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Why Braveheart is still the best historical epic ever made

Why Braveheart is still the best historical epic ever made

Why Braveheart is still the best historical epic ever made

In September of 2014, the Scots went to the polls and came closer to independence then they have in the 200 or so years since their union with England. Unfortunately for the “Yes” campaign, they were a few votes off.

For centuries, the Scots have been defending their unique Celtic identity in the face of Anglicization from their English cousins south of the border. But political independence has only became a possibility in the 20 years since the release of Braveheart. Having recently seen Mel Gibson’s Best Picture winning epic again, it became apparent that this film is no less relevant today and remains one of the best, if not the best historical epic ever made.

Ok, so that’s a big statement –  especially in the company of films like Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Spartacus, and even the more recent Oscar Winners like Gladiator or 12 Years a Slave. But what Mel Gibson’s epic capitalizes on, and what really holds your attention, is it’s setting in a world rooted in gritty realism that is as immersive as the highland epics written by Sir Walter Scott a century earlier. Braveheart was the first movie to take a National hero and portray him in a time and place that was not sanitized for modern audiences. With the advent of shows like Game of Thrones and movies like Saving Private Ryan one takes this for granted, but before Braveheart hardcore violence was absent from mainstream historical movies. Sure, Gibson has the camera linger on scenes of bucolic highland beauty, reminiscent of romantic age paintings.  But he does not shy away from the brutality and horror of medieval times. Instead, he subjects the viewer to the mud and blood of battle so close up that one feels the dizzy, claustrophobia of hand to hand combat. We feel the pain and suffering of William Wallace as he evolves from an orphaned child to the father of a nation, and finally to his ignominious death. And this juxtaposition creates the sense of a world in turmoil, not yet spoiled by modernity, but wild, rough and in flux.

“It hit a chord, and I think every culture is, no matter where you come from, looking for that identity.  And to have it displayed to the world and for it to be something you feel, it does make a deep mark.”  – Mel Gibson on Braveheart

Another thing that struck me on my most recent viewing is how the political landscape of Europe has not changed much in the intervening years. You could substitute the cast of this film for current members of Parliament, the clan leaders for Scottish leaders who flip flop on their allegiances, and the highland farmers preceding the climatic battle who have the same doubts about independence as do any working class people in Glasgow or Edinburgh today. Gibson was acutely aware of how this film would have parallels in today’s society, so much so that when the film does venture into the realm of fantasy it is often to extol virtues of freedom and justice – values whose importance was perhaps less evident within the political landscape of the 13th century.

I remember reading about the event that sent Gibson on the journey of discovery that eventually culminated in the making of this film.  Gibson was visiting Sterling battlefield in Scotland, when he came across a statue of Wallace. He said he sat in awe when he saw a “Claymore” sword, supposedly belonging to the hero, a weapon so big and heavy that one man could not have easily lifted it, let alone held it above his head. He had shivered when he read about how Wallace’s entrails were slowly torn out of him, as he lay butchered to death in front of a jeering London crowd. (And there are rumors that an even more bloody and graphic final scene was left on the cutting room floor.) It’s this veneration for the past, in all it’s raw beauty and ugliness, that makes this story the best historical epic ever captured on film.

But it’s hard to say if this will be the last referendum by these unruly subjects of the Crown.

Herodotus was a Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria (modern-day Bodrum, Turkey) and lived in the fifth century BC (c. 484–425 BC). Widely referred to as “The Father of History” (first conferred by Cicero), he was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically and critically, and then to arrange them into a historiographic narrative. Although some of his stories were fanciful and others inaccurate, he states he was reporting only what was told to him. Little is known of his personal history.

1 Comment

  1. brenda croteau 2 years ago

    Great article.

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