Twenty Years Hence: Braveheart

Because when I finished this series on 1995 I totally forgot to review two of the biggest films from that year, and I wanted to fill the gap…

The criminally conservative Braveheart is a tough sell in 2015, although it plainly isn’t so tough for director-star Mel Gibson. For all the damage he has done to both his own reputation and, more importantly, human progress in the ensuing decades, he is a passionate filmmaker, and in all three of his directed features, his love for cinema shows through. Questionable, problematic love that tends to hurt his films as much as it helps them, but a bastardized form of love nonetheless. In Braveheart, you find love in the luminous, misty myth cinematography by John Toll – which captures Scotland as it exists in myth more than reality and does the lion’s share of the work to overcome the film’s relentless problems with historical accuracy. You find love in Gibson’s grossly fetishistic, awestruck joy to observe men in the primal ballet of hacking limbs away from one another. You find love in his bald, open-hearted treatment of the Wars of Scottish Independence through the lens of a grandstanding 1950s Douglas Sirk melodrama, where any and all emotions are excuses to lose oneself to inhibition. Mel Gibson is many things, but he is not a cautious man, nor a cautious director. A Mel Gibson film goes big, or it goes home.

Whatever else Braveheart is then, it is undoubtedly a passion project, as all of Mel Gibson’s films have been. Which isn’t something to write off. Braveheart is messy and difficult to stomach, but it is never for a single second of its identity anything less than 100% committed to itself. In contrast to the film it is most frequently compared to, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Braveheart is a persuasive, brutally honest beast that never tells a lie about itself, nor does it pretend to be anything it isn’t. While Scott bent over backwards to legitimize his film with cloying melodrama sulking around under a thick layer of brown, Gibson lets the passionate, lustrous reds and greens fly. If Scott was so invested in proving the realism of his film that he forgot his script called for nothing more than a sword-and-sandals epic, Braveheart makes no bones about its loving recreation of Old-School Hollywood pomp and circumstance. If Gladiator feels embalmed and deadened by its fatalistic inability to have an ounce of fun with itself, Braveheart at least admits that it is all a bit of a lark, a matinee serial translated to the 1990s. For all the sins of silliness that Braveheart commits, it is at least aware that it is nothing more than a bunch of men in kilts playing with swords.

All of Mel Gibson’s successes as a director and all of his failings filter through this prism of passion, and he has proven time and time again that his heart lies in an antithetical space to the realms of modern cinema. While so many films today trumpet historical accuracy as a great calling card, Gibson almost wanders up to the edge of self-parody with his complete inability to care for one second about grounding his story in reality. A failure that is, in its own way, oddly refreshing, allowing him to boil a story down its basics – William Wallace (Mel Gibson) is a Scot who ends up leading a rebellion against King Edward of England (Patrick McGoohan) – and then dialing up those basics to 11 until they overflow off the screen. The cinematography is the obvious standout, shunning realism and running around in sheer drunken joy with its lush cinematic glory, recreating Scotland as a land of the mind, almost openly acknowledging how recreating a “realistic” Scotland would be impossible and thus not even worth trying. If most history-based films exalt themselves with a simulacrum of reality stretched thin over their cinematic playgrounds, John Toll just lets the film play without restrictions.

Unapologetic, would be the word. Braveheart is a thoroughly unapologetic, anti-humble motion picture, wholly convinced of its own glory. Not a bad thing, but a little of this can go a long way, and again, Mel Gibson does not know the meaning of the word “little”. At its best, the appeal of Braveheart is that of watching a particularly excitable, endearing child play in the sand, wholly unaware of concepts like maturity or good taste. But after a while, the rampant fantasy-land stops being cute, and it starts to curdle in your stomach. You need a nap just watching it.

Or, at worst, you just start itching for some Foucault to wash it all away. The rampant egotism of Braveheart borders on id, and its sweltering inability to lower itself to the level of mere mortals grows weary and even satirical. There’s an undying amusement to Braveheart’s individual scenes when you cordon them off and remove the stultifying run-time, and the film’s complete refusal to operate at any other level besides full-bore for any of that run-time. The battles, for instance, are unimpeachable patchworks of pageantry and chaos, and, at the least, they are totally committed to being themselves. They love violence, and they never once pretend to love anything else. This is film violence with no airs, and after so many PG-13 films in recent years paying homage to violence whilst pretending they really don’t want to be, pretending they are cleaner than the violence, there’s something refreshing about a film that admits American cinema’s love of violence and makes no bones about hiding it or trying to wipe up the blood for respectability’s sake. Unless you wanted to search through the files of experimental cinema for an Orson Welles here or there, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better version of a filmed battle as an amalgamation of pure anarchy. Not that Orson Welles would really be a good fit for the material, but there’s a fascinating hypothetical for you…

In other words, Gibson’s fanatical devotion to his film being nothing more than boys with swords attains moments of blissful weightlessness, but the weight comes on hard over the course of 177 minutes (part of the appeal of those old matinee serials was how in and out they were, and Gibson doesn’t know the meaning of an ending). Again, what was once cute grows tiring, especially when his boyish single-minded commitment to his vision focuses on a largely reductive, masculine worldview where women are useless and pit-stops to mocking homosexuality are par for the course. Or the ridiculous insistence on a pro-individualist message that is exactly the unmitigated bro-fest you’d film if you were Paul Verhoeven in 1995 making a secret satire of individualist American historical epics instead of the secret satire of individualist American stardom you ended up making. Gibson is like that kid playing in the sandbox – part of you admires him for his silly, unawares commitment to his vision of the way all the world’s conflicts in his head can be played out with foam swords. But after an hour of it, you start to wonder where you kid is going with their life, you pat them on the head condescendingly, and you take them home to do their homework. It’s good for them.

Score: 6/10

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