“I always felt that if I had super-power, I wouldn’t immediately run out to the store and buy a costume.” –Stan Lee

Many generations have asked the question; does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? During World War II a relatively new American art form gained considerable popularity. The first postwar decade, 1945 – 1954, brought what is considered to be the comic book’s Golden Age. Comic books grew out of the comic strips of the newspapers; they were a more complex and longer version of the stories in “the funnies” and for the most part had lost their comedic aspect; their plots consisted largely of war stories, detective stories, westerns and superhero folklore. Though comic books had been around since the 1930’s, they reached the height of their popularity during World War II, and it lasted almost a decade after the war had ended. Their demise could be attributed to a combination of the rise of television and campaigns led by concerned moralists criticizing the content; they claimed comics were too violent and too sexual for the targeted age group of children. It is easy to attribute this moral campaign to the hypersensitive atmosphere of the 1950s, but there was obviously something appealing to the public about comics. With sales as high as 60 million comics per month, it is apparent that more than just children and adolescents were buying them. If the content of these comics struck such a cord with the American public, it is safe to say that they were speaking to that generation. Could it also be said that comics are a reflection, an imitation, of 1950s American thought and perception of life? William Savage, Jr., author of Commies, Cowboys, and Jungle Queens; Comic Books and America, 1945-1954, thinks so.

According to Savage, historians have, for the most part, ignored the impact of comic books on the postwar generation. Savage believes that the content of comics provide important insight into American cultural views of that time (ix). During the late forties and early fifties there were three major issues that loomed over and seemed to threaten the very fabric of American society; the atom bomb, communism and war; Americans particularly sought ways to understand and rationalize World War II and the Korean War. Savage explores how comics responded to these issues and attempts to understand the culture of the time through the comic-book response.

It is no question that the atomic bomb was heaviest on everyone’s mind after Hiroshima. At first for Americans it was a source of joy. The War had been successfully ended, and God had given the most powerful weapon on Earth to America; there was no question to her superiority now. Comic books consistently echoed the sentiment. Savage explains that “the comic book contribution to the folklore centered on the idea of a benign Bomb, a friendly Bomb, a Bomb that would never hurt anybody unless we willed it–and certainly it would never hurt us” (17). When the government and other advocates of atomic energy sought ways to minimize the dangers presented by an atomic age and emphasize the positives aspects, one medium they turned to was the comic book. Comic books were used to explain the concept of fusion and to talk about the benefits of atomic energy (Boyer 296). Apart from any governmental influence, superheroes in comics were able to use atomic bombs for very frivolous means such as traveling the blast wave to get to a far away destination. In short, “comic-book[‘s]…reinforced the idea that atomic explosions could mean fun for kids” (Savage 17).

Comic books had long been preaching American patriotism, yet even after the Russians had developed an atomic bomb of their own, it didn’t seem to affect the comic book response that we were still the best and most powerful nation. By this time war comics presented both American militaries and her enemies as well equipped with outrageous atomic weapons, ranging from bombs to rifles. When America used her atomic power, it would always wipe out their enemies, yet when Americans were subjected to atomic explosions, they seemed strangely ineffective. In one story that Savage cites, two Americans are protected by a large tree from an atomic blast (18). Sometimes comics would take a more realistic approach and superheroes would counsel the bad guys and, by default, the reader against the use of atomic warfare; “neither Wonder Woman nor any other World War II survivor could come around to advocating its use, since a second employment of such a horrible weapon would weaken our moral posture.” It showed the growing concerns of our ability for world destruction; “the comic-book response to the unthinkable…indicated the extent to which lots of people were indeed thinking about the unthinkable” (Savage 20&21). Savage also comments, however, that these little lessons were “infrequent” in comics “because, on the whole, American culture simply refused to make the Bomb an unhappy, unpleasant, or unappealing thing” (23).

