By misadventure, which is another way of saying idleness and sloth, I wound up seeing Mel Gibson’s Oscar winning film Braveheart twice in the same week. I had seen it in the theatre when it was first released and thought it alright but not too much more despite its Academy Award as Best Picture. Upon recent viewings I think that it’s somewhat more than that. It is a stirring epic made with skill, commitment and passion. The last word being the most important. We see a lot of films that are skillfully made. Dazzlingly so sometimes. But the passion invested in the work isn’t always apparent. Sometimes we find it in the acting of some roles but rarely in the direction. But here its director’s passion can be felt in every frame. Mel Gibson who also produced and starred carries the picture through the force of his total immersion in the project. And although there are many excellent performances throughout it is his that gives the film its drive, its electricity, its passion.
There is a blue collar ethic to the entire enterprise. This is something that he brings to virtually all the films that he has been in. Including Zefferelli’s Hamlet (1990) in which he gave a quite worthwhile performance that surprised many who had previously thought him just another popular actor out of Australia. With Braveheart and the character of William Wallace this interpretation fits like a glove. The situation and its aftermath are direct and blunt to the point of sometime seeming almost obtuse. There is no subtlety or subtext here. What you see is what it is all about. But it works. Works like a hard punch in the guts.
Prior to this film Gibson had only directed one film The Man without a Face (1993). In it he had done a respectable job. But it in no way prepared us for the size, scope, and sheer scale of Braveheart. And since then he has directed two other films. The controversial and financially successful Passion of the Christ (2004) and the tepidly received Apocalypto (2006). To me both films had their merits although I found Passion of the Christ repetitive and Apocalypto slow going. Both though lacked the energy of Braveheart and its pounding sense of inevitability. In other words “its internal passion”.
Now in spite of its efforts to avoid comparison the film (changing Wallace wife’s name from Marian to Murron is one instance) nevertheless Braveheart echoes Michael Curtiz’ Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) with its many scenes of male camaraderie, the sense of living out in the wild, and even a suggestion of the Little John character in the rock throwing scene at the beginning. It is also very much a man’s picture. Catherine McCormick’s character is there only to set the plot in motion and Sophie Marceau‘s seems shoehorned into the plot just for the sake of itself. There was some controversy about the depiction of the relationship between Longshanks and his son. Some accusations of homophobia. I didn’t see it that way. To me it was similar to the relationship between Anthony Quinn and his son (played by Earl Holliman) in Last Train from Gunhill (1959). In both cases the father and son dynamic is about the same and Holliman’s character is anything but homosexual.
Mel Gibson who was always a better actor than he was given credit for also looks extremely muscular and handsome in the role. Probably the handsomest he’s looked in a movie in quite a while. So he brings a movie star glamour to the picture as well. But his best and greatest contribution is the passion he gave to the film. He also provided it with a sense of humor that is rough hewn and sometimes blatant but it serves to undercut the solemnity of the situation and the graphic nature of some of the violence.
As I see it, this is not a great film but one that is beautifully photographed, intelligently written, and handsomely executed by all the creative entities involved. Gibson has been going through some bad times recently. One hopes that he can put them behind him soon and find a project that can get him as passionately engaged as Braveheart did. We need more films with that kind of ambition yielding that kind of result.