The first thing we see in "Braveheart" is the Scottish landscape, and along with the battle scenes it is probably what one remembers most about the film. Not that its star and director, Mel Gibson, doesn't make an impression as Sir William Wallace, Scottish national hero in his country's fight for independence from English rule in the thirteenth century. Indeed, Gibson's enthusiasm in the role is commendable, but it's hard to top the panoramic beauty of the highlands or the sight of thousands of charging soldiers on the field of battle. In fact, it's amazing that Gibson is able to infuse his character with enough spirit and nobility to be noticed at all. But he does, making Wallace both human and mythic at the same time. The film is deserving of its five Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Makeup, and Sound Effects Editing. It's also deserving of its beautiful DVD transfer, making it an essential requirement of any videophile library worthy of the name.
The story is based on some historical knowledge, some legend, and a lot of conjecture about the life and times of William Wallace. When we first meet him, he is a boy and the year is 1280 A.D. We are introduced to the movie's conflict immediately as young William witnesses the mass murder of a group of Scottish leaders who were invited to a peace summit by England's Edward I, known as "Longshanks," depicted in the film as a ruthless monarch bent on controlling all of Scotland at any cost. Edward is played brilliantly by a scene-stealing Patrick McGoohan ("Secret Agent," "The Prisoner"). McGoohan makes Edward the perfect villain, a butcher willing to sacrifice any number of his own men to maintain his power. McGoohan's performance also contributed to making Gibson a villain in the eyes of much of the British public, who feel that along with Gibson's more-recent "The Patriot" he is holding a grudge against them, unfairly giving a bad name to the country and its past. I would advise taking the film with a grain of salt and just enjoying the rousing adventure.
Anyway, after the English have killed the Scots at an agreed-upon unarmed parley, young William's father goes off and gets killed, too, which plants the seed of revenge in the boy. But he is basically a peace-loving fellow and grows up a farmer who rejects the idea of rebellion against England. He secretly marries his beautiful childhood sweetheart, Murron (Catherine McCormack), because her father thinks he's a coward for not joining the rebel ranks. Meanwhile, two developments occur in England. First, King Edward arranges a marriage between his effete son, Prince Edward (Peter Hanly), and Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau), the daughter of his enemy, the King of France. Second, he invokes the law of Prima Nocte ("First Night"), giving English nobles first sexual rights on the night of a commoner's wedding, another reason Wallace and Murron marry in secret. However, when the English murder his new wife, Wallace strikes back with a vengeance. He moves to action, joins the clans, and eventually becomes their leader. Before long (at least in the film), he is in charge of a huge rebel army of peasants marching across Scotland and driving the English before them. The Scottish nobles, though, are reluctant to take sides. They enjoy the comforts of land and prestige largely because they appease the English. Chief among the nobles is Robert the Bruce (Angus McFadyen), who, along with his father, is depicted in the film as a political opportunist, a schemer, a waverer drawn to compromise, a man who can be bribed by titles and money; unlike Wallace, who is portrayed as selfless, incorruptible, wanting nothing for himself, only freedom for his country.
As things go on, Wallace succeeds in driving out the English and then decides the only way to keep them out is for him and his army to invade England! This is almost accomplished while Longshanks is away fighting the French and while his weakling son is in charge. Nevertheless, the King returns in time to lead an army of his own to deal with Wallace. Wallace is tactically smart, but Edward is treacherous. The King tricks Wallace by paying the Scottish nobles to side with him! Beaten but not defeated, Wallace continues to press the attack by rounding up a new army of commoners. He is only finally bested when he agrees to seek a meeting with Robert the Bruce, where he is again betrayed, this time for good. He is brought back to London, tortured and executed, his body cut into pieces and sent to the four corners of the land. Before he dies, Wallace is asked to renounce his rebellion and acknowledge his allegiance to the King; his last word in the film is "freedom." Who knows; it could've happened.
