There've been some pretty questionable Oscar winners in the past. Titanic beat out L.A. Confidential. Forest Gump edged out Shawshank Redemption. Gladiator trumped Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Braveheart won over The Usual Suspects.
Before I go any further I just wanna let that sink in for a little bit.
After watching a slew of Mel Gibson flicks recently I've noticed some common threads. As I mentioned in my Mad Max review, Gibson rarely seems to deviate from playing the same character over and over again. Indeed William Wallace is pretty much in-step with Max Rockatansky and Martin Riggs: essentially he's a peaceful dude who's been pushed to the brink by EVIL MEN.
That's all fine and good in a work of fiction but is it really fair to pastiche a real-life historical figure with the exact same personality? Well, in the case of Braveheart you can apparently jettison most of the facts and still come out an Oscar richer. Now, don't get me wrong, this isn't a terrible film. It's well directed, has tons of lush cinematography, boasts a solid cast and encapsulates the gist of the story quite nicely. But in many ways it's extremely wrong-headed.
I know that Mel was forced star in the film in order to get it financed, but Braveheart really would have been better served if an unknown Scottish actor had been cast in the lead. Although Gibson can sleepwalk his way through a role like this, he was a bit long in the tooth at the time. By all accounts, Wallace was in his late twenties at the start of the rebellion and Mel was around forty at the time. Often he looks less like a Scottish Highlander and more like a roadie for Anvil.
"Sorry, mate, I don't work with pyro..."
Although the English certainly weren't saints, Gibson does what he can to make them as one-dimensionally villainous as possible. For example, there's no evidence to support that Edward enacted the despicable practice of primae noctis which supposedly gave feudal lords the right to claim the virginity of the estate's women. In fact, a claim can be made that this edict didn't even exist.
Regardless, Gibson and his screenwriters show Edward Longshanks gleefully enacting such barbarism. Why does he despise the Scots so much anyway? I'm willing to bet that the real reason was a lot more compelling than the script's assertion that cruelty and subjugation just so happened to be Edward's hobbies. Honestly, when antagonists act evil just for the sake of the script, we might as well be watching a Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon.
Edward paws over his daughter-in-law, hucks his son's gay lover out the window, slaughters the Scottish chieftains after he invites them to parley and casually issues orders to kill his own infantry. I know Edward had his issues, but I don't see a huge difference between this and the sort of manipulation employed by made-for-TV-disease-of-the-week flicks. It hate it when audiences mistake this sort of laziness as historical accuracy.
"I'm evil and I know it."
Where is Andrew de Moray during all of this? Where's the actual bridge in the Battle of Sterling Bridge? Are we really supposed to believe that Wallace met and then knocked up the Queen of England? And that he successfully sacked the city of York? As these inconsistencies pile up, my opinion of the film starts going from "jewel" to "junk".
And it gets worse. The film's highly-vaunted battle scenes are also starting to look a bit threadbare to me. High-def, wide-screen home viewings now reveal inaccurate costumes, equipment and background extras flailing pitifully at each other with fake swords, obviously waiting for someone to yell "CUT!"
Setting these criticisms aside, Braveheart certainly does a lot of visceral things right and it's easy to get swept up in this classic "underdog" story. The film also does a great job depicting the fractured nature of Scottish resistance and how difficult it was to mount a united front against the English. The melee scenes also depict the true brutality of medieval combat better than anything that came before it.
"What? It wasnae me!"
The cast is generally quite good, particularly Brendan Gleeson as Hamish and David O'Hara as Stephen (who either has a direct line to God or is nuttier then a Pal-O- Mine bar). James Horner's soundtrack is grand, emotional and evocative of the setting. Indeed, the crowning jewel of the film is the countryside itself and the sweeping shots of the Scottish Highlands are truly breathtaking.
Honestly, I really don't expect an historical drama to be 100% accurate. I know things need to be fudged for dramatic effect, but I certainly expect the film-makers to get more right than wrong. Braveheart veers dangerously close to crossing over that line.
It certainly doesn't bode well that my opinion of the film continues to drop every time I watch it.