If comics refused to express much concern over atomic warfare, one thing they did seem to perceive as a threat was world domination of the communists. That is not to say that the Commies had any chance of beating us; as Savage explains; “Comic books were…consistently assuming the swift and inevitable downfall of all Communist states, cells, and individuals…[they] boldly stated that our people, being bigger, smarter, and tougher to start with, subdued their people every time” (37). Yet comic books did not completely escape the atmosphere of McCarthyism. Just about anybody could turn out to be a communist traitor. One series followed the actions of T-Man, a group of secret agents who investigated and foiled the attempts of communist domination. Displayed on the first page of the “Red Murder Incorporated” issue is the statement “For as world domination is the Communist goal, so wholesale slaughter is their means of reaching it!” Clearly no communist was capable of any good intentions. In T-Man anyone could turn out to be a communist spy. In one story, “Ring of Doom,” their own double agents were actually spies for the Soviets who were systematically killing the agents of T-Man. In another, “The Code of Death,” a lyricist who translated American songs into Chinese was planting communist code into the songs which were broadcast over the radio.

Though superheroes moved to the background in the communist struggle, cowboys were still called upon to unearth communist plots on American soil at times; however, for the most part the plight of communism was left to the military, the FBI or various secret agent groups. With heroes who were simply normal men doing their patriotic duty, comics began to restrain themselves to plots that were more realistic and more dependant on historical fact. They attempted to explain current events and even the origins of the conditions of the world. They therefore began to have an opinion of current world issues. Comics taught that the Russian people were not bad, but were themselves victims of the minority group running the government. Savage explains that “Such interpretations indicated that comic books were trying harder than ever before to inform American readers about the origins of current problems;” however, “comic books oversimplified for the sake of the argument no less than for the preferences of the market. Comic-book interpretations ignored vast swatches of inconvenient history” (39). Comic books still gave the American public the heroes and the hope they were looking for in the beginnings of a Cold War, but this drift towards realism went full current once the Korean War broke out.

During World War II, comic book plots were still very black and white. It was good verses evil and good always prevailed triumphantly. Though few superheroes made it overseas, there were some who were allowed to fight for the Allies. Captain America, in particular, was a super soldier created for the War. The enemy was inherently evil, Germans and Japanese were made to look like devils (Savage 10). By the time of the Korean War the rules had changed dramatically. Comic books, explains Savage, “in [their] comparison to their accounts of World War II, what they presented about Korea was awash in ambiguity and uncertainty” (51). Political issues were now much more complex and the darker side of war was revealed psychologically and graphically.

Superheroes did not venture into this war. It was left up to the common soldier in all of his frailty and weaknesses. “Comic books portrayed the American fighting man in a new and troubling light. He was frequently brave and sometimes cowardly…his character was probably not without serious flaw…he had a better than even chance to wind up dead” (Savage 52). Though it was the Commies who usually fought with cruel and cold tactics, sometimes you had to fight fire with fire, and our men would be forced to be just as cruel and unfeeling. Comics spoke frankly about the stress war put on a man and graphically portrayed our men dying in full color as frequently as the enemy; “Death was the thing that separated comic books of the Korean era from those of World War II” (Savage 53). In one story call “Ambush,” a group of soldiers walk into a trap and they all end up dead. The story ends with the quote: “No, not a happy story…but it happens just that way sometimes…no wonder Gen. Sherman said ‘War is Hell!’” 

Not a happy story indeed. Children were writing and complaining that the stories were too sad, however; the editors simply replied that they were representing the reality of the war. Apparently the servicemen agreed; they were writing and praising the comics for being so realistic (Savage 57). This, and the addition of “’pinup’ pages of girly art, suggest[ed] something about the intended audience for the books” (Savage 59). Savage sums it up for us:

From the perspective of the mid-1950s, World War II was a safer place for comic books to be–and perhaps a safer place for their readers. World War II was more satisfying to contemplate than Korea, because it had been a declared war that ended in clear victory. In the popular mind, ambiguity had not characterized the American response to World War II. An evil enemy had been decisively defeated. None of that could be said about Korea… (Savage 59).

And since comics were now trying to give the real story, they simply could not give us a safer, happier ending.

