A nominee for 10 Academy Awards and the winner of five (including Best Picture and Best Director), Braveheart captures both the picturesque serenity and abject brutality of 13th-century Scotland and her quest for independence from England’s cruel pagan ruler, King Edward I (aka Longshanks). Leading the charge in this bloody campaign is Scottish hero William Wallace, a warrior whose dreams of a home, family and peace are quickly snuffed out by English tyranny. Now, his only quest is freedom. Both a brilliant military strategist and a savage warrior, Wallace tackles oppression head-on, yet faces resistance from comfortable bourgeois countrymen reluctant to rock the boat. Such compromise sickens Wallace who, oddly enough, wins the heartfelt support of lovely Princess Isabelle, Longshanks’ under-appreciated daughter-in-law. This often violent tale is part history, part mythology, all action-adventure. At its core lies a fundamental life-and-death struggle for what so many 21st-century Americans take for granted ... life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
positive elements: Early in the film, a young Wallace receives sage advice from his father who tells him, "I know you can fight, but it’s our wits that make us men." Following his father’s death, William’s uncle reinforces this by telling him that using one’s intellect should precede the use of force. A girl demonstrates kindness and sympathy by, without a word, handing the grieving orphan a flower at his father’s funeral (this is the girl Wallace will later marry). The boy decides to travel abroad, learn numerous languages and work toward an enviable education.
Fighting for one’s noble convictions—indeed, a willingness to die for them—is central to this 3-hour saga. Wallace is a devoted, loving husband before becoming an inspirational leader of men. He also shows humility by asking for forgiveness from his father-in-law following his wife’s murder. When he rallies troops to medieval combat, he doesn’t watch from a distance like Longshanks does; he stands at the front of the charge. Wallace’s own brutality in war is not without a decent respect for women and children. He has little patience with political squabbling among well-to-do Scots afraid to enter the fray. In fact, when he tells them, "You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom," American viewers may rise up, cheer wildly and wish he could materialize in Washington to address Congress. After betraying Wallace to the English, a fellow Scot experiences regret, saves Wallace’s life and tells his rationalizing father, "No! I will never be on the wrong side again" (after Wallace’s death, it is he who spearheads the battle that finally wins Scotland its freedom). Even faced with public torture and sure martyrdom, Wallace prays for strength and refuses to bow to the evil authority of Longshanks.
spiritual content: A religious funeral (spoken mostly in Latin) includes a clearly Christian benediction. Wallace states, "God makes men what they are," which may not be entirely true (often a man created by God can make ungodly choices that shape his identity), but at least his statement recognizes that individuals are part of a divine plan. A mercenary warrior mixes spirituality with bloodlust and dicey language, and claims to have been sent by the Almighty to kill Englishmen. Wallace makes a sincere plea to his comrades in the name of Christ, and later prays for strength to face a painful fate.
sexual content: Longshanks decrees that whenever a Scottish nobleman is married, Englishmen are to have sex with the bride first in order to "breed out" the Scots. There’s breast nudity and implied sex between Wallace and his new bride (whom he marries in secret because he refuses to share her with any other men). In one scene, a lecherous soldier tries to take advantage of Wallace’s wife. Much later, the widowed Wallace sleeps with Princess Isabelle, who has grown romantically attached to the passionate patriot. It is strongly implied that Prince Edward and his male aide are involved in a homosexual relationship. Dialogue between the princess and her handmaid reveals the servant’s promiscuity.
violent content: Many brutal combat scenes more than justify Braveheart’s R rating. Men are bludgeoned with maces, struck with axes, hit in the face with arrows, set on fire, speared, stabbed, impaled, hanged, decapitated and beaten to a pulp. A leg is severed. A man loses his hand. Another is gouged in the throat with a set of antlers. Horses and their riders are speared with long poles. Several people have their throats cut. The most disturbingly graphic occurrence involves Wallace casually slitting the throat of the man who killed his wife in similar fashion. It’s easy to feel for him, but he seems to enjoy his vengeance a little too much. In separate incidents, Longshanks has his archers fire into a scrum aware that his own men will be hit, and personally hurls his son’s gay lover out a tower window to his death. Wallace beheads the king’s nephew and sends Uncle Longshanks the disembodied noggin in a basket. Bloodied bodies litter the landscape following vicious hand-to-hand combat.
crude or profane language: About a dozen profanities, including two f-words.
other negative elements: To antagonize the enemy, Wallace’s army moons the opposing troops.
conclusion: There’s something especially compelling about the person of William Wallace, a larger-than-life revolutionary who operated under Nike’s "Just Do It" mantra centuries before heroes started pulling down six-figure endorsement deals. To face martyrdom so bravely. To die with one word on his lips—freedom—as he’s being drawn and quartered. To reject being "bought out," but rather to persevere on behalf of his oppressed countrymen, their children and their children’s children. Just as in Gibson’s more recent war story, The Patriot, there are a lot of healthy messages here. But just as in The Patriot, this Oscar-winner asks audiences to endure raw, extremely graphic violence along the way. Now available on DVD, Braveheart can be viewed in all of its widescreen splendor—great when the cinematographer focuses on fog-swept hillsides enriched by James Horner’s soothing Celtic score, but a little less desirable when painted barbarians are butchering each other in living color. Is the extreme violence necessary to convey the events leading to Scotland’s liberation? I’m not convinced that it had to be quite so extreme, explicit and, in a few cases, exploitative. Leaving a bit more to the imagination would have made Braveheart a more accessible entertainment without diminishing its inherently powerful messages.
special DVD features: A pair of rousing theatrical trailers are joined by a 28-minute "making of" featurette that includes background on William Wallace (and shows the monument to him that still stands today), interviews with the cast and crew, and a look behind the scenes at how Gibson staged and choreographed the battle scenes. There’s also a version of the film overlaid with commentary by Oscar-winning director/star Mel Gibson that’s interesting, but seems rather flat considering Gibson’s manic story-telling ability.