BRAVEHEART: “…Not Every Man Really Lives.”

January 18, 2011

In 1995 Mel Gibson directed and stared in the five academy awards winning Braveheart, a movie celebrating the legend of William Wallace. Wallace is a 13th century Scottish hero who rebelled against the English occupation of Scotland. Braveheart is based on the novel of the same name by Randall Wallace, no relation to William, who also wrote the screenplay. Released at the height of Gibson’s popularity, it was a hit at the box office and received both high praise and high criticism. MaryAnn Johanson of FLICK FILOSOPHER raves “Braveheart is history the way it should be told, full of sex and treachery and battle and passion…” and Bob Thompson of JAM! MOVIES says “Mel Gibson’s Braveheart is probably not good history, and it’s no documentary — but it sure makes great Hollywood cinema,” while Paula Nechak of FILM.COM offers the biting review of “Braveheart opts to turn cowardly, settling for the magnification of Gibson’s idol status, forfeiting the complex, more nebulous magnificence of the real Sir William Wallace and virtually excising the strategic brilliance of Robert the Bruce” (rotten Although disagreeing about what is more important, the message of the critics consistently offer us is this– Great movie! Not so great history. 

But what is history? Is it simply the telling of tales from the past, or is it just what can be proven by factual information? If Gibson and Wallace had made a movie completely faithful to the factual information we have of William Wallace, it would be a short film. Our history depends upon the perspective of those who hand it down to us. Without much factual documentation of Wallace’s character—no diary’s, no letters, nothing to offer us a clue of what his political or life philosophies might have been—it leaves open a large space for speculation and for legend to grow. William Wallace was certainly a great man, achieving much for a commoner who lived in a society ruled by the laws of feudalism, but who this man is depends upon whoever is telling us the story.

Braveheart begins with a narrator who, we discover at the end, is Robert the Bruce. He says, “I shall tell you of William Wallace– historians from England will say I am a liar. But history is written by those who have hanged heroes.” England’s power over Scotland is clear in history; England considered the northern part of the island a vassal state and William Wallace a rebel. In the Lanercost Chronicle, written during the reign of Edward I of England (known as Longshanks), Wallace is depicted as a brutal outlaw who “wasted all the land, committing arson, pillage and murder.” It “records” the atrocity of Wallace skinning an English official and making a baldrick for his sword (Morton 25). When the English defeated Wallace’s army at Falkirk the chronicle records a variety of English verse celebrating the victory and speaking against Wallace, including:
          Welsh William being made a noble
          Staightway the Scots become ignoble.
          Treason and slaughter, arson and raid,
          By suff’ring and misery must be repaid.
          (Morton 26)

But it is precisely this kind violent brutality– from the English—that was supposed to cause Wallace and his Scottish supporters to rise up and rebel. In the movie, Longshanks revives an ancient law which allows English nobles to sleep with Scottish brides on their wedding nights in order to “breed the Scottish out.” Though I couldn’t find any proof of this unlikely law, it is almost certain that the occupying English nobles and their armies were completely brutal, abusive and oppressive to the Scots. However, it is also just as likely that Wallace’s forces were just as brutal when they were able to sack Northern English cities. Raping and pillaging were simply a part of medieval warfare and occupation.

The brutality of the battle scenes in Braveheart is one of the movie’s claims to fame. Depicting the brutal reality of medieval warfare, Gibson doesn’t waste any film portraying a battle of chivalry, but gives us the in-your-face gruesome reality of 13th century warfare. Where the movie may fall short in historical fact concerning its characters, it does show an accurate perspective of medieval culture. Aside from Wallace, his woman, and Robert the Bruce, every one of the Scots looked like they belonged in a culture without the luxuries of indoor plumbing and electricity. Most of the English we see are among the high court of the king, and despite their glamour, they do match the images of the royal courtesans that have survived from that time. Certainly the peasantry and commoners were dirty enough and lacked the glamour of Hollywood. All the clothing matched the social status and culture of its wearers. Wallace, probably being a country gentleman landowner, would not have had much more than the stone house with a thatched roof as portrayed in the movie. Nobles possessing castles surrounded by wooden shacks were not emphasized, but this accurate imagery was present throughout the movie and gave the movie an authentic picture of 13th century Scotland. One cultural aspect that Mel Gibson borrowed from an earlier period of the Scots was the use of blue paint during warfare. This added to the cinematic effect and helped depict the legendary status of Wallace, but the use of blue paint by warriors dates back centuries before the time of Wallace (History Channel).

