Braveheart Shmaveheart

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Braveheart, is an essential weapon in the arsenal of unionist derision. 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. That made it a prime target for Scotland-baters. Wallace’s legacy is diced- a second death sentence – hung, drawn, quartered, defiled. To hate the film one might as well claim Théodore Géricault’s ‘The Raft of the Madusa‘ is a load of utter tosh. However, that kind of outrage misses the point of art for art’s sake.

The only thing the ignorant miss is Wallace sported a full beard. Mel Gibson plays Wallace as the only man in Scotland who owns a razor. For the record, I have two caveats; the French love interest is pure Hollywood, and the opening sequences of Wallace as a youth are filmed at the level of BBC Education Programmes.

A common, utterly spurious criticism is, Braveheart contains factual errors. A few unwary Scottish historians, flattered by media attention, confirm there are inaccuracies. What would they know about drama?

Drama is not documentary. No one condemns Shakespeare’s version of MacBeth historically insane though it is. Historians recount MacBeth was one of Scotland’s most popular kings. For drama to be drama there should be conflict, metaphor and symbolism. Drama is a reinterpretation of events. Werner Herzog has argued that effective storytelling is not about accurately representing facts. He points out the obvious, stories focused on factual accuracy only got at “a superficial truth, the truth of accountants.” On the other hand, “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylisation.”

Peter Watkins directed Culloden on a shoe-string budget using only amateur actors. It has immense power though restricted to following a few soldiers in close up. You do not need massive physical sets. You need inventiveness to fire the cinema goer’s imagination.

Braveheart’s battles are as good as we need, the mechanics and blood letting reasonably accurate, as are some of Wallace’s speeches and his political ideals, which irks the hell out of Scotland’s detractors. They are happier if it’s fiction about Churchill.

Moreover, no Unionist claims Wallace was not hung drawn and quartered. They avoid that bit, including those who know Wallace carried a letter of protection from arrest.

And on the subject of mythologizing national heroes … did Drake actually play a game of bowls? We are taught Sir Francis Drake faced old Spanish ships too heavy, too low in the water to turn quickly. In reality they got caught in a severe storm, the survivors beatling up the west coast to Scotland for safety, a country with whom they traded.

We were taught about the glorious defeat of the Spanish Armada, how Drake refused to stop his game of bowls to captain the fleet. How many know a year later, 1589, in a disastrous attack on Spain, Drake’s fleet lost 40 ships and 10,000 to 15,000 lives?

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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. 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. In time, Scott and his doomed team became heroic  treasures of the British state. The English adore failures, the bigger the better.

Did the film’s producers shoot it at the South Pole for historical accuracy? Did they heck. It was mostly Ealing Studio mock ups and lots of salt. We didn’t notice no one had frozen breath when they spoke.

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 competitor’s undoubted superior skills, prowess, leadership qualities or tenacity. Forget Amundsen. (I almost said loser.)

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A wink is as good as a nod

No Scottish historian draws attention to the risible myth of Lord Nelson’s final words, the apocryphal, “Kiss me, Hardy.” Oil paintings depicting his death are given a beatific treatment, part and parcel of a nation’s embellishment of great achievement in extremis. Of course, not much is said of how badly Nelson treated his wife while having that affair with Lady Hamilton. Some things should not be spoken of.

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 setback or difficulty. 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.)

Five of the ships under Nelson’s command were captained by Scots but it’s depicted as an English victory, not a Scottish-English one. The flags that exhorted every man to do his duty did not spell out “for the United Kingdom,” or for Great Britain. They said, “England expects.” As ever, we Scots were employees.

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Aussies playing Brits – never!

An Australian played Elizabeth I twice – Cate Blanchett. The films are so devoid of historical accuracy and crammed with banal 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. It’s called commercial necessity.

There’s no one to beat Crowe’s brooding intensity when it comes to swashbuckling epics. He went on to play Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, with an iffy north of England accent.

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 afforestation.

And in another all-American financed epic, Kevin Costner took on the role, the film mustering a great flub when he sits astride Hadrian’s Wall that, according to the film’s plotting, passes alongside the white cliffs of Dover.

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A bridge too far

Now and then, the English get uppity about their own productions using creative licence. A good example of the genre is David Lean’s film of ‘Bridge Over the River Kwai‘.

On being sent the script, Major A G Close, wrote from the War Office’s PR department to the producer Sam Spiegel: “I do not think much of this story. In the first instance it is quite untrue and only very occasionally resembles the facts as they were at the time. I am perhaps biased as I worked for three and a half years on this particular railway.” He had sent the script to others “and they agree with me that it would not go down well with the British public”.

The deputy director of PR at the War Office agreed, saying it was difficult to believe that any British commanding officers would act in the way that the character Nicholson did.

The scriptwriter Carl Foreman, who was blacklisted in Hollywood after admitting to being a communist party member, and was not credited in the final film, tried to reassure the War Office, highlighting script changes, and the fact the film did portray acts of sabotage. Eventually the War Office grudgingly stood back, but stressed it was “not entirely happy about this film story”.

Of course, Carl Foreman was writing a story of unilateral moral dilemma, how not to co-operate or appease the enemies of democracy.

The War Office sought a long disclaimer at the beginning and end of the film, rejected by Spiegel, who favoured a shorter one. In the end Spiegel’s wording was used, but only at London screenings, and not in other parts of the country. This incensed former PoWs, including Lt Gen Arthur Ernest Percival, general