By their very nature, however, comic books could not be completely realistic. A comic is a medium of entertainment, and real life is simply not entertaining without some sort of embellishment. Savage says that “comic books took cues from reality, and then engaged in necessary acts of distortion. Thus,” he adds, “comic books tended to define America as much by what they did not present as by what they consistently offered to their audiences” (75). In other words, the truth, justice and American way that comic book heroes fought for was not necessarily truly just for everyone in America. Just as those who were comfortable in the postwar decade tended to overlook this little piece of hypocrisy, so did the comic books that they bought and read. Two particular groups who did not share equal rights were African Americans and women. The fact that comic books were lacking any black heroes and rarely had any female heroes gives us insight into their second class status in 1950s American society. Savage explains that “to judge by comic-book representations of the period, there was no civil rights movement, nascent or otherwise, because there were hardly any black people in America, and the few in residence were perfectly content with bowing and scraping to the white folks who employed them as menials” (75). Women had a few exceptions to the rule, like Little Lulu, who was very much a feminist (Savage 79), and Wonder Woman, who was “invented by a psychologist to serve as role model for little girls” (Savage 77). But for the most part, women were simply minor characters falling for the male hero who consistently saved them from trouble. When women were the main heroine, they were usually scantily clad “Jungle Queens” whose looks were their main assets; if they possessed any authority or higher capacity over men, it was only men of the appropriate race or the bad guys. Again Savage explains; “Criteria for male conduct in comic books were established…by men–the same ones who established criteria for the appearance and behavior of comic-book women” (78). 

Savage concludes his book by reviewing the many aspects in which comic books reflect and reveal the culture of the postwar decade in America. There can be no denying that comics give us considerable insight into the nature of American thought at the time, but it is important to remember that they at best only represent the ideas of a portion of society. They are only a piece of the puzzle; we need to look at other productions of society as well to get the whole picture. Asking about art imitating life is like asking about the chicken and the egg. We know that a society is defined by its culture and the culture produces art which in turn influences the society and promotes some kind of change. It is an endless cycle, but it is well worth looking at what societies produced at particular moments in time in order to gain a better understanding of the culture.

Peter Richardson

Boyer, Paul. “Dagwood to the Rescue: The Campaign to Promote the ‘Peaceful Atom’” By the Bomb’s Early Light – American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. New York: Pantheon, 1985.

Savage, Jr., William W. Commies, Cowboys, and Jungle Queens – Comic Books and America, 1945-1954. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.


Children’s needs should come before our rights.

from the 1983 movie, Mr. Mom:
Jack Butler: My brain is like oatmeal. I yelled at Kenny today for coloring outside the lines! Megan and I are starting to watch the same TV shows, and I’m liking them! I’m losing it.
Caroline: Honey, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve been there myself, alright?
Jack Butler: Well, if you’re so unhappy, why don’t you say something about it?
Caroline: Because I wasn’t unhappy! Look, maybe I was a little confused, maybe I was a little frustrated, but I knew what I was doing was important, because it means something to raise human beings. What saw me through was pride.

Before the Feminist Movement was in full swing there were many unrealistic expectations for women, some that forced them to try to achieve impossible standards and some that denied their abilities, particularly in the areas of work, fashion, homemaking and marriage. In Nancy A. Walker’s book Women’s Magazines 1940-1960 she has reprinted many articles from and about women of the time. One from Ladies Home Journal in 1944 is entitled “You Can’t Have a Career and Be a Good Wife.”  The author laments that it is no wonder that couples get divorced when the wife goes off to work. Women were expected to stay home, and if they wanted a career, they were selfish. Of course, ideally, it is best for children to have a parent in the house; especially during their youngest years, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Women were always expected to look and smell their best no matter what the circumstances, perhaps the best expression of this is Elinor Goulding Smith’s mocking article “How to Look Halfway Decent,” in which she uses humor to counter the ridiculous expectation that a woman’s best asset is her looks. Our modern perspective of these articles makes many of them seem humorous (or maybe horrifying if you’re a woman); however, there is some real wisdom we can glean from a time when strong families were still the norm in America. Apart from some radical opinions, many articles on marriage had good advice for women. Most spoke about how to reach the ideal for trying to please your husband while acknowledging that women simply can’t always achieve that ideal, but they should at least hold it in mind and make the effort. The problem, like a California resident complained to Redbook in the 1945 column, “What’s on Your Mind?,” is that no one focuses on the woman’s needs and what the man can do to please her. Even in the article, “What Makes Wives Dissatisfied?,” women are given validation for their frustrations, but then the burden of change is still on them to fix their man; only submissively of course (in other words manipulatively). In my opinion, a husband and wife should look at their marriage as a partnership, each valuing the strengths of the other, while forgiving the weaknesses of the other, and mutually submitting to each other’s needs. When technology advanced with the mass production of new appliances, women began to have it easier, as Robert J. Knowlton testified in “Your Wife Has an Easy Racket!” This gave women the ability to move out in the world and experience new things, but it is ironic that the more toys we get to make life easier, the busier Americans become and the less time we have for our families. It still takes parents who are present to raise children. Two career families put more strain on the family, but they are possible if both spouses are willing to share the burden of the household and both are consistently putting their family’s needs before their own. My favorite article on homemaking was Dorothy Thompson’s, “Occupation–Housewife.” It is a real job, she argues, and a real testament to the women who do it well. There are many women who find complete satisfaction in simply raising a family, and they should not be mocked. Families who produce kids and then ignore them are not families.