So what do we really know of Sir William Wallace? What are the facts and what is legend in Gibson’s epic movie? Edward Longshanks inherited the throne of England about the time William Wallace was born and he died only two years after Wallace was executed. Scotland lost their independence and throne to England while Wallace was still a boy, but it is unlikely that he was personally present to witness any betrayal of Longshanks to Scottish nobles. There is no evidence that Wallace was an orphan. Young William, however, would have grown up under the oppression of the English and could quite possibly have grown to possess a hatred for them. In 1295, when Longshanks demanded military support from his vassal, the Scottish king, in his war with France; the nobles divested their king and sided with the French. This provoked an English invasion and the installment of an occupational government, when the worst of English abuse and oppression probably began. Two years later in 1297 William Wallace made his first appearance in historical records for the burning of Lanark, an English stronghold. It was, in fact, in retaliation for the murder of Marion Bradfute, but it is not known whether she was his mistress or his wife, which provides us with the intriguing possibility that they were secretly married. With only thirty men Wallace took Lanark and slew Hazelrig, the sheriff who murdered Marion, and burnt the English stronghold to the ground. When news of this rebellion spread many more Scots joined with Wallace and he soon had a substantial army under his command.

Wallace met the English army later that year at the Battle of Sterling Bridge. This is Wallace’s greatest military achievement, the Scots virtually slaughtering the English. Key in Wallace’s victory, however, was the bridge the English had to cross to get to the Scots. Only a small number of English soldiers were able to cross at a time and became easy prey for Wallace’s men. The bridge, however, is curiously missing in the movie. As it turns out Gibson’s budget was diminishing and he couldn’t afford to recreate the bridge and the landscape required. It is apparently cheaper to film a bloody battle on a field (History Channel). Taking advantage of the momentum of victory, Wallace decided to take his army south and occupy much of the Northern English territory.

As a result of his victory Wallace was knighted and made Guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland. However, Graeme Morton says, “His knighthood appears to be self-anointed, but accepted and commonly used by others. His appointment as Guardian in 1297 is more sure, not the least because the chronicles record his resignation (or removal) from this position after defeat at Falkirk in 1298” (19).  The Battle of Falkirk is Wallace’s most crushing defeat. It is unsure whether or not the Scottish nobles betrayed Wallace, but it is well established that he didn’t have support from any of them. Longshanks, concerned by Wallace invading Northern England, met him with the full force of the English army. Wallace was overwhelmed and was forced to retreat.

In the movie Wallace had traveled to France and Rome with his uncle while he was still a youth. In reality his trip abroad was caused by his defeat at Falkirk. The English put a price on his head and in 1299 he fled to France to seek assistance from King Philip IV, and possibly went to Rome from there. In 1304 Wallace is found fighting again for Scotland, but he is betrayed and captured by Sir John de Menteith, a Scottish noble. Robert the Bruce was already fighting by this time and would not have been involved in the deception, however innocently, at all.

Not surprisingly, the most detailed event passed down in the life of Wallace is his execution. Most sources agree that Wallace denied the charge of treason because he had never sworn fealty to Longshanks, so he was tortured and beheaded. It might just be legend that he was quartered and sent to “the four corners of England,” with his head put upon a pole over the Thames River; however, that would not be an unusual action for a medieval king desiring to dissuade any more rebellions. The rest of the story, narrated to us in the movie by Robert the Bruce is pretty much how it all turned out. The Bruce continued the rebellion, and dealing with a much weaker king in Edward II, after Longshanks death, he eventually won independence for Scotland and crowned himself King of Scotland.

