Mel Gibson’s 1995 Oscar-winner Braveheart is still the epic with which all epics that followed are measured. Its enormous scope, breathtaking cinematography, powerful dramatic story and fascinating characters are unmatched.
As an epic, Braveheart is one of those films that can only be truly appreciated on the big screen and therefore I am very grateful when I look back and realize that I almost didn’t. I remember arriving at the theater with friends and family intending to see the new submarine thriller Crimson Tide. Unfortunately it was sold out and we had to settle for something else. Fortunately, that turned out to be Braveheart.
Braveheart thrillingly documents the life of William Wallace (Gibson), a commoner in 13th Century Scotland that led the country in its fight for freedom against the English. Wallace did not intend to fight. He intended to live peacefully and, God willing, raise a family. However, when an England Noble kills his secret lover, the battle for Scotland’s freedom becomes personal.
Without much support from his own nobles, Wallace leads the Scottish rebels in the great battles of Stirling and Falkirk before he is betrayed, captured, tortured and used as a warning by King Edward the Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan) to those who threaten England.
Although Wallace was killed before his dream of freedom was achieved, his legacy inspired the Scots to win their freedom on the battlefields of Bannockburn.
Perhaps the most memorable moments of Braveheart are the battle sequences; filmed with skilled bravura by Gibson and cinematographer John Toll. There have been a lot of epic battle sequences filmed since, but none—with the possible exception of the D-Day invasion in Saving Private Ryan—can match the brutality, drama, excitement and sheer filmmaking brilliance of Braveheart’s.
Most impressive among the battle scenes is the Battle of Stirling which took six weeks to film and roughly half a million feet of film (that amounts to about ninety hours of footage). The sequence is so realistic that Gibson actually found himself under investigation by the RSCPA who were convinced that the horses seen impaled by spears “twice as long as a man” were real horses. In reality, they were mechanical horses weighing approximately two hundred pounds each that were being propelled thirty miles per hour on twenty foot tracks. Even knowing this, I still can’t tell; a compliment to the film’s editors.
It is interesting to note that much of the film’s atmosphere was created out of a sort of happy accident. The location for much of the film’s early scenes was a valley named Glen Nevis, which is the rainiest region in all of Europe. Realizing that it would cost too much time and money to wait out the rain, Gibson decided to film through it. The resulting mud and rain add a level of authenticity to the film.
The idea for the screenplay of Braveheart came when screenwriter Randall Wallace visited Edinburgh in 1983 and came across a giant statue of Wallace. Curious about this man called “Scotland’s Greatest Hero” that shared his namesake, Wallace began researching and the soon to be Oscar-nominated screenplay was born. In truth, not many of the facts of William Wallace’s life are known so Randall Wallace had to work mostly from Myth which, oddly, makes the film seem more real to modern audiences.
Braveheart would go on to win five Oscars including best picture; an upset of sorts over the favorite Apollo 13. An upset to some maybe, but certainly not to me. I remember saying as I walked out the theater all those years ago that Braveheart was going to win Best Picture. It did and my love affair with the Oscars was born.