directed by Mel Gibson
Starring Mel Gibson, Patrick McGoohan and Sophie Marceau
at Sony Harvard Square
Movies about early Britain starring dirty men in kilts (See "Robin Hood," "Rob Roy," and "Highlander" 1 and 2) seem to be popular these days, so Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" comes as no surprise. Gibson tackles this feature as director, producer, and starring actor. He's evidently spreading himself too thin, because although the movie begins promisingly, it soon grows dull and repetitious, relying on old Hollywood tactics to reel in its audience.
William Wallace (Gibson) is a legendary scottish hero who defended Scottish independence in the face of English despotism. But when we first meet him, he's just a cute little boy in pigtails. His father is killed in an uprising against England. At his father's funeral, one precocious little girl is already giving him tender looks, setting the stage for the romance to come. William is taken away by his uncle, who emphasizes education before fighting skills, but that only puts off the inevitable. Predictably, William returns to his home years later and is struck to his home grown-up charm of lively Murron (Catherine McCormack).
As their relationship speeds along, Gibson relies increasingly on staple Hollywood techniques to create an aura of budding romance and sexual tensions. Galloping horses, sweeping green valleys and silhouettes in the sunset are all shamelessly put into play. They work, but it's unoriginal and it still sounds ridiculously premature when William confesses his love to Murron after having known her for what seems like a few days.
Unfortunately for the amorous duo, the cruel king of England has come up with a new scheme to keep Scotland under the English yoke. The ancient fertility rite of "prima notte," or first night, is reinstated. This means that when a woman marries, the lord of her district will have the right/duty to have sex with her. The English soldiers interpret this new plan as license to take any woman they see, and Murron catches the eye of one licentious soldier, She lashes out drwingte wrath of tother English soldiers, and William helps her to escape. Incensed by this attack on "peaceful" troops, the English captain uses Murron as bait in a trap to caputre William. When William returns the villagers rise up with him against the soldiers. A hero is born, and Scotland is thrown into a long awaited war with the hated English.
Meanwhile, in England, the king marris off his homosexual son (Peter Hanly) to a French princess (Sophie Marceau). The prince's homosexuality, effeminacy and poltical weakness are all too conveniently tied together. "The mere sight of him would merely encourage the ememy to take over the whole country," scoffs his father. The prince spends the time he should be working by dressing up in elaborate robes to the admiration of his male friends.
War is still raging in Northern England, and here Gibson surprises the complacent viewer with not one, but two lengthy battle scenes. Although he effectively juxtaposes the discipline and organization of the English army with the innovation and passion of the Scots, he also resorts to one-liners and silly adolescent pranks (like plashing the enemy) that are completely at odds with the situation. Testosterone also asserts itself in the form of barbaric yawping.
Not only is there conflict between the Scots and the British, but also between the nobles and the commoners. Traditionally the British king would bribe Scottish nobles into abandoning the battlefield before the war could begin. But in this case, William (a mere plebian) rides insolently into the discussion and starts the war with a few remarks that he must have learned at recess in Scottish elementary school. When they finally get down to fighting, the camera dips and swoops through the battlefield, careening realistically through the carnage.
Gibson plays it safe by dwelling on themes always close to the collective American heart. The heartlees but lethally well organized monarchy against the bank of riff-raff with real heart is a mirror of the American Revolution, while the greedy Scottish nobles who sell out the hard-working commoners reflect the American distrust of aristocracy.
William is a self-made man who rellies his people to the most glorious (although short-lived) victory in Scottish history. Unfortunately, you'd think he was the only virtuous man in Scotland. He is the voice of conscience for nobles, commoners, and the king's delegate. he even gives the future king of Scotland a pep talk/talking-to. But after the first two or three speeches, his recycled arguments about freedom and liberty get plain tedious.
Although Gibson uses his carefully-chosen themes and visual elements to good effect, the ploy is obvious. While these devices put together a decent movie, the viewer is perfectly aware that it is manufactured for the times. The whole "prima notte" issue, for example, clearly alludes to the sexual-military tactics used in Bosnia. Tentative stereotyping still mars the actors' roles including the French princess, trained to rule but unable to deny her soft female heart. Enjoying this movie calls for a generous does of cluelessness to ignore the tired machinery so obviously creaking behind the scenes.