The film, Braveheart, is an essential weapon in the arsenal of unionist derision.
The history of invasion and colonialism teaches us that the chief political tactic to undermine a peoples’ confidence is deny its history and then rewrite it.
Massively popular worldwide, Braveheart won five Academy Awards and is shown on television regularly. The film arrived in time to coincide with a growing confidence in Scotland’s political ambitions. It is therefore a prime target for debunking. The litany of disdain each and every part has attracted is astonishing.
The only thing the ignorant miss in their frenzy to lampoon the film is the obvious: Wallace sported a full beard. Mel Gibson plays Wallace as the only man in Scotland who owns a razor.
That said, I weary of the cudgel used to bruise a natural pride in one’s country. Some people really do need to “get a life.”
A common, utterly spurious criticism is, it contains factual errors. Good. I hope it has lots. Drama is not documentary. To condemn it for creative license is to show an ignorance of the dramatic method of story telling, the process of elevating the actual to the symbolic.
No one condemns Shakespeare’s version of MacBeth as historically insane though it is. Historians recount MacBeth was one of Scotland’s most popular kings. A story of a wise, generous Scottish king spreading largesse and happiness among his subjects is not dramatic material. Where is the conflict, the tension? The play raises self-centred, wicked ambition to the level of great tragedy. It exposes the dark side of human nature.
Nevertheless, books giving a revisionist history of Scotland written by obscure academics, funded by unnamed institutions, take time to offer forensic analysis of our cultural icons. Scotland’s men and women of note are targets for the slings and arrows of outrageous bile. I count at least three attempts to take Wallace’s legacy apart – a kind of second death sentence, you might say – hung, drawn, quartered, and now defiled.
Sir Francis, not Charlie!
Who heaps ridicule on Sir Francis Drake’s accomplishments, or the Duke of Wellington, to name two obvious heroes of England’s empire? Who cares if Sir Francis Drake did not really play one last round of bowls unhurried by the approach of Spain’s mighty Armada? Maybe he was in his local quaffing mead. If he was playing bowls perhaps he panicked, fell to the ground in fear chewing the grass, and then, embarrassed by those watching, pulled himself together. “You didn’t see that. Tell people I carried on playing.” His stoicism perpetuates the myth of the Englishman’s supposed phlegmatic attitude in the face of intimidating forces. I would rather know he froze in shock. That’s only human.
Does it matter if Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, (a native of Ireland, but let’s gloss over that uncomfortable fact) did not invent the Wellington boot at all merely instruct Hoby’s, his shoemaker in London, to make his hessian boots watertight? In the redesign Hoby made them comfortable enough to be worn indoors – and Wellesley took every opportunity to stride about in them – as well as flash them when on horseback, a military man to his epaulettes.
It was Hoby who dubbed them the Wellington, a smart selling ploy. Was the hero of Waterloo (now part of Belgium) angst ridden before the battle, and took it out on Kitty his long-suffering wife? Who knows? But every film made depicts him as statuesque, without personal doubts.
And on the subject of mythologizing national heroes …
Scott of Epic Screw-up
Robert Falcon Scott, “Scott of the Antarctic,” is celebrated as an iconic “British” hero. There have been any number of filmed dramas made of his life and exploits. Unlike his Norwegian counterparts led by Roald Amundsen, skilled at polar exploration, Scott’s plans and arrangements were lethally incompetent: the wrong date to start his trek to the South Pole, the wrong provisions, the wrong clothing, using horses instead of dogs, man-hauling the preferred way to lug heavy tents and provisions on sledges, tractors whose engine froze solid in an instant.
Only one companion had medical skills. When he became ill it left no one to administer help to the others if struck down. The expedition was a monumental failure. Scott was architect of it. In fact, he was heavily criticised in his day for his plans and for the death of his companions. That was then.
Today Scott is celebrated a hero in the English mould, not an all-time loser of his own hubris. What of Amundsen and his team? Well, he wasn’t English, therefore we have nothing to learn from his undoubted superior skills and tenacity. Forget him.
So, yes, Scott’s fated journey is a story of heroism, but not of intelligence.
The fascinating Polar Museum in Cambridge devotes a large section to Scott’s “heroism.” There is scant mention of Amundsen’s superior preparations and ability. The dramatic film made of Scott, the main role played by Sir John Mills, is chronically sentimental. The story is told of great men beaten by the element’s, succumbing to fate when all energy and hope are spent. Their efforts were heroic not dumb.
This is akin to our habit of praising soldiers after they are killed in battle. How much better to praise them when alive by the simple expedient of avoiding wars, invasions, and incompetent generals.
A wink is as good as a nod
Has a Scottish historian drawn attention to the risible myth of Lord Nelson’s final words while lying on deck mortally wounded? His final words are apocryphal, “Kiss me, Hardy.” Oil paintings depicting his death are given a beatific treatment, part and parcel of a nation’s patriotic embellishment of great achievement in extremis.
