Directed by Mel Gibson

Written by Randall Wallace

With Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan, and Catherine McCormack.

Mel Gibson is not known for the chances he takes. After a promising beginning–he appeared in critically acclaimed, artistic films like Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, and Mrs. Soffel–he became a Hollywood star with Lethal Weapon in 1987. The box-office success of that film prompted Gibson to make two sequels plus the calculated and uncourageous Tequila Sunrise, Bird on a Wire, Air America, and Maverick. Box-office grosses affirm an actor’s work. When your movie makes more than $100 million, the public are in effect saying, “We love it. Keep it up.” It’s like Skinnerian behavior modification, with money and adulation replacing food pellets. Which is why so many of our biggest stars share, or pretend to share, the audience’s assumptions and tastes. For Gibson such assumptions are automatic: he’s not better than his audience, he is his audience.

But Braveheart, which Gibson directed and stars in, does not at first glance seem an automatic blockbuster. Set in the Scottish Highlands in the late 13th century, it tells the story of Sir William Wallace (Gibson), a great military hero who led the fight for Scottish freedom against England’s King Edward I (“Edward Longshanks”). In an effort to break the Scots’ spirit, Edward imposed a law that a Scottish bride must spend the first night of her marriage in the bed of the ruling English noble. When Wallace’s wife violently resists, she’s tied to a stake and threatened with execution. Scanning the vast, empty horizon, she’s in the metaphoric position of all Scots–looking for freedom, for protection by a force more powerful than herself. Programmed by countless other Hollywood movies, we expect a last-minute rescue, and her sudden murder is shocking.

Braveheart has a gut-wrenching, bone-breaking, sword-thwacking verve. Like Wallace, Gibson seems charged with blood lust. This is manly, maximum-impact movie-making, full of brawn, brawls, decapitations, castrations, and men bleeding the ground red. The variety of weapons is astonishing, from buckets of bubbling pitch for burning skin to balls on chains for crushing craniums; from deer antlers for gouging eyes to gigantic spears for impaling cavalry horses. Wallace roils and inspires his troops with hoarse speeches about “freedom” and “last chances.” Full of adrenaline, they charge down the field toward their enemies like a football team after the kickoff. Their momentum and rage transform terror into what looks very like courage, and Gibson skillfully captures the impact as the armies crash into each other and fight and die.

Gibson’s direction illuminates the ugly reality of war, casting a heroic light on brutality. Braveheart’s many cinematic bloodbaths are the result of Wallace’s wish to avenge his wife’s death–the movie’s like a Scottish Death Wish. The British in their ocher cloaks glow against the mud like psychedelic lizards–trespassers, obviously alien to the land, neon targets to be killed so that natural hues can be restored. Swarming around Wallace like red ants, they’re slaughtered in slow motion, and Wallace’s vengeance mobilizes the Scots: revenge leads to revolution.

Is Braveheart historically accurate? The narrator charges that “history is written by hangmen,” so probably not; but Gibson’s focus is on heroism, not history. According to the film, William Wallace is leading the Scots not to death but to freedom. When King Edward captures him and brings him to England to make an example of him, even during torture Wallace refuses to break; Gibson implies that Wallace’s refusal to compromise inspires the rebels to victory. Glorifying suffering, Gibson defines a hero by his ability to withstand pain. The film ends with an epiphany of masochistic suffering and self-sacrifice. Wallace is hung by the neck, stretched on the rack like a rubber band, and disemboweled, but he refuses to beg for mercy or betray his ideals. It certainly looks heroic to the audience, munching popcorn in a comfortable movie theater, divorced from his pain. This is martyrdom as victory.

At times like these one can’t help but question Gibson’s vision. Yet, aside from a love scene in which the rain and the night inexplicably disappear in one cut, there are no noticeable flaws in his direction. In fact, he proves to be quite talented–except for his pacing. The movie keeps surging into climaxes and epiphanies, but there are so many of them and they occur with such clockwork regularity that the effect, at first overwhelming, eventually becomes numbing. It’s like overindulging in sweets–after a while chocolate starts to make you sick. And once we adjust to the feverish emotional pitch, its impact is muted. Classical plots build to a climax and subside into denouement. Braveheart builds to a climax, then catches its breath for another climax. There are too many betrayals, too many decapitations. We overload on grime and blood and rage. It’s as if Gibson were trying to sustain an adrenaline rush for all 173 minutes of the film.

