The Politics of Braveheart


Wallace and his son-in-law

The questioner wrote:-

"Your history is excellent. But did it ever occur to you that Braveheart is less about
Scotland of 700 years ago than it is about Western Civilization of the 20th Century?
I guess not."

...... and elicited the following response:-

There were three reasons to justify my contribution to this debate. The first was my grief that the golden reputation of a great and much-revered man should have been transmuted into the leaden caricature of a cartoon character, a mediocre version of a Scottish Asterix.

The second was my irritation at the mischief this film, yet another fictionalised history (sometimes described, in the UK anyway, as "faction"), would create among the schoolchildren who, in their millions, will see it at the cinema now, and later on television, and will accept its ludicrous absurdities as true history.

The third reason was that I did indeed recognise the movie's relevance to the 20th Century, as most readers will have assumed from my wonder, expressed parenthetically, that this distressing misrepresentation might be "(politically-motivated???)".

Power without responsibility, as a more eloquent pen than mine once memorably observed, has been the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages. That the movie industry has the power to influence minds on moral and political matters has never been denied, but many of the inescapably consequent obligations of responsibility have nevertheless been evaded. These must be self-imposed, of course, (for anything in the nature of an external control could be corrupted into censorship, introducing thereby equivalent dangers from outside the industry), and thus they have to be recognised as self-discipline at director level.

Does it matter? I believe it does, particularly because the danger is so insidious. This is a forum of movie enthusiasts, and so almost every member will have seen the storming of the Winter Palace as it was portrayed by Sergei Eisenstein, with the hordes of valiant revolutionaries braving the guns of the brutal rulers. Almost everyone knows about this great moment in world history. But it never happened. (The rulers weren't brutal and they had very few guns. The Government inside the Palace fell to small patrols of Red Guards who entered by side doors. There were no mobs on the streets. There were no burning barricades.)

Now there was no "health warning" on "Braveheart". Gibson, at his press conference, was reported as saying "the film would be authentic" but that he had to make "compromises for story telling purposes." We all know that to compress seven years into three hours requires some compromises. We are accustomed to accepting poetic licence, and there are few who would object to the acceleration of the Prince's marriage so that a pretty girl who was in reality a nine-year-old maiden at her father's court in France might bring the enigmatic grace and beauty of a neglected wife to the court of Edward Longshanks. It is perhaps also acceptable, within the conventions of cinema, to show Edward, bereft of speech, close to death and within earshot of the agonies of Wallace (although he was still on campaign in the north of England when, two years later, he did die).

But how can a director claim authenticity for a story that has a physically active king (in England) speechless at the news, delivered by his nine-year-old posthumously-acquired daughter-in-law (in France), that the child she carries and intends to pass off as his grandchild is the result of a tryst (in a deserted hut in a northern forest from which she returned unescorted) with the man whose tortured shrieks he can hear from several miles away?

Is this poetic licence so terrible? If it had not been of such significance to the story it would have been distasteful or, to an observer perhaps more objective than I, merely inexplicable. But the licence Gibson took throughout the movie was, as you so accurately perceived, of such significance that it shaped and massaged a political message directly relevant to 20th Century politics (as has been amply demonstrated by the widely-reported vociferous audience reaction at cinemas in Scotland). And it went further, for in seeking to grant the paternity of Edward III to Wallace, Gibson denigrates the institution of monarchy, which is based on heredity, and invigorates its opponents.

Gibson's hero was shown not to be a cadet of the Wallaces of Riccarton, not the landed knight's son whose daughter married Sir William Baillie of Hoprig (said by Alexander Nisbet in 1722 to have descendants still alive) and whose maternal grandfather was Sir Reginald Craufurd of Loudon, the powerful Sheriff of Ayr (far more powerful and immensely richer than the sheriffs of the western movies Gibson may have thought he was imitating). Gibson's hero was not the man who bore his father's silver lion rampant on his red shield, was thus by Scots law a noble, and as a noble, albeit of low rank, was competent to treat with, and be supported in battle by, those of higher rank. Gibson's hero was a fiction, a "commoner" (which is Gibson's term) from a peat-roofed stone hut who was scorned by the "nobility" and betrayed by them because they preferred to be ruled from England. (Of course, the Earls of Angus and of Dunbar did go over to the English on the eve of Falkirk, but although Comyn led Wallace's small force of cavalry off the field, the timing of this is uncertain and there is no evidence that it was actually desertion. Many nobles fought with him to the end, and such as the Tutor of Fife, Graham of Dundaff and Stewart of Bonkill, brother of the High Steward, died there.)

Gibson's Irishmen at Falkirk went over to Wallace in a splendid display of working class solidarity, but in reality, true to the traditional hostility between the two races, they hated the Scots and fought us ferociously. Thomas Bisset led an Irish contingent to join Edward, but was reported to have stopped off at the Isle of Arran, conquered it, and asked Edward to grant it to him. (Gibson may have confused the Irish with the Welsh, for the Welsh had been recently fighting the English, and Edward distrusted their loyalty. Edward made the mistake of trying to enthuse them with an extra ration of wine on the night before the battle, but this led to a drunken brawl with the English and then an outspoken threat to join the Scots, a threat that forced Edward to suppress the danger their unreliability posed with an exhibition of his characteristic, lethal ruthlessness.)

Yes, as you claim, Braveheart is about "Western Civilization of the 20th Century". It is meretricious and dishonest, and as an entertainment expected to mislead those who understand little of history it is socially destructive. That it should appear now, at a time when independence is a sensitive political issue in Scotland and an excuse to murder in Ireland, and stir blind emotions with falsehood, is entirely consistent with some of the more regrettable characteristics of "Western Civilization in the 20th Century".

The great patriots of Scotland, among whom Wallace, Douglas, Bruce, and the Queen the English murdered at Fotheringhay, are immortal, have been ill-served by many who sought to follow in their steps. Edward Longshanks created the Scottish nation, Wallace breathed life into it, Douglas inspired it, and Bruce nurtured it. Two and a half centuries later a great Queen, who would have consolidated everything her Stewart ancestors had sought to achieve for us, was betrayed by "patriots" and then broken by factional fighting fomented from abroad. Nothing has changed since she went to her martyr's block. "Independence" is not the answer. Nor is revolution. Scotland has enjoyed some golden periods, but those were notable for social cohesion and loyalty to the Crown, not for class warfare.

Of course "Braveheart is less about Scotland of 700 years ago than it is about Western Civilization of the 20th Century." Did you really believe for a moment than any historian would not recognise that?

The correspondence continued for several weeks. Many questioned the execution scene and asked for explanations of what was invented and what was not. In response to questions about the surgical details, argument about the nature of evisceration, and misunderstandings about castration and emasculation, a description of the procedure was uploaded. It is reproduced here on a separate page to reduce the chance of it being read accidentally.

The Execution Scene in "Braveheart"

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