Make no mistake. I am fully supportive of equal rights and opportunity for all women. As a man, I have, and will continue to if placed under their authority, submitted to women in higher positions with absolutely no reservations. So I feel women’s liberation has been good for America in many ways. But many feminists take their gripe too far. Some make staying home and raising kids sound like a jail sentence. I have kids, and I am divorced, so when my kids are over, I have had to be mom and dad at the same time. When my sons were younger and woke up in the middle of the night with nightmares, I had to comfort them; I had to cook and clean for them and clean up their puke; I had to teach them how to be men while at the same time learn how to be sensitive to their needs and understanding of their boo-boos. Taking care of the house and the family can be monotonous and boring work, but my boys are also the most wonderful aspect of my life. They still have years to grow, but I am proud of the men they are becoming. I can testify that being involved and raising them despite my divorce held me back in my career goals and dreams; I did not achieve my BA until I was in my thirties, and I simply still do not have the time to prove myself as a writer to anyone who might pay me. But these are just some of the many sacrifices I gladly make to put my sons’ needs before my own. Hopefully they won’t make the same mistakes I’ve made in life, but I know I have done all I am able to help them succeed. And that is a great satisfaction in my life. 1950s society was too restrictive for women, of that there is no doubt, and the effort to make the job of a housewife seem glamorous seems pretty ridiculous to me; no job is without weaknesses, and no job can bring complete satisfaction. However, some feminists make the job of raising children out to be a meaningless and pointless existence. What a blasphemy to the value of human life! The issue here is not the role of a woman, but the role of a parent. I am friends with a couple who have chosen for dad to stay home with the kids, and he is a man in all respects, and he has a great relationship with both his wife and his kids. And as I said earlier, if a man and woman can cooperate with each other and raise a family with two careers, more power to them. In our economy, many families are forced to do so, but if you’re going to neglect your kids’ emotional needs simply to climb up the ladder of status and smug self satisfaction (whether you are a man or a woman): don’t have them, and don’t mock parents who seek to raise well adjusted children into successful, well adjusted adults. It seems to me, there is nothing more important for the future of our society than that.

Peter L Richardson
original essay: 8/12/04

Rock ‘n Roll: The most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.  -Frank Sinatra

Rock and roll music, if you like it, if you feel it, you can’t help but move to it. That’s what happens to me. I can’t help it.  -Elvis Presley

We all know the iconic image of James Dean in Rebel without a Cause, a poignant study of American teenage angst and rebellion in the 1950s. According to historian, James Gilbert, the reason why many Americans were “puzzled and distressed by the activities of post-war teenagers” was caused by much the same issues that teenagers face today. Because of growing prosperity and growing technology in the early 50s, Americans began to be able to see certain aspects of their culture as a unified phenomenon. More and more teenagers were able to attend high schools and they were able to become socialized more readily. Mass media exposed the problems of juvenile delinquency as a national problem; however, the media also gave teenagers a chance to know what was hip nationwide. Teenagers began to separate themselves from adult culture and adopted new fashions, new slang, and a new music called rock-n-roll.

