Braveheart tackles the ambitious task of retelling the legend of William Wallace (Mel Gibson), a Scottish warrior who led a revolt against the English occupants of Scotland in the early part of the 14th Century. After his secret love (Catherine McCormack) is killed by English noblemen occupying the Scot's village, Wallace begins a rebellion that eventually leads all the way to King Longshanks (Partrick McGoohan) of England. The story is not a historical retelling of the real William Wallace, but an account of the mythic figure of William Wallace, the larger-than-life Scottish hero. Mel Gibson is at his charismatic best as Wallace. His presence on screen conveys every bit of the folk legend that Wallace has become. It might not be an accurate portrait of a real historical figure, but it is an exquisite visualization of a fabled warrior. The movie is, after all, based on the epic poem written by Blind Harry in the 15th Century. The choice to treat the story romantically rather than realistically is treated as a negative by some, but it is actually a brilliant decision by Gibson and screenwriter Randall Wallace. The romantic approach opens the film up to more emotion, more drama, and more action than a straightforward docu-drama would. Braveheart relishes in the romance of a time and place. The story is massive in scope, and it plays to all those time-tested notes of classic Hollywood adventures. Braveheart is a sentimentalized version of William Wallace, no doubt, but it is also surprisingly authentic. From the muddy village huts and crude stone castles to the close-quarter violence of the battle scenes, Braveheart is a legitimately unvarnished look into the cold, cruel world of Medieval Scotland. This marriage of idealism and realism strikes at the heart of what makes Braveheart so special. It works just as well as a tear-jerker and an action adventure.
One of the standouts in Braveheart are the battle scenes, which Mel Gibson stages with tremendous scale and violence. The action is appropriately chaotic, but the way Gibson and editor Steven Rosenblum cut between the indecipherable mayhem and punctuative killshots gives the battles orientation. The violence is effective. Every brutal blow is wince-inducingly severe. This is not typical Hollywood sword and sandals action, this is real, visceral action, and it carries a purpose. Braveheart brilliantly captures the strategy, as well as the barbarism inherent in Medieval warfare.
Braveheart is a fantastic action epic, but it outclasses those trappings. There have been many historical epics that have come and gone before and after Braveheart, but precious few of them can compete with this film's craftsmanship. What Gibson has achieved here is almost miraculous. He takes what might be groaning clichés in the hands of a lesser director, and injects them with a poignancy that they frankly do not deserve. We get the obligatory love stories, the death scenes, the speeches, the evil kings and the treacherous allies. It's all been done before, but never with such unbridled passion behind the camera. The characters are archetypes, but they show what influence a great director and great actors can have on a character. The supporting cast is so filled with personality, you just cannot help but root for what could have easily become two-dimensional placeholders. James Cosmo's Campbell, Brenden Gleeson's Hamish, and Sophie Marceau's compassionate Princess Isabelle are excellent, and Angus MacFadyen as Robert the Bruce does Oscar-worthy work as a man who's loyalty balances precariously between the English and the Scottish sides of the conflict.
James Horner's music may be the under-appreciated key to Braveheart's success. The mournful bagpipes and spirited Scottish melodies of Horner's score are downright essential for the film's emotional climaxes, of which there are many. When those climaxes hit, they hit hard, and that is thanks in large part to the music. Horner's score carries the same earnest spirit of the rest of the production. The music of Braveheart is precisely as big and bold as the story demands.
Braveheart is a masculine story, a simple-minded tale of heroes and villains executed with brute force. Of course it is an exciting action movie, we might have expected that from the star of Mad Max and Lethal Weapon, but the real discovery in Braveheart is its beauty. For all its violence and primitive mayhem, Braveheart never lets go of its absolutely rousing grandeur. It doesn't just allow you to look on it with appreciation, it demands it. Braveheart is cathartic in the way it overpowers you with emotion. There are shots in this film that nearly brought me to tears by their sheer beauty alone. When the story, the characters, the images (filmed by cinematographer John Toll), and the music crescendo, it hits like a wave of overwhelming gratitude. The admirable thing about Braveheart is how Gibson and company stick to their guns. They don't conceal the drama or play it subtly. Gibson allows the tragedies, the treachery, and the triumphs of the William Wallace legend to be extravagant. The story is sprawling, the romances are passionate, and the emotions are let out with uninhibited fury. Braveheart is a man's movie, a brutal action epic that will satisfy any red-blooded man's desire for violence and carnage. The remarkable thing is that Braveheart is also a movie that moved me like few have before.