Any other details in Braveheart are based on legend, rather than historical fact, except for Wallace’s relationship with Isabella, Edward II’s wife. The movie implies that the queen will gain the English throne much easier and sooner than it actually happened in history; likewise, the movie implies that Edward III is actually the offspring of Wallace. This seems to be Mel Gibson or Randall Wallace’s own addition to the myth and legend of William Wallace. But it wasn’t pulled out of thin air. It is based on a story from the fifteenth century epic poem, The Acts and Deeds of Sir William Wallace by a minstrel named Blind Harry (Medieval Outlaws 275). In it the queen, not the Isabella of France, visits Wallace and appeals to him to end his rebellion. Wallace does show her honor and respect, but there is nothing that suggests any kind of emotional or sexual relationship between them. Blind Harry’s identity is as elusive as his subject’s identity is, yet his poem was once considered to be a reliable source, if embellished, of history. He followed what we do know of Wallace very closely, but some of the valiant deeds attributed to Wallace by Harry have been found to have been “borrowed” from other legends of other heroes, discrediting events described that might be original but are otherwise unknown to history.

If the critics’ main complaint of Braveheart is the movie’s lack of historical accuracy, it is a weak one. The story of William Wallace is nothing but myth and legend. The historian J.Fergusson says that “To try to write a biography of William Wallace from historical sources only as distinct from traditional ones is like trying to restore a very old family portrait which several painters have tried to improve…The truth is that the original portrait, which family tradition tells us was a very fine piece of work, has been invisible for generations, and none of us has ever seen it” (Morton 62). There can be no denying that William Wallace was a great man, even a hero in his own time, but there is no way of knowing who he really was. This leaves the door wide open for myth and legend to be born and to grow. If we did know Wallace, he would never be able to live up to the standards that have been placed on his character. But myth he has become, and like any great myth, it is open to being retold and reinterpreted through the succeeding generations and following cultures. Its revisions depend upon what is important to the culture in which the story is told. Blind Harry presents to us a Wallace who is closer to Hercules than a mere mortal man. This type of character was glorified in the 15th century. Braveheart continues the myth through the cult of Hollywood and gives us a completely American movie. One man who just wants to raise kids and crops with his wife in peace gets pushed over the edge and must take his revenge by fighting for truth, justice and the Scottish way? Wallace’s talk of freedom and independence are closer related to an American Revolutionist. No doubt, Gibson’s speeches in Braveheart and his movie The Patriot could probably be interchangeable. But who cares? Braveheart is a great movie reflecting the sentiments of our time, and the character of William Wallace is a true inspiration to any man. He is the ideal for our culture, he can not be lived up to, but that is the purpose of the myth and legend; to offer us the ideal, to give us an example of something to look up to and strive for.

The most famous quote from the movie, “Every man dies, not every man really lives,” is ironic in that the William Wallace of myth and legend never really existed, but the ideas of freedom in Braveheart do live on in the heart of every man. Hasn’t this desire for “freedom” been the root of man’s struggle throughout all history?

Peter L Richardson
Summer 2003

Braveheart. Directed by Mel Gibson. Paramount Pictures, 1995.

History vs. Hollywood. The History Channel, production.

Medieval Outlaws: Ten Tales in Modern English. Ed. Thomas H. Ohlgren. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 1998.

William Wallace: Man and Myth. Graeme Morton. Stroud: Sutton, 2001.

Pete’s Class Notes.


3 Responses to “BRAVEHEART: “…Not Every Man Really Lives.””

  1. Steph Says:

    Enjoyed this piece man. I didn’t much like the movie myself. But I do enjoy a good legend and epic. Thanks for sharing.

    • peterrock12 Says:

      Thanks, Steph! I personally think the “truth” found in myth and legend is just as valuable as the “facts” we need to sort out in history. Often more valuable…

  2. Brandon Harrison Says:

    i did not like this article i did not want the movie

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