[Pictured above: a historically innacurate moment]
Braveheart is one of the most frowned upon Oscar Best Pictures winners in recent history. Comparing its rotten Tomato Score (which is how we do things now) to all of it’s Oscar winning kin from the 90’s onward, only 4 films sink lower in critical opinion than its 78% “above average” score. [These are Forrest Gump (1994) 72%, Gladiator (2000) 76%, A Beautiful Mind (2001) 75%, and Crash (2005) at 75%,)] This puts Braveheart in the 20th percentile of its class.
Some of this disdain could be attributed to hindsight. Rotten Tomatoes didn’t even launch until 3 years after Braveheart‘s release, giving follow up home video reviewers the chance to respond to the post-Oscar backlash against the film, (not to mention Mel Gibson’s reputation). I’d also imagine broody, hyper-masculine, medieval melodramas are a more divisive category than most. There is one criticism of Braveheart that has seemed to stick more than any other though, and that’s the matter of its egregious historical inaccuracy.
“Based on a true story.” This is a tag that immediately gives a film clout. It can offer a feeling of educational value to the otherwise frivolous affair of film viewing. It gives a feeling of authenticity that aids in the suspension of disbelief, But most of all, it validates the emotional journey the film takes you on.
This is key.
When men cry manly tears over the heroic martyrdom of William Wallace, they feel vindicated by the fact that he was an actual dude, and this actually happened. So what happens when these men find out that Wallace wasn’t captured in the middle of a heated military campaign, but post Scottish surrender, returning from a 4-year diplomatic mission in France and Rome? What happens when they find no historical record of William refusing an offer of a quick and merciful death by King Edward I’s evil Magistrate? What if he wasn’t offered pain-B-gone by Isabella, the princess of Wales, because she was 9-years-old and still in France during Wallace’s execution? What if… his dying word wasn’t “Freedom“?
Wallace begins to sound less and less like an irrefutable example of patriotic sacrifice and ultimate manliness, and more like a noteworthy figure in an otherwise typical historical conflict. It’s enough to make a man ashamed for crying over the death of such an average dude.
So now we have it. Braveheart‘s success was founded on a bed of lies. Proof that not only is it NOT a good movie, but is, in fact, a deceptive movie! It is the opposite of educational. It’s actively misrepresentative!
Did you know that neither kilts nor royal English uniforms were worn until the 17th century? These costumes are 300 years off in style! Did you know that nationalism wasn’t even a thing until half a millennium later?* Think of the skewed understanding people will have about reality!
Except the costumes and the dates and even the exact players in the story are not the point. It doesn’t matter that Prima Nocte may have never existed. What matters is that the audience understands the feeling of living under tyranny. It doesn’t matter that William Wallace was likely not born a commoner, what matters is that you understand his connection to his people. It doesn’t matter that The Battle of Stirling Bridge doesn’t feature a bridge, because it illustrates the ingenuity necessary to win a war with inferior numbers, and it’s goddamned exciting to watch! It doesn’t matter that Robert the Bruce didn’t actually betray Wallace in the Battle of Falkirk, what mattered is that the political heads of Scotland (including Robert) were extremely scared and conflicted at the time about whether or not rebellion was wise.
There are times when historical inaccuracy serves no benefit, and, in fact, takes away from films based on a true story. Some examples: Argo downplayed the incredible collaborative efforts between Canada and the United States to its own impairment. By doing so, it undermined the fascinating complexity of its own political message, and undermined a potentially powerful theme: the importance of cooperation in a shrinking world. The Walk, another example, misrepresented its subject, the brilliant and fascinating Philippe Petit. The film glazes right over the true story’s beautifully bittersweet conclusion, whereupon after finishing his famous high wire act, he dismissed his best friends completely and cheated on his girlfriend. The documentary Man on Wire illustrated Petit as a flawed genius, and his work an effort of singular beauty, undermined only by his own arrogance. It’s one of the very few True Stories that follows a perfect 3-act structure (with a visually stunning climax!). Deviating from what actually happened lessened the film as a story.
Nothing about the reality of Scottish liberation or William Wallace contributes to the story better than what’s actually in Braveheart. Removing the improperly worn kilts from its heroes might make Scottish historians less embarrassed, but visually demonstrating to a world of film-goers the idea of a unique culture fighting for their right to exist is far more important. And what if William Wallace’s wife’s name wasn’t actually Murron, but Marian (changed to avoid confusion with Maid Marian)? Or that the only evidence of her existence is a folk poem, upon which many of the film’s events are based? Her death is a tangible example of subjugation that the audience will understand within moments.
Braveheart isn’t a character piece and it isn’t a documentary. The real William Wallace probably wasn’t even as dashing or pure as the version who jokes about his own legend (consuming the English with “lightning from his arse”), but in 3 hours Braveheart reminded a generation that there are things worth living and dying for, that violent resolution should always be the last resort, and that it’s more important to have a strong mind and a strong heart than a strong arm. It’s impossible to say if the true Wallace exemplified all these qualities, but he certainly was a force to be reckoned with, and meeting the actual man would likely have been just as inspiring as Gibson’s screen-shadow counterpart.
I mean, seriously… they wrote poems about the guy.
Reality is rarely as exceptional as Legend, but Legend begets an understanding of what’s truly important, which creates heroes in the real world in a thousand seemingly insignificant ways. Gibson could have ordered a re-write and directed a film that solemnly followed the facts of the Scottish rebellion. The film might have made it into classrooms, but it likely wouldn’t have inspired a generation not to lose heart in the face of oppression.
And I don’t want to lose heart. I want to believe.
*McArther, Colin (1998), “Braveheart and the Scottish Aesthetic Dementia”