Many adults began to fear that this new subculture might be antagonistic towards the accepted mores of proper American society. Gilbert states that many believed “the very creative energy that welled up in rock and roll, new words, fashions, and customs threatened the stability of American society. To some degree they were right. Teenagers, by erecting barriers of fashions and custom around adolescence, had walled off a secret and potentially antagonistic area of American culture. No doubt for some that was the intent” (15). But many were most likely simply wishing to express independence from their parents, a healthy desire for teenagers since they will soon become adults on their own. What teens need is healthy guidance and flexible boundaries from stable parents and other adults they can trust. In the typical post-war response of paranoia, fear of a generation of juvenile delinquents caused an uproar and many authorities tried to stomp out this new culture. This of course only fueled rebellion against the restrictions and we eventually got the 60s “revolution.” Unfortunately, now that that generation has grown up, it seems like they’ve removed any and all boundaries from their kids and we’ve got a new generation of kids thinking that they can act on any impulse they want and don’t consider the consequence for themselves or anyone else.

Those who reacted against rock-n-roll the most were squares with no soul in them, dig? The first in line were the racists, who are right about rock-n-roll being formed out of black music. Early rock really was just a bunch of white boys ripping off blues and soul music and not doing it as well, but it turned out the result was not so bad. As Muddy Waters puts it: “The Blues Had A Baby, And They Named It Rock-n-Roll.” The problem is, since these various “Citizen’s Councils” that campaigned against rock music were racist they considered that a bad thing. Really, if anyone should have been upset, it should have been the black musicians whose creative property was constantly being ripped off.

There were also crybabies like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. and other established musicians. They complained that rock-n-roll wasn’t as high a quality of music as what they produced. It has to be admitted that in general, rock isn’t as intricate an art form as many genres of music, but Keith Richards has proved to us all that groove is more important than skill: it’s the beat that moves the feet. But the real reasons these guys were complaining was that they were losing the spotlight and losing money. Frankie proved this when he kissed up to Elvis and did a show with him to get back in the public eye.

Finally, there was the self-righteous religious folk who had no understanding of how much of a ministry opportunity they were missing by not embracing this wonderful new style of music. They complained that rock-n-roll went straight to the heart and emotions of the youth and it did. But instead of allowing parish members to develop music that would praise God and go straight to the heart of America’s youth, they shunned it and ultimately shunned their youth, pushing out those who enjoyed rock. As Christian rocker, Larry Norman, says, they let the devil have all the good music. I am not saying all rock-n-roll is therefore evil, I am saying that for 40 years since this anti-rock campaign, almost all the music that came out of the Church stunk really bad. What would these perfect parishoners have done had they learned that most of their precious hymns where originally written to tune of popular drinking songs that their great grandparents enjoyed? But now we’re finally starting to get some really good grooves in our worship and contemporary music…

Teenage rebellion usually flows from two extremes: too much oppression with no outlet for self-expression, or too much freedom and relativism without a caring authority to lead and guide teens safely into adulthood. Rock-n-roll was born in a time when uniformity was encouraged and self expression was often denied, now it seems those who should be in authority roll over and defer to their children’s wishes out of a fear of damaging their self-esteem, but the truth is they are leaving them stranded in a sea of hopelessness and apathy only to be blown and tossed about by the wind of endless doctrines with no compass to lead and guide them, teens today have no way to interpret the stars. Music is not the cause of any rebellion; it is simply the expression of those searching for some kind of meaning. It would be well for parents and the Church to take heed and listen, and then respond with the proper wisdom and guidance. 

Peter L Richardson

Gilbert, James. A Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s.Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1986.

“Rock n Roll is Here To Stay”
-Sha Na Na

Rock ‘n roll is here to stay, it will never die
It was meant to be that way, though I don’t know why
I don’t care what people say, rock ‘n roll is here to stay
(We don’t care what people say, rock ‘n roll is here to stay)
Rock ‘n roll will always be our ticket to the end
It will go down in history, just you wait, my friend
Rock ‘n roll will always be, it’ll go down in history
(Rock ‘n roll will always be, it’ll go down in history)
So come on, everybody rock, everybody rock,
everybody rock, everybody rock
Everybody rock
Now everybody rock ‘n roll, everybody rock ‘n roll,
everybody rock ‘n roll
Everybody rock ‘n roll, everybody rock ‘n roll
Rock ‘n roll will always be our ticket to the end
It will go down in history, just you wait, my friend
Rock ‘n roll will always be, it’ll go down in history
If you don’t like rock ‘n roll, think what you’ve been missin’
But if you like to bop and stroll, come on down and listen
Let’s all start to have a ball, everybody rock ‘n roll
Ah, oh baby, ah, oh baby, ah,
oh baby, ah, oh baby, rock!

