Groups of movies on the same subject often arrive too close together to be accounted for only by imitation; it may be one of the more unsubtle workings of the collective unconscious. In 1984, three films were released about the struggle to save a family farm, all of them--Country, The River and Places in the Heart--with strong female protagonists. During the past two years, we've had three films about adolescent boys getting involved with grown-up baseball teams, and now, just a few months apart, two he-man Scots kicking English ass.
Even if one puts aside Christopher Lambert's travails in the absurd Highlander films, the recent Rob Roy and the current Braveheart are enough to suggest that beefy guys in kilts and sporrans brandishing broadswords have something to do with our culture's current idea of valor and honor, and, always more important, with our notions of glamour. It may be that the cowboy has been so debunked as a hero that we have to reach back further for a hero figure we can accept as unsullied.
Rob Roy was directed by Michael Caton-Jones with a fair amount of taste, and was well-enough acted all around, yet it was a deadly bore. Alan Sharp's dialogue had some pungent poetry and the ring of historical authenticity, yet it came out of the actors (Tim Roth excepted) like sludge. Liam Neeson looked right as the title hero, but there was nothing stirring about him. Roth, as the vilest of villains, made a far more intimate connection with the audience. Conversely, Mel Gibson's grand-scale vanity production Braveheart is like three hours at a Renaissance fair, yet it goes better than it has any right to.
Braveheart is transparent Hollywood mush. Gibson looks exactly like a handsome 20th-century movie star running around in neolithic leather armor, and his lady love in the film's first section has the most blindingly flawless set of teeth you've ever seen. Yet Gibson, who also directed, moves this ersatz costumer like a rocket from battle to battle, with an occasional brief breather for a bit of sex or sentiment or treacherous intrigue or corny, jocular humor. Its nearly three-hour running time makes Braveheart, I think, a hair longer than Rob Roy, but it feels an hour shorter.
My parents are both of Scottish descent, and, as a kid, I learned the first verse of a Burns poem called Bruce's Address to His Troops at Bannockburn: "Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled/Scots, wham Bruce has aften led/Welcome to your gory bed/Or to victorie!" I was once told that, sung to the tune of an English drinking song, this lyric and not "Scotland the Brave" is regarded as Scotland's true national anthem. I had never thought about the Wallace referred to in the first line, but this 13th-century partisan against the tyrannical English occupier Edward Longshanks is Braveheart's title character.
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Reliable accounts of the historical William Wallace are a bit sketchy. As with Rob Roy, Braveheart's script, by Randall Wallace (who claims a distant kinship) turns the warrior into a paragon of courage, decency and modesty, and that's just how Gibson plays him. The performance is far friskier, more accessible and less constipated than Neeson's similarly conceived Rob Roy MacGregor. It's often forgotten that, even if he wasn't up to Hamlet, Gibson isn't just a pretty face; he really can act a little, and his ability to link some modest skill and commitment as an actor to his extreme likability gives him an onscreen potency that Neeson, who's technically more talented, can't claim.
Gibson can also direct a little, it appears. He stages two big, lengthy battles--Stirling and Falkirk--satisfyingly, and he seems to have a particularly confident touch with sentimental moments (his previous effort as a director was The Man Without a Face). He gives himself two fine damsels to set aflutter, the aforementioned Highland homegirl (Catherine McCormack) and, later, a prim, lovely French princess (Sophie Marceau), who pouts prettily at Wallace's savage nobility.
The script is full of the sort of plainsong dialogue that can pass for profound simplicity, and Gibson and his cast deliver it well. Patrick McGoohan plays the diabolical Edward with easy menace, and Wallace's stouthearted comrades are an agreeable lot of Hollywood-style colorful characters--there's even an Irishman (David O'Hara) who talks to God. I could have done without the tiresome attempt at Freudianism with which Robert the Bruce (Angus McFadyen) is characterized--he's turned into a well-intentioned mediocrity trying to escape the evil influence of his leprous father (played by the unfortunate Ian Bannen). Otherwise, the script and the actors serve each other pleasantly.
Gibson is by no means ego-free. He's generous with himself when it comes to Rushmore-size close-ups, and, toward the end, he really gets carried away with the noble suffering. Ever since The Road Warrior, it's been clear that, like certain other stars of both sexes, Gibson is never more glamorous than when he's been brutalized. He seems to be aware of this, and he takes care to have himself reduced to a bloody pulp several times in Braveheart. By the end, he gives us a long scene in which he's tortured, and he even has himself crucified. Audiences may be unable to repress a giggle or two at this point--having just indulged ourselves in three hours of Braveheart's silly fantasy, we're then asked to indulge the star.