I should mention, too, that along the way Wallace has an affair with Princess Isabelle, who comes to admire a man of such high principle. Regardless, little is made of this matter, except that it affords a convenient reason for Isabelle to provide Wallace with private information concerning various upcoming battle plans. No, it isn't really for any personal relationships or for any serious character development that one admires "Braveheart." It is mainly for Wallace's unflinching honesty, the director's well-paced storytelling, the gorgeous settings, and, of course, the scope of the movie's battles. The scenes of mass carnage involving thousands of men are bloody and brutal, yet they are choreographed with an almost balletic grace as well. They come off spectacularly (with the help of the Irish Reserve Army), and, besides, we get to learn why the Scots wore their kilts into combat--to flash the enemy!
Now, for those of you who need to know more about the real William Wallace, here are a few selected items from the "Encyclopedia Britannica" that are not mentioned in the movie: "When King Edward returned from France in 1298, he invaded Scotland. On July 22 Wallace's spearmen were defeated by Edward's archers and cavalry in the Battle of Falkirk, Stirling. Although Edward failed to pacify Scotland before returning to England, Wallace's military reputation was ruined. He resigned his guardianship in December and was succeeded by Robert de Bruce (later King Robert I) and Sir John Comyn "the Red." There is some evidence that Wallace then went to France in 1299 and thereafter acted as a solitary guerrilla leader in Scotland; but from the autumn of 1299 nothing is known of his activities for more than four years. Although most of the Scottish nobles submitted to Edward in 1304, the English continued to pursue Wallace. On Aug. 5, 1305, he was arrested near Glasgow and executed as a traitor. In 1306 Bruce raised the rebellion that eventually won independence for Scotland. Many of the stories surrounding Wallace have been traced to a late 15th-century romance ascribed to Henry the Minstrel. The most popular tales are not supported by documentary evidence, but they show Wallace's firm hold on the imagination of his people." Lastly, "Isabella was married to Prince Edward on Jan. 25, 1308," some three years after Wallace's death. Don't believe everything you see in the movies.
In any case, you may believe in the excellence of the 2.35:1 ratio, widescreen, anamorphic transfer (or more like 2.16:1 if your TV overscans). The picture quality is bright and colorful, realistic in detail, well delineated, with only the slightest touch of shimmering pixels in things like chain mail. It allows one not only to enjoy every picture-postcard locale but every gash, slash, chop, and blood stain in every battle.
In addition, believe in the superiority of the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, which is not only robust to match the movie but conveys even little things like a bird flying overhead left to right in the rear speakers, the sound of horses' hooves as a rider approaches from the back, or the delights of James Horner's Scottish-inflected musical score. The sounds are smooth and natural, and in between the audio is dead quiet. Very nice.
Supplements are scarce in this otherwise splendid presentation, but the few items we do get are worthwhile. There is Mel Gibson narrating a full-feature commentary. There's a twenty-eight-minute documentary, "The Making of Braveheart: A Filmmaker's Passion," which is well named. There are twenty-two scene selections, probably too few for a film of this length. There are two widescreen theatrical trailers. There are English and French spoken languages. And there are English subtitles for the hearing impaired.
One of the drawbacks of "Braveheart," like most epics, is its extreme length, nearly three hours. It goes by quickly, yet three hours is still quite a bit of one's time. In a movie theater, as a captive audience, the time may fly by faster, but at home with inevitable interruptions it can easily take up a full afternoon or evening. There was the neighbor and his son borrowing a cup of cooking oil to bake a cake; the lady at the door soliciting donations for the Sierra Club; three phone calls; one snack break; and two bathroom visits. Thank goodness for the pause control. I started around 3 p.m. and finished the film at 7:30. I mention this because you will want to plan your time accordingly.
It isn't easy making epics. Often, the surrounding material can overwhelm the characters. Just ask Kevin Costner, whose "Waterworld" and "Postman" were so bloated with peripheral matter their main characters were hardly noticed. But Gibson manages to keep his epic afloat by solidly grounding Wallace in the viewer's heart and mind. The battle scenes are probably what audiences will recollect most, but Wallace himself comes over almost as strongly as any of the battles. The only substantial equivalent is Kirk Douglas in "Spartacus," another epic where the main character remains firmly rooted in memory despite the spectacle. "Braveheart" is deserving of its popularity, praise, and awards. It makes a worthy addition to one's collection of big, old-fashioned, grand-scale, blockbuster adventures.