Enough had been said in the last 21 years about how terribly inaccurate Braveheart is. It’s a well-trodden path for critics to tread – especially those even more pedantic than usual – and it’s not really that interesting any more. This is a movie, not a textbook. It’s meant to be entertaining, at least to a certain extent. (On a separate note, I was reading one of Mary Renault’s novels recently, The Mask of Apollo, which suffers from being so historically accurate that there is only one named female character in the entire 400-odd page novel. The Greeks were sexist but it makes for weaker novels.)
I’m not planning on griping with historicity and Mel Gibson’s atrocious accent, nor with the ridiculous depiction of the “evil” English (not his last offence either: see The Patriot). English filmgoers ought to have a thick skin by now, and expect to be the bad guys in Hollywood when there are no Ruskies or North Koreans to be found.
Instead, I want to point out the two things that make Braveheart the ham-fisted ham-fest it is: the fetishization of Freedom (with a big F) and the hyper-masculine framework by which the film judges its own characters.
Because it is a fetish. American audiences love the idea of freedom fighters, defending their values, be they democracy and homeland (the justification for the jingoism of American Sniper, say) or cultural expression and pride, which is the case in Braveheart. It’s an irony that has been intrinsic to Hollywood since movies were first made there for profit: the industry that represents the lowest common denominator – the status quo – and avoids real controversy at all costs loves to tell the story of an underdog who challenges the establishment.
Thus the plucky Scots beat the more powerful English in the end because they are fighting for the ideal of Freedom, rather than just the right to live in tiny stone huts in filthy glens unmolested. But more importantly, they win because they are more manly than the English.
One of the easiest ways to demonstrate this is to think about the women in the film. William Wallace’s wife Murron dies off-screen after she resists the English soldiers who try to rape her. What is important about this is that they don’t rape her. She is killed, but her virginal purity (or at least, the equivalent fact that the Wallace-Mel Gibson composite is the only man to have shagged her) is intact. Therefore Wallace-Mel has not been cuckolded by the English, even as he takes his bloody revenge.
Compare that to how he steals Sophie Marceau’s Isabella of France from the clutches of the camp, mincing Prince Edward and by extension, his enemy Longshanks. He seduces her with his directness, his nobility, and his masculine pride. Here is a real man for her, not like the Englishmen who wear silk and fight with longbows rather than claymores. Wallace-Mel steals the beautiful Sophie away and makes love to her by firelight, doing what the English could never do to his woman by force; his woman whose death has already put her out of their reach forever (her death also conveniently allows him to have sex with the most attractive character in the film without coming across as a dickhead; top marks for creative thinking, Mr Gibson).
The women are just pawns in a film that is a thinly veiled comparison of manhoods (literally, at a couple of points). The very spark that begins the whole war with the English is the non-existent prima nocta law that lets English landowners sleep with Scottish brides.
Thus begins the dick-waving competition. The flip side of this focus on masculinity is that the film becomes increasingly homophobic. Not only does Longshanks detest his son and his son’s Pre-Raphaelite-esque lover Piers Gaveston (and, to be fair, Edward II was probably homosexual – this bit is not a construction) but the film itself detests them, and finds nothing redeeming in them as characters at all. Their being gay is used as much as a signifier of their moral repugnance as the English troops’ general perverse desire for pure Scottish women. There are absolutely no notes of redemption for the gay characters in Braveheart; as far as the filmmakers are concerned, Longshanks is right to sneer at his son for being weak and effeminate. It’s uncomfortably one-dimensional.
The final victory over the English by the manly Scots, of course, is the fact that Isabella reveals to a dying Longshanks that she is pregnant with Wallace’s child. They might have killed him, but he has supplanted the male line of the English, so the joke’s on them (must be where Edward III got all that manliness from).
Freedom is restored to the Scots, as is the unchallenged possession of their wives and their status as the manliest people to live in hovels with earth smeared over their faces in the British Isles. The overwhelming superiority – technological, economic and in terms of manpower – of the invading force has been repelled.
What’s not to satisfy a freedom-loving cinema-goer? Perhaps only the fact that the vast majority of people would not recognize American values – or Hollywood values by association – in those plucky underdog heroes who bloodied English noses, but with the evil expansionist England itself.
So, Hollywood, if you’re reading this: stop pretending to be the mavericks and the rebels, because in blockbusters like this you peddle a silly view of the world that would already have been outdated in 1280.