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 tomatoes.com). 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.

The Scramble for Africa

“And this [London] also,” said Marlow suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” –Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

In the late eighteenth century a drastic change took place in the continent of Africa, the results of which are still affecting the fate of African nations today. This change is known as the Scramble for Africa. Around 1880, Portugal, France and the British Empire all had a few colonies they possessed on “the Dark Continent,” but as new unified states began to rise up in Europe, there were more powers who became interested in taking a slice of the cake. With these new powers desiring to play a part in the game of empire, and the older powers feeling threatened, there was a mad scramble for countries to gather in as much land as possible and as quickly as possible. Within twenty years, nearly the entire African continent was possessed by European powers. As they stole, killed and destroyed to get a hold of more than their neighbors back home, these powers gave little thought and consideration to the varieties of peoples who already inhabited the land. It was truly a mad grab for more and more land. Among the powers grabbing for land, the British came out on top possessing most of the South, East and significant areas in the North, but there was an unusual player in this Imperial game who managed to receive nearly the whole center of Africa. King Leopold II of Belgium took control of the Congo and began a reign of terror that lasted at least forty years. The issue of Empire, focusing on the British, is taken on by Niall Ferguson in his book simply entitled Empire. Adam Hochschild quite literally and literarily takes on the abuses in the Congo in his book King Leopold’s Ghost. Both authors have a purpose in mind for their work and both are passionate about getting their point across, but they each come to very different conclusions about Empire.

Just the title of Hochschild’s book lets us know his thoughts that the colonization of Africa had devastating effects on the continent. Ferguson, however, is a little harder to get. It is clear that Ferguson thinks that empire is ultimately a good thing; well, at least the British Empire was a good thing. He spends a lot of time pointing out the economic and technological advances that are spurned on by imperialism; however, he isn’t shy about talking of the negative results of empire either, though he certainly downplays England‘s atrocities. To Ferguson, the atrocities of imperialism seem to be unfortunate side-effects of a generally good thing. His purpose is not to condemn imperialism, but to help us see what went wrong in the past so it can be done better in the future. Hochschild, rather, takes a purely humanitarian perspective; when an empire displaces and abuses millions of people, when it wipes out entire cultures, it doesn’t matter what the profits are; it is wrong. While King Leopold is considered an extremist in his abuses of African peoples, Hochschild consistently pauses in his story to point out that most of the other Europeans nations were not much better.

As Europeans began to take over more and more land, it became fashionable to justify themselves with the ideas that they were bringing enlightenment to races who have been behind in the development of society. They felt it was their duty to bring Christianity and Capitalism to these uncivilized nations. The only way to do it would be to take over their land, secure the profits and when these nations were able to fully embrace God and fully embrace “free trade,” the imperialists would pull out and have a gratefully indebted ally. According Hochschild these motives are hypocritical at best. He states, “Underlying much of Europe’s excitement was the hope that Africa would be a source of raw materials to feed the Industrial Revolution…Expeditions quickened dramatically after prospectors discovered diamonds…and gold…in South Africa…But Europeans liked to think of themselves as having higher motives” (27). He leaves no one innocent, later he states that “Around the time the Germans were slaughtering Hereros, the world also was largely ignoring…[that] U.S. troops tortured prisoners, burned villages, killed 20,000 rebels, and saw 200,000 more Filipinos die of  war related hunger and disease. Britain came in for no international criticism for its killings of aborigines in Australia” (282). Hochschild reminds us that we all have skeletons in the closet. Ferguson does admit to, and does not at all support, the negative aspects of the empires in the Scramble for Africa. He is unusually critical of the actions of some of his ancestors. During his chapter on the Scramble, he says that  “even the most gilt-edged generals and proconsuls exhibited symptoms of what is best described as decadence” (222), yet he still holds that the Empire was a benefit to the peoples who it dominated. Speaking of the decline of the Empire, he later states “the Empire was dismantled not because it had oppressed subject peoples for centuries, but because it took up arms for just a few years against far more oppressive empires. It did the right thing, regardless of the cost. And that was why the…heir of Britain’s global power was not one of the evil empires…” (296).