Gibson’s film company is called Icon, and he knows how to maintain his own iconic status. Wallace seems to be the only Scotsman who wears short sleeves, probably because Gibson associates heroism with muscle. In an iconographic masterstroke, Gibson frames Wallace–a muddy, earthy figure (at times it seems the entire $70 million budget went toward strategically placed dirt) with a flashing sword–alone against the sky. The only things in the shot bluer than the sky are Gibson’s eyes. At one point Wallace meets the Princess Isabelle (Isabelle Adjani look-alike Sophie Marceau) and tells her of her father-in-law’s crimes against the Scottish people. When she appears dubious, he advises her to “Look into [King Edward’s] eyes. See if they can convince you he tells the truth.” Plainly, Mel’s baby blues convince her that he does. And they convince his fans, who like him well enough at least to spend seven dollars to see him. And that’s exactly what you need to be a Hollywood star: seven-dollar appeal.

In interviews and films Gibson seems a genuinely simple man. This is no insult, but it goes far toward explaining his box-office clout. The tyranny of mass taste guarantees stars who embody the values of their audience. The actors and directors who don’t offend, who stand for the middle-class values and populist ideals of the majority, have the broadest base of fans. Do middlebrow stars like Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner, and Tom Cruise seem like complex people? Do we struggle to understand their psyches? No, because they represent what many of us would like to see ourselves to be: courageous, resourceful, moral, and able to kick major butt.

The film’s final image is of men charging into battle, undergoing the age-old baptism into manhood via violence. When Wallace responds to an insult with “I do not lie, but I am a savage,” Gibson’s conviction makes it clear that both he and Wallace aspire to savagery. Wallace has been turned into a savage by English laws and repressions. By proudly proclaiming his savagery, he separates himself from the “civilized,” landed, educated classes who behave in such ordered, ruthless ways. William Wallace became a savage to remain free. Mel Gibson became a savage to make Braveheart: the brutality of the film is an affront to civilized standards of filmmaking. His movie shuns the aesthetic order, moons critical norms, and bludgeons subtlety.

Near the end of the film, the father of a Scottish noble tells his son, “It’s easy to admire the uncompromising man. But it’s exactly the ability to compromise that makes a man noble. Compromise is the only way to preserve your lineage and make you the king of Scotland.” That sounds reasonable on paper, but on-screen the speaker’s face is shown rotting away under blood-stained bandages, an image that undercuts the argument considerably. “All men betray,” the father continues. “All lose heart.” His son replies, “I don’t want to lose heart. I want to believe as William Wallace does.” He could be speaking for Gibson too. Watching Braveheart, the audience picks up on his belief in what he’s doing. Even when Braveheart is conventionally stirring, it has heart. Gibson is not a shill, an action star concerned only with the box-office gross. The producers begged him to cut 20 minutes, and one can imagine the pressure brought to bear by the investors of millions of dollars. But Gibson, perhaps inspired by Wallace, remained true to his vision. It’s just a coincidence that his vision is so commercial. Braveheart is both thoroughly conventional and thoroughly uncompromising. Gibson bellows his cliches with conviction. That’s why he’s a star.

Unfortunately, mass taste is sometimes infected with latent prejudices. Gibson, no fan of political correctness, includes harmless jokes in the movie about the French (“They will grovel to anyone with strength”) and the Irish (“In order to find an equal, an Irishman is forced to talk to God”). But the portrayal of Prince Edward, later Edward II, is more problematic. The heir to the throne wears rouge, is an incompetent, neglectful leader, and dresses in frilly finery while making googly eyes at his smiling male companion. Not only does he fail to satisfy his woman–crime enough–he’s also weak and groveling before his father.

In Tony Scott’s Beverly Hills Cop II, just before statuesque Aryan ice queen Brigitte Nielsen is pumped full of lead, a cop says disgustedly, “Women!” As she’s bloodied in a hail of gunfire, the audience is meant to laugh, chuckles mingling with the bullets. Somehow her sex has become part of the justification for killing her. In Braveheart, Prince Edward’s gay lover is tossed out a window, and the audience laughs at his death too. Scott would have had to think before putting a racial slur in Beverly Hills Cop II. He didn’t think about a sexist slur because he was oblivious to its sexism, much as Gibson is oblivious to the homophobia in Braveheart.

Of course, Gibson does wear a kilt for the entirety of the film. Is there something about wearing a skirt that causes a man to question his manhood? That would explain the constant macho roughhousing in Braveheart: greetings come in the form of punches, not hellos or handshakes. Somebody is always getting up off the ground holding his sore jaw and saying, “Good to see you.” The battle scenes feature mooning and castration, and there’s much talk of penis size and kissing ass: “He could blow bolts of lightning from his arse,” “Put your head between your legs and kiss your arse,” “Prepare to have your arse kissed by a king,” and “The commoners will kiss his arse, and so we must.” It’s ironic but revealing that the only word spoken as often as “arse” in Braveheart is “freedom.”