***/**** Image A Sound A Extras A
starring Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan, Catherine McCormack
written by Randall Wallace
directed by Mel Gibson
by Walter Chaw Mel Gibson's Braveheart is a Scottish Dances with Wolves as imagined by a Christian fundamentalist wackadoo who happens to be one of the real movie stars of the last 50 years. He commands the screen as a less-pot-addled Harrison Ford, in complete command of his masculinity and a certain wry, self-deprecating sense of humour. The throughline for Gibson, though, is his obsession with ideological, metaphorical, and literal martyrdom. His public fall and current late-career renaissance play into a very particular neo-Christian storyline and worldview. It's the engine that drives his defining roles: ex-cop (Mad) Max, who loses his wife and becomes a taciturn saviour for the desperate of the Outback wasteland; suicidal cop Martin Riggs, who loses his wife and becomes the saviour of his older Black partner; ex-episcopal priest Graham Hess, who loses his wife and becomes the saviour of the world; and of course William Wallace, who loses his wife and becomes the saviour of Scotland. A woman's death turns Gibson into a superhero--his melancholic, Byronic righteousness the only gamma radiation or excuse he needs to go all Revelations on some asses.
I loved Braveheart when it was released in 1995. It fed directly into my own life's storyline as a 22-year-old given to barfights and other forms of self-destruction to validate my voracious self-loathing: that I had been wronged and so was given cosmic leave to vent my spleen on the world. My right by birth, you see. The story of William Wallace, a 13th-century Scot hero who waged a briefly-successful rebellion against the always-loathsome English, felt, at least to an emotionally-stunted young man, like my story, too. Such is the megalomania of the arrested. Braveheart works best as a boy's vampire fantasy of coming back from the dead, unimaginably powerful, to wreak havoc on those who have wronged him. And, of course, it's shot through with broad, gauzy Romanticism like a J.M.W. Turner watercolour. "He fights...with passion! And he inspires!" raves the 17th Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen), the politician set to benefit from the unrest sown by Wallace, and so Robert speaks for the angry, abused child in all of us.
Braveheart is about a cultured warrior who speaks multiple languages, is the best fighter there ever was or ever will be, is fantasized about breathlessly by under/oversexed French women, and has been given clearance to bring hell by the murder of his beyond-perfect idealization of a wife (Catherine McCormack). Watching it now for the first time in maybe twenty years, I'm struck by how much of the film is ridiculous, puerile, macho-bullshit postures, and yet...and yet it works. It works because Gibson is completely in control of his star wattage. He tells the story of how working for George Miller, he had to learn how to act at different speeds to accommodate the different frame-rates at which Miller would crank his camera, mostly to exaggerate speed. That absolute sense of his presence and impact is most palpable in his William Wallace's "St. Crispin's Day" speech before the film's primary battle sequence. He delivers the rousing "they may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!" cry from an unruly horse's back. It's muscular, physical, all of those things, and suddenly the primal interest of this equestrian demonstration supersedes the potential melodrama of the piece. What inspires about the speech is not so much the speech itself, but the movement of flesh. Mel understands his appeal in the way that all true stars understand it. There's a reason Tom Cruise runs in his movies--and it's the same reason Gibson gets tortured in his.
But it's not all blood and meat. Consider a moment where mad Irishman Stephen (David O'Hara) thwarts an assassination attempt on Wallace, crediting God for having sent him to watch Wallace's back, and how Gibson has the screen intelligence to have his Wallace check the skies nervously to perhaps catch a glimpse of the Almighty. Consider, for that matter, the very character of Stephen, who comes into the film an hour in to provide the picture a dose of levity and to act simultaneously as the foil against which Wallace's evolving band of freedom fighters can demonstrate their camaraderie towards, and comfort with, one another. Before the bloody, large-scale battle--still the best example of this type of thing--the Scots moon the Brits, with one unfortunate getting an arrow in the ass like something out of the medieval episode of Jackass. This charm is what buoys the superior first half of Braveheart. The rest is more The Year of Living Dangerously Mel Gibson or, worse, What Women Want/Maverick Mel Gibson: His vengeance slaked, he now undertakes a flirtation with the unhappy French princess (Sophie Marceau) married to Prince Edward (Peter Hanley), cartoonish fop of a son to Edward Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan). Gibson can play the romantic lead, of course, and he plays it well, but he's no Cary Grant. The film won't come truly alive again until he is captured and tortured to death and, in the process, reminded by the ghost of his dead wife what it is that made Wallace--and Gibson, of course--a legend in the first place.