There is plenty of scepticism suggesting one man alone could not have generated naval exactness to the extent that it disciplined England’s navy so precisely it won the battle of Trafalgar without set back or difficulty. Where were the mobile phones and computers to dispatch immediate instruction and positions?
Many other brave officers and sailors played their part, plus a few ill-chosen French vessels and Villeneuve’s tactical decisions. (Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, the French Admiral.) Nelson was admiral of the fleet, his death in victory all the more poignant, his ascent to sainthood justified for the times. He is an English icon.
Five of the ships under Nelson’s command were captained by Scots but it was an English victory, not a Scottish-British one. The flags that exhorted every man to do his duty did not spell out “for the United Kingdom,” or for Great Britain. The flags flew the legend “England expects.” To the English, Great Britain is always England. Visitors echo the unconscious misstep. The United Kingdom is “England,” Scotland a secondary country they might fit in for a visit if enough time.
England has a right to its heroes and to their elevation to mythical status but not at the cost of Scotland’s achievers. England is not entitled to demote Scotland.
Incessant carping over the massive success of Braveheart leads to racist smear. The jeering is deafening. “William Wallace was played by an Australian, Mel Gibson, and an pint-sized one at that.” Wallace was almost seven feet tall if we measure him by his sword. These dramatically acceptable interpretations are seen as unforgivable, stupid howler.
Dialogue lifted from Emerdale Farm
Note this: an Australian played Elizabeth I. Cate Blanchett played the killer of Mary Queen of Scots twice in films so devoid of historical accuracy and full of crappy dialogue as to reduce them to soap.
An Australian, Russell Crowe, played an English sea-captain in the excellent Master and Commander. The film has him running down a dastardly French warship. In actual fact, and in the novel on which the film is based, it was an American ship. England was at war with America at that period in its history, but as it was a film financed by Hollywood, the poor French became the fall guys. Unforgivable factual error? Not really. Creative license more like, and economic diplomacy. Crowe went on to play Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, employing a decidedly iffy north of England accent. But there’s no one to beat Crowe’s brooding intensity when it comes to swashbuckling epics.
In fact, a previous Australian played Robin Hood to success many years earlier, Errol Flynn. In one scene he rides in a hurry passed 20th century pine aforestation. And in another all-American financed epic, Kevin Costner took on the role, the film mustering greater howlers than Braveheart managed. One glaring example was when he sat astride Hadrian’s Wall that, according to the film’s plotting, passes alongside the white cliffs of Dover.
Of those howlers not a word of criticism is heard, certainly none from Scotland’s intelligentsia. Why should there be? The film was very entertaining.
The Welsh have their day
English movie history is littered with wild creative licence. That fine military epic, Zulu, chose to depict the regiment stationed at Rorke’s Drift as Welsh infantry, a rather neat way of concentrating attention on Welsh military culture. It is a spirited interpretation. In reality it was the Warwickshire regiment, a company with more English than Welsh. They did not sing “Men of Harlech.” They sang, “A Warwickshire Lad.”
The Zulu “hoards” are shown as noble savages, ooggy-boogy black fellas, as if blood thirsty American Indians of the kind seen in silent films, without individual character. Those creative flaws did not stop it becoming a milestone in British-American film co-operation. But the film is riddled with historical liberties.
And what of England’s greatest actor? When Sir Lawrence Olivier blacked up to play Othello, Prince of Moors – “I am forced to drink my soup through a straw all day” – his performance was held up as great acting. No insult was implied to unemployed African actors. Yet when Mel Gibson plays William Wallace to international success he is pilloried, and that includes farcical expressions of outrage from respected members of the House of Lords. “I cannot bring myself to think of that awful film.”
Remember, no one objected to Gibson the Aussie playing Hamlet in a filmed version set outside Edinburgh. That was Shakespeare, after all.
Scottish history – safer made as a cartoon
On the subject of indigenous stories, other than Brave, a cartoon set in the Highlands, I cannot recall the last time a Scottish historical drama was produced in the United Kingdom. Go as far back as the 1970s to reach Scottish Television’s lamentable, Flight of the Heron. (It was so bad it was nicknamed in-house, “The Flight of the Herring.”)
Meanwhile, our cinemas and television screens are awash with English historical drama. And though English poke fun at the French as a matter of coarse banter, they think nothing of putting millions of pounds into a series on the three French musketeers. The result is, Scottish literary and dramatic culture is ignored.
Even after the runaway, worldwide success of Braveheart, Scotland’s heroes, particularly our Highland history, is considered “non-commercial.” Which only goes to prove London’s producers know damn all, but they do hold the purse strings to international distribution. That’s where the power lies.
If only the enemies of democracy were honest. It is not what Braveheart does wrong that is objectionable. It is what it stands for that is the real threat.