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It's hard to imagine that there was once a time when Mel Gibson wasn't nuts. Sure, now he swears at female cops and makes snuff films about Jesus, but once he was a larger than life action star. Large enough in Hollywood to make a historical epic about some half-forgotten 13th century Scottish general and have it win best picture.
Braveheart is the story of William Wallace. It is also very bloody, quite funny at times, and enough fun to watch that a guy I knew in high school who had no Scottish ancestry at all wore a kilt to our prom. Yes, Braveheart took the world by storm, opened eyes to Scottish history, then shuffled off to oblivion on TNT.
Now, we think of Mel's recent work as being excessively violent, but remember this is a guy who rose to fame in Mad Max, and that wasn't exactly a Disney movie. This one isn't either. Mel gives us some beheadings, some horses getting skewered, and a guy losing a leg rather graphically. We also get a nice close up of the magistrate's throat being slit, and of course the extended torture sequence at the end.
Of course it can be quite hilarious as well. We have Stephen, the Irish criminal who talks to deities, and the test of manhood scene where Wallace responds to Hamish's challenge by saying "you dropped your rock," and the Scottish army mooning the English between archery barrages. And the director, who happens to be the star of the film as well, does an excellent job mixing the comedy into the action, something he may have picked up from Richard Donner during his Lethal Weapon days.
Now the history isn't quite 100% on. The movie plays up the dispute over the Scottish crown, when in fact that had been resolved years before. John Balliol became king, with the full support of William Wallace, but after a few years of playing favorites at court was stripped of all his power and the English invaded resulting in the chaos and warfare depicted in the movie. And the method of using long spears to stop a cavalry charge credited to Wallace is actually something the Bruce thought up. And of course there's Wallace sleeping with the then 10 year old French princess who seven years after Wallace's death gives birth to his son, King Edward III. Depicting the battle of Stirling Bridge as not involving a bridge might be a bit excusable, since the bridge is now in the shadow of a giant William Wallace statue which presumably was not there in 1297.
But what this movie is an excellent example of is the revenge movie. Mel has made two movies based on a character going to great lengths for revenge; Payback, in which he kills off the Mafia to get back $75,000 stolen from him, and this one where he wins Scottish independence because someone killed his wife. Granted, the vengeance is quite fun. Especially enjoyable is Wallace's trash talking to the English before Stirling, resulting in the Scottish nobleman commenting that Wallace's remarks may have been less cordial than the English were used to. And once the nobles have turned on him, Wallace get revenge on them as well by going on a killing spree, which only makes his legend with the commoners grow. Wallace himself is depicted as falling in love with the mythology of his character. In the movie he marries Murran in secret because her parents would disagree, but later he tells the princess that the secret marriage was so that he wouldn't have to share her with an English lord under the custom of Prima Nocte.
The movie is also filled with wonderful performances by all of the bit players, many of whom never did much with their careers afterwards. Brenden Gleeson didn't exactly become a household name, but he did turn in good performances as Monk in Gangs of New York and Frank in 28 Days Later, but none of those performances are as good as his role as Hamish here. David O'Hara is another actor who turns in the performance of his lifetime as Stephen.
Now there is one other thing about the trash talk before Stirling I want to bring up. The English are there to present "the King's terms." Wallace heads out to present "Scotland's terms." Think about that. The English present the terms of one man, their head of state. Wallace, having just delivered a pep talk that would make Knute Rockne proud, stands there to represent a nation. It's as if Gibson wants to make a statement about democracy winning out over monarchy, but he forgot that Scotland was a monarchy then as well. I remember seeing this at the time and thinking that if he wanted to make a movie about underdog fighters beating back the English in the name of freedom, he could have made a movie about the American Revolution. Then a few years later he did, and it sucked.
It may not be a perfect movie, but with the good acting and remarkable battle scenes it is very good, and most years that would win my endorsement. But 1995 was a solid year. Apollo 13 was a very worthy best picture nominee, and easily could have won, but several movies that weren't nominated for best picture are every bit as good, if not better, specifically 12 Monkeys, Leaving Las Vegas, Mighty Aphrodite, Se7en, Heat, and The Usual Suspects. Now, 12 Monkeys is a bit hard to follow, and let's face it, more than a bit weird which killed its chances with the Academy. Leaving Las Vegas is one of those issue movies that screams out for attention, when all that deserves the attention is Cage's acting in it. Se7en is every bit as weird as Pitt's other venture of the year. Heat has the diner scene, but what else. Mighty Aphrodite is just one step above everything else Woody Allen has done in his life, and that's only because of the Greek chorus. I cannot think of anything bad to say about The Usual Suspects, however. The brilliant script won a very deserving Best Original Screen Play Oscar, the movie marks the breakout performance for both Benicio del Toro and Kevin Spacey, director Bryan Singer somehow finds a great performance in a Baldwin not named Alec, and if you want to sit there telling me you saw that ending coming, I will spend the next three hours calling you a liar. Now Braveheart and Apollo 13 are great (you have to admit you liked the scene where Jim Lovell's mom asks Neil Armstrong if he's in the space program too), but The Usual Suspects is one of those once in a generation movies. Maybe Gabriel Byrne and Chazz Palminteri weren't big name guys back in 1995 like Mel Gibson was, but at least they haven't resorted to making snuff films about Jesus since then.