander was killed in a riding accident in 1286, Edward I made his move against the northern kingdom. Alexander’s four-year-old granddaughter, Margaret, the maid of Norway, was in line for the succession. Edward was quick to exploit the resulting regency government. In the Treaty of Birgham (1290), the Scottish Guardian agreed to a marriage alliance between Margaret and Edward’s five-year-old son and heir. The treaty, however, left Scotland a free and independent country. No vassal of the Scottish crown would be allowed to do homage for lands held from the English king, since transnational land ownership led to divided loyalties that usually benefited the stronger English regime. In addition, the Scots were to have their own laws, and the Scottish church would be free from English interference. For the moment, then, Scotland seemed beyond Edward’s grasp.
But Edward “Longshanks,” like Abraham Lincoln, did not allow the trivialities of the law to thwart his ambitions. When little Margaret died later in 1290 and the major claimants to the throne threatened civil war, the English king was invited to determine who was to be the new Scottish king. His pick was John Balliol, who was chosen over Robert Bruce the Competitor (grandfather of the Robert Bruce), and the results were tragic for Scotland. Balliol, Edward’s vassal by virtue of his (Balliol’s) estates in northern England, was, as a contemporary noted, “a lamb in the midst of wolves.” Nonetheless, he was king, and Wallace pére and file swore fealty to him, a commitment that the pusillanimous Balliol did not deserve and one that would lead to the younger Wallace’s gruesome death in 1305.
After several years of humiliation at the hands of Edward I, including his unilateral revocation of the Treaty of Birgham, the supporters of John Balliol invaded northern England in 1296. Prior to this incursion, William Wallace had already provoked Edward, whose wrath soon would fall hard on Scotland. The English king launched a counterstroke into the Lowlands, sacking the thriving border town of Berwick, trouncing the Scottish nobility at Dunbar, and carrying to London the Stone of Scone on which the kings of Scotland were traditionally crowned. Thereafter, Scotland lay open to the ambitious and vengeful Edward. Only Wallace stood to oppose him.
William Wallace’s campaign of 1297-98 against a professional English army was a remarkable feat of arms for one untutored in the formal military arts. Wallace’s only fighting experience had come in his exploits after he was branded an outlaw for having slain several prominent Englishmen. His most noteworthy trophy was the much-despised Sheriff of Lanark, killed in retaliation for the brutal murder in 1296 of his wife, Marion Braidfoot. Like most men, Wallace was not above exacting vengeance against his foes, but his forays against the English were prompted mainly by the realization that he either would kill or be killed. After slaying the Sheriff of Lanark, Wallace used his talents as a guerrilla leader, gathering several hundred Scottish patriots from the wilds of Selkirk Forest. Soon, his various raids and ambushes escalated into a full-scale war against Edward’s army of occupation.
Though Wallace was most effective as a guerrilla leader, he is best remembered for his great victory over the English at Stirling Bridge in 1297, For much of the previous year, and with little assistance from the Scottish nobility, he had raised, equipped, and trained a populist army. This was much the same sort of fighting force fielded by the Jacobites in the 18th century and by the Southern Confederacy in the 1860’s, namely a people in arms. Lacking cavalry and siege engines, Wallace depended on infantry troops alone, whom he trained in the use of the schiltrom, a hedgehog tactical formation that used the pike to repel the fearsome Anglo-Norman men-at-arms. His success at Stirling Bridge resulted from confining these mounted knights to a place near the edge of the river Forth and throwing them into confusion with a well-conceived infantry assault. However, at Falkirk in 1298 the English army, led by Edward himself, virtually destroyed Wallace’s force with volleys of arrows at long range after the Scottish cavalry suddenly deserted.
Between Stirling Bridge and Falkirk Wallace reached his zenith, receiving a knighthood and the sole Guardianship of Scotland in the name of King John Balliol. He led several search-and-destroy missions into northern England, exacting revenge for Edward’s sacking of the Lowlands. But because he could not win the allegiance of the Scottish nobles, Wallace had little chance of long-term success against such a powerful foe. Falkirk proved that without the great lords he could not make Scotland independent. Robert Bruce’s decision to pledge fealty to Longshanks, a tactical move in his contest for the throne with Balliol and his Comyn allies, removed crucial support from Wallace’s camp. After his army was scattered at Falkirk, Wallace voluntarily relinquished the Guardianship and sailed to the continent in search of aid and a diplomatic solution to the mounting crisis in his homeland. Finding neither, he returned to Scotland in 1300 and began an ineffective guerrilla war from his old haunts of Selkirk Forest.
By then Wallace had become the “king’s enemy” and would be offered no pardon. Stirling Bridge had stung Edward’s pride, and he was determined to have his way with the upstart Scotsman. According to his biographers, Wallace could have come into the king’s peace after Falkirk; however, he refused to forsake the struggle for Scotland’s independence. In 1304 his allies—Comyn, bishops Wishart and Lamberton, James the Steward—one by one, came to Perth to submit to the English king. The spark of resistance among the Scots was temporarily extinguished. Wallace had no hope of raising another army, nor had he hope of escape. He was sacrificed to the king’s peace; not a single Scotsman of note spoke up to defend him. But within six months after Wallace’s betrayal by Graham of Menteith and his subsequent drawing-and-c[uartering at Smithfield (London) in August 1305, Bruce would kill John Comyn in Dumfries Cathedral, seize the crown of Scotland, and set off a chain of events that culminated in glorious victory over Edward II at Bannockburn in 1514.
Celtic peoples, whether in 13th-century Scotland or in the 19th-century American South, have been targets for subjugation and extermination. Our Celtic ancestors’ refusal to surrender to the tyranny of a Longshanks or a Lincoln, despite overwhelming odds, enraged their tormentors and brought ruin on Scotland and the South. In the faces of Wallace’s intrepid Celtic fighters one can recognize, across time and space, the same grim determination that moved the men in gray to follow brave Armistead at Gettysburg or impetuous Hood at bloody Franklin. They, too, like Wallace and his men, ultimately failed, but the inspiration we draw from their courage and sacrifice in the face of insurmountable difficulties is inestimable. And perhaps this legacy is why Celts have refused to present themselves as a government-protected “victim” group. It is significant that Mel Gibson has chosen to emphasize not the sufferings of the Scots but their heroic resistance to tyranny.