Hochschild’s devil is clearly King Leopold II; he is portrayed as a swindling liar and a cunning thief. Unable to gain a colony through conquest or purchase, he works the national leaders of his day and more or less tricks them into handing him over a large chunk of land in the interest of humanitarianism and free trade. But rather than elevating the “noble savages” up to European standards he almost utterly destroyed them. Rather than abolishing the slave trade that still existed in the interior of Africa, he reduced entire tribes to slaves. The extent of abuses of the Europeans on the Africans in this book is equaled only by Hitler’s pursuit of the Jews. But at least Hitler was upfront about his intentions. Leopold is a man obsessed with dominion and riches. All the profit of the Congo went into his pocket, so that he could continue to seem “non-profit.” Though Leopold’s web of deceit and horror is intricate and complicated, Hochschild makes sure we know who his enemies and heroes are by the end of his book. Ferguson however, continues to remain ambiguous. Leopold’s British counterpart was definitely Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes also possessed an obsession for imperial dominance over the natives in South Africa and his first and main goal, though at least he was outspoken about it, was more land for more money. Ferguson is open about Rhodes’ greed, but he doesn’t seem to want to get involved in the gritty details that Hochschild devotes much of his book to. In fact, when Ferguson first introduces us to Rhodes it is hard not to notice a bit of admiration for him in his description; “He was at once business genius and imperial visionary; a robber baron, but also a mystic…He aspired to be more than a money maker. He dreamt of becoming an empire builder” (224). Though Rhodes destroyed entire people groups as he was “bestriding Africa” (224), he also brought civilization and capitalism. At least that was supposed to be the case.

Hochschild makes it clear through his book that Africans would have had no problem governing their land. He reminds us of their greater civilizations of old, and he spends a great deal of time on Roger Casement who declares that “Self government is our right, a thing born in us at birth; a thing no more to be doled out to us or withheld from by another people than the right to life itself” (286). Ferguson does recognize the existence of African nations and the wrong done to them by the European powers, while commenting on the Berlin Conference in which European leaders met to decide the boundaries of their African colonies he states “the ‘existing rights’ of native rulers and their peoples were patently not what the [European leaders] had in mind” (237). But he was just stating the obvious. As stated before, Ferguson clearly is in favor of the Empire.

Colonial Africa 1914

Europeans justified their conquests over Africa with a long-term goal of creating free states governed with the principles of liberty that they used on their own native soils. The idea was to introduce Africans to a better way of life and lift them up. But what was the result? Hochschild tells us the somber history of Zaire, what used to be the Congo. After gaining political independence from Belgium, eventually an oppressive leader Joseph Mobutu rises to power and has proven to be almost as bad as Leopold himself. And what of Southern Africa? Still bearing the name of its colonial conqueror till as late as 1979, Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe is bearing the fruit of colonization. The natives have decided they want their land back. Without going into the complicated web of detail that always exists with African issues, the white minority which owns the majority of land, are being driven out. The result is political and economic upheaval. An African man who has taken advantage of the free land says, “We are reclaiming our land. The British pushed us out, and we’re taking it back. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret the British coming…we would have still been in the Stone Age” (Godwin 105). So we have a “native” expressing gratefulness for technical advancement, but clearly expressing his rights to the land. This suggests there could have been a better way. Of the militant actions of President Mugabe another African, the Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu remarks that he is “almost a caricature of all the things people think black African leaders do. He seems to be wanting to make a cartoon of himself” (Godwin 113). Maybe the legacy European Imperialism left to Africa was not liberty and justice, maybe Africans, rather in reaction to submitting to abuse for centuries have learned to become the abuser. Is it possible that the fruit of the Empire has been what empire seems to be about? Land grabbing, political dominance and wealth seeking; never mind the cost.

Peter L Richardson
February 3, 2004

Ferguson, Niall. Empire, The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and Lessons for Global Power.London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2002.

Godwin, Peter. “A Land Possessed” National Geographic Magazine. August 2003.

Hochschild, Adam. King Leopold’s Ghost, A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

*If you would like to help Africa click on this link: http://www.one.org/us/about/