Oscar-winning historical blockbuster Braveheart celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend. All across the land (that’s Scotland), patriotic types are no doubt preparing for a whole host of celebratory screenings, while English saps like me retreat quietly into the corner and whimper.
Objectively speaking, it’s a great movie. I must have seen it a dozen times. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and it’s got Brendan Gleeson in a kilt. What’s not to like?
And yet, every time I sit through it, I can’t help but feel that I’m being personally attacked and vilified – just because I happen to have been born south of the border.
Viewing its 177 minutes of anti-English vitriol is like an exercise in confused self-flagellation, and I have developed a bit of a love/hate relationship with the film as a result.
Here are five reasons why the English heart of me loathes the Mel Gibson classic, even while I’m enjoying the on-screen action.
1. It’s completely racist
Every single Englishman in the movie is either an idiotic buffoon or an evil tyrant. This is completely and utterly unfair. As everyone knows, some of us are actually evil buffoons and idiotic tyrants.
Think about it though: from the leering soldier at the outset to the lame-brained Lords – and of course the borderline offensive depiction of the future Edward II as a whimpering, effeminate drip (he was gay, you see!) – there’s not a single redeeming feature among the rogues gallery of caricatures that is the English cast.
When the Irish bloke says he’ll fight for Wallace if he gets to kill English people (“excellent!”) we’re meant to laugh, as if it’s a standing joke that thousands of poor conscripted peasants are about to be slaughtered just because of where they grew up.
2. It totally misrepresents history
Stewart Lee sums it up pretty well here, with what has to be one of the most ingenious and ballsy pieces of stand-up I’ve ever seen (he recorded this in Glasgow).
William Wallace wasn’t exactly just some rugged guy living in a straw hut who decided to fight back against the occupiers one day. Nor did he romance the English/French princess (unless we want to countenance a very troubling thought).
What’s most entertaining to note is that many historians actually believe Wallace spent some of his younger life fighting as an archer for Edward I as he campaigned in Wales. That’s right – the noble champion of freedom probably earned some spare cash helping his eventual enemy subjugate and control another separate corner of the UK. Irony, eh?
3. Wallace wins because he’s clever. The English win because they’re evil
Speaking of which, Wallace didn’t actually win the Battle Of Stirling Bridge by having his cavalry pretend to run away, and getting his mates to craft big pointy sticks as if this was some great new invention. No, he won because of the utter incompetence of the English generals, who completely cocked up their battle formations, cramming all of their vanguard and cavalry across the bridge (yes – there was actually a bridge!). ‘Lions led by donkeys’ springs to mind.
But even when the English do eventually triumph at Falkirk, the film fails to give them due credit. According to the movie, they only won because the dastardly Longshanks bribes the Scottish cavalry commanders to leave. In reality, the cavalry fled because they were hopelessly outmatched, and Wallace’s forces were destroyed by the mighty English longbows. Longshanks was a top-notch leader – not just a scheming bastard.
4. It brushes over all the Scottish atrocities
In the film, the rebellion starts because Wallace’s innocent wife is executed for fighting off the soldier who attacks her. Obviously, that’s pretty unfortunate – and you’d expect any man to want revenge. But the lengths Wallace and his supporters go to in bloodthirsty response make them just as bad in turn. If not more so.
In the movie, Wallace sacks York. When an army ‘sacked’ a city in medieval times, you know what that meant right? We’re talking widespread rape, murder, looting and what would now be considered war crimes. So yeah – you’re essentially cheering on a bunch of raping, murdering war criminals for the rest of the film. Good for you.
And remember that nice, noble young chap who refuses to flee the city and instead stays to bravely fight? Wallace lops off his head and sends it to his family in a bucket, just because he happens to be the king’s nephew. Yeah, what a hero.
5. It’s used as a stick to beat the English with
Such is the widespread influence of Braveheart on people’s perceptions that during the Scottish Independence Referendum, I remember many foreigners expressing bewilderment that there was even a debate at all. Surely everyone in Scotland would wish to be free of the tyrannical yoke of English rule?
It does seem kind of odd that a factually egregious movie made by an Australian-American director about something that happened more than 700 years ago should still stand as a testament to plucky, underdog Scottish resolve today, and nefarious English arseholery, but I guess that’s the kind of pop culture and political impact you can muster when you have a lead character who literally orgasms at the concept of liberty.
The way in which the SNP have occasionally referenced and drawn on the power of the film – often indirectly of course – strikes me as quite weird really. You’d think that a party so opposed to foreign military intervention and Trident wouldn’t want to draw on the spirit of centuries-old war and slaughter to kindle the fires of independence.
Even esteemed actor Brian Cox – an outspoken champion of Scottish independence, and part of the movie’s cast – has dismissed the film as “very silly”.
But still, maybe I’m just jealous. I kind of wish I had my own plucky underdog blockbuster to celebrate my ancestors’ heroism and struggle for freedom.
Where’s my film about Yorkshire attempting to defy the Normans during the Harrying Of The North? A lad can dream…