The open disdain for Prince Edward's homosexuality was and remains a sore sticking point among detractors and, indeed, the portrayal is loathsome. Longshanks's murder of the Prince's consort, Philip (Stephen Billington), is played for laughs as a trio of guards rush to see the cause of the commotion, then scramble away in a Monty Python-esque recoil. Here's the thing: the audience I saw it with on opening night lo those 25 years ago cheered and guffawed in approval, it's true, but then so did the audience for It: Chapter Two, who found the horrific murder of the gay man in the film's prologue similarly hilarious. Seeing it now isolated from controversy--and without the fresh outrage of my last screening--I'm feeling more charitable about it. It's a cartoon within a cartoon, and the broad strokes of it suggest more Longshanks's psychotic revulsion of his son's perceived weakness than an explicit condemnation of homosexuality. I'm not apologizing for Gibson, and I'm not the wronged party here to pass any sort of credible judgment. Maybe I'm just worn out from the burden of continuous incredulous outrage.
The temptation to pinion Braveheart as a procession of straw men burning is great. Moreover, Mel makes it easy to do so because, for all the things he is, subtle is not one of them. (That's his hand, after all, nailing Jesus to the Cross in his giallo snuff-film version of the Passion, The Passion of the Christ.) But I'd make the case that his later Apocalypto is a genuine masterpiece: a deeply committed panic attack shot in a dead language about a man trying to save his pregnant wife while their genocide looms as one of film history's most withering rimshots. The central battle for Braveheart, too, is as definitive as the D-Day sequence from Saving Private Ryan. And, I would argue, more influential. I'm not sure Gladiator could open the way it did without it. I'm quite sure The Fellowship of the Ring wouldn't exist without DP John Toll and Gibson's work here. Braveheart is magisterial and grand. James Horner's score, mainly a retooling of Holst's Jupiter suite (ending with a retooling of Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3 for the torture sequence), is appropriately, epically huge. Look at those catchlights dotting Mel's baby blues as he's affixed, crucifix-like, to his torture table, a prostrate Garbo, or how his slackening hand shot from below predicts an identical shot from The Passion of the Christ. If the picture slips a time or three into full-on self-aggrandizement, it does so in a way that's no more nor less embarrassing/successful than other memorable acts of great cinematic hubris. This is Gibson torching his capital, not unlike Costner did with Dances with Wolves--the pinnacle of Mel Gibson's stardom, never to be reached again. It's a movie-star movie. What I mean to say is that I know it's garbage, but it makes me cry anyway.
THE 4K UHD DISC
Reissued in tandem with Gladiator, Braveheart celebrates its 25th anniversary with a steelbook bundling of the 2018 4K UHD release and the two-disc Sapphire Series Blu-ray from 2009. The 2.35:1, 2160p transfer available on the former is impeccable, one I'd be inclined to call "perfect" were it denoised a little less aggresively. Otherwise, the Dolby Vision/HDR10-encoded image (I can only audit the latter for now) comes closer than the 1080p alternative does to touching the theatrical experience. The nits aren't exactly taxed--specular highlights get a boost on those rare occasions when the sun's out--but contrast shows impressive range and the colour accents really register as thus, for instance the red and orange stripes on the uniforms of the English noblemen loitering in the Scottish countryside. Otherwise, the presentation preserves the integrity of the film's muted palette, all of pastel greens and blues, with uncanny reserve. (Indeed, the SDR colours border on oversaturated.) Fine detail is incredible well into the shadows; I found myself getting lost in the picture's craggy surfaces (Mel's face among them) with the sound off. Speaking of, Braveheart had one of those state-of-the-art early digital mixes that showed off discrete sound systems both in theatres and, in AC-3 on LaserDisc, at home, and the Dolby Atmos track took me back to those halcyon days. This is powerful audio, even in its 7.1 Dolby TrueHD mixdown, with the battering-ram sequence delivering the titanic bass I was nostalgic for from THX screenings of the film. James Horner's score fills the room warmly and voices are well-prioritized. Incidentally, all of the burned-in subtitles have been left intact for this version rather than assigned to the player to generate.
The only supplement on the UHD platter is a feature-length yakker by Mel Gibson. There are so many gaps in it I almost wonder if they were meant to be filled by a partner, and I think Paramount probably should've edited it into a select-scenes commentary to take out the dead air. Nevertheless, Gibson is a reasonably engaging monologist, especially in a mid-film confession that he was certifiably insane by the end of production and vowed to never again appear in a movie he's directing. I like when, during the wedding-night love scene, he singles out the visible breath as the kind of "primal" detail he can't get enough of. For what it's worth, he's a total coward during the bit that landed him and Braveheart in a lot of hot water (Longshanks throwing his son's male lover out the window), offering only that he learned the word "defenestration" because of it. In fact, GLAAD demanded an apology for the picture's poor taste, Mel refused ("They can fuck off" were his exact words), and soon his whole career was being pored over for traces of homophobia. Feeling the first fissures in his stardom, Gibson was left with no choice but to host a luncheon for gay and lesbian filmmakers, where he spoke apology-shaped statements that amounted to "sorry you noticed I'm terrible" and shamelessly trotted out Conspiracy Theory co-star Julia Roberts to bedazzle his audience. Inevitably yet disappointingly, none of this is acknowledged or even alluded to within the remaining extra features, although they are otherwise fairly comprehensive.
All of the remaining bonus material is on the second Blu-ray and begins with the three-part "Braveheart: A Look Back" (60 mins., HD). Now 11 years old, the piece finds Gibson and company reflecting on the film's making, from its fast-tracked pre-production to its VHS afterlife, with behind-the-scenes footage and clips padding the running time. Gibson starts out boasting that nothing like Braveheart had been done since the '50s or '60s, either ignoring or forgetting Akira Kurosawa's massive-scale '80s epics Kagemusha and Ran. He also can't remember in which century Braveheart takes place, first saying eleventh, then correcting himself with "twelfth." Actually, it's the thirteenth century, but Gibson's brain is pretty pickled at this point. I enjoyed the co-reminiscing of DP John Toll and makeup artist Lois Burwell, who met on the production and married soon afterwards, and it's especially nice hearing from editor Steven Rosenblum. He says that Gibson and Toll gave him the best footage he had ever had the pleasure of cutting but laments Mel's tendency to give himself the fewest number of takes, leaving Rosenblum with too few choices when it came to sculpting Gibson's performance.
"Medieval Killing Fields" (25 mins., HD) sees historians Liza Picard and Lucy Moore (a dead ringer for Rebecca Hall) and the Rev. Dr. Martin Dudley recounting the sordid history of Smithfield, the site of William Wallace's execution. (At the time, it was fair season!) Moore rather graphically details Wallace's final ordeal there, which seems far worse than what Braveheart depicts, while Dudley reveals the smutty origins of nearby Cock Lane. Don't skip this one, it's a lot of fun. In "A Writer's Journey" (22 mins., SD), screenwriter Randall Wallace opens by saying, "I grew up with absolutely no ethnic consciousness." It's not the most surprising revelation from a pious American southerner, but Wallace is ingratiating as he tells the story of discovering, then writing about, then researching potential ancestor William Wallace, a journey that climaxed with Mel Gibson wanting to meet him and Wallace (Randall) literally praying to God that he wouldn't feel tempted to kiss Mel's ass. Lastly, "Tales of William Wallace" (30 mins., SD) is the obligatory biographical featurette devoted to the titular subject, though of course there's still so much we don't know about him since the only quasi-contemporary chronicle of his escapades--by one Henry the Minstrel, a.k.a. Blind Harry--purports to be based on writings that don't exist and clearly contains a certain amount of autobiography. The segment closes with a glimpse of the mock funeral that was held for Wallace in Scotland in 2005. Rounding things out are an educational and informative interactive map escorting users through the "Battlefields of the Scottish Rebellion," plus two theatrical trailers for Braveheart in HD and a digital code to download the film.
178 minutes; R; UHD: 2.39:1 (2160p/MPEG-H), Dolby Vision|HDR10, BD: 2.35:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); UHD: English Dolby Atmos (7.1 TrueHD core), French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1, BD: English 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, French DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1; English, English SDH, French, Spanish subtitles; BD-100 + BD-50 + BD-25; Region-free (UHD), Region A (BD); Paramount