Braveheart is a rousing adventure, a passionate romance, and a soul-stirring drama. In short, Mel Gibson's 1995 classic is everything a great Hollywood epic should be. Gibson's second feature film as a director was a revelation. Who knew that Mel Gibson, an established action superstar and leading man, would be capable of helming a grand Medieval epic with the artistry of Braveheart? The story of William Wallace's legendary fight against English tyranny in Medieval Scotland works as a strong action spectacle, but more than that, Braveheart is a powerful emotional experience, a rare film of bellowing passion that opens the floodgates of drama and allows itself to overindulge on the story's lows and highs.
Braveheart tackles the ambitious task of retelling the legend of William Wallace (Mel Gibson), a Scottish warrior who led a revolt against the English occupants of Scotland in the early part of the 14th Century. After his secret love (Catherine McCormack) is killed by English noblemen occupying the Scot's village, Wallace begins a rebellion that eventually leads all the way to King Longshanks (Partrick McGoohan) of England. The story is not a historical retelling of the real William Wallace, but an account of the mythic William Wallace, the larger-than-life Scottish hero. Mel Gibson is at his charismatic best as Wallace. His presence on screen conveys every bit of the folk legend that Wallace has become. It might not be an accurate portrait of a real historical figure, but it is an exquisite visualization of a fabled warrior. The movie is, after all, based on the epic poem written by Blind Harry in the 15th Century. The choice to treat the story romantically rather than realistically is treated as a negative by some, but it is actually a brilliant decision by Gibson and screenwriter Randall Wallace. The romantic approach opens the film up to more emotion, more drama, and more action than a straightforward docu-drama would. Braveheart relishes in the romance of a time and place. The story is massive in scope, and it plays to all those time-tested notes of classic Hollywood adventures. Braveheart is a romanticized version of William Wallace, no doubt, but it is also surprisingly authentic. From the muddy village huts and crude stone castles to the close-quarter violence of the battle scenes, Braveheart is as down-to-Earth and real as movies get. This marriage of idealism and realism strikes at the heart of what makes Braveheart so special. It works just as well as a tear-jerker and an action adventure.
One of the standouts in Braveheart are the battle scenes, which Mel Gibson stages with tremendous scale and violence. The battles are appropriately chaotic, but the way Gibson and editor Steven Rosenblum cut between the indecipherable mayhem and punctuative killshots gives the battles orientation. The violence is effective. You feel every brutal blow. This is not typical Hollywood sword and sandals action, this is real, visceral action, and it carries a purpose. Braveheart brilliantly captures the barbarism inherent in Medieval warfare.
Braveheart is a fantastic action epic, but it transcends those trappings. There have been many historical epics that have come and gone before and after Braveheart, but precious few of them can compete with this film's craftsmanship. What Gibson has achieved here is nothing short of miracle. He takes what might be clichés in the hands of a lesser director, and injects them with a poignancy that they frankly do not deserve. We get the obligatory love stories, the obligatory death scenes, the speeches, the evil kings and the treacherous allies. It's all been done before, but never with such unbridled passion. The characters are archetypes, but they show what influence a great director and great actors can have on a character. The supporting cast is so filled with personality, you just cannot help but root for what could have easily become two-dimensional placeholders. James Cosmo's Campbell, Brenden Gleeson's Hamish, and Sophie Marceau's compassionate Princess Isabelle are excellent, but the real standout in the supporting cast is Angus MacFadyen as Robert the Bruce, a man who's loyalty balances precariously between the English and the Scottish sides of the conflict.
James Horner's music may be the under-appreciated key to Braveheart's success. The mournful bagpipes and spirited Scottish melodies of Horner's score are downright essential for the film's emotional climaxes, of which there are many. When those climaxes hit, they hit hard, and that is thanks in large part to the music. Horner's score carries the same earnest spirit of the rest of the production. The music of Braveheart is precisely as big and bold as the story demands.
Braveheart is a masculine story, a simple-minded tale of heroes and villains executed with brute force. Of course it is an exciting action movie, we might have expected that from the star of Mad Max and Lethal Weapon, but the real discovery in Braveheart is its beauty. This film is transcendent. It doesn't just allow you to look on it with appreciation, it demands it. Braveheart is cathartic in the way it overpowers you with emotion. There are shots in this film that nearly brought me to tears simply by their sheer beauty. When the story, the characters, the images (filmed by cinematographer John Toll), and the music crescendo, it hits like a wave of overwhelming gratitude. The admirable thing about Braveheart is how Gibson and company stick to their guns. They don't conceal the drama or play it subtly. Gibson allows the tragedies, the treachery, and the triumphs of the William Wallace legend to be extravagant. The story is sprawling, the romances are passionate, and the emotions are let out with uninhibited fury. Braveheart is a man's movie, a brutal action epic that will satisfy any red-blooded man's desire for violence and carnage. The remarkable thing is that Braveheart is also a movie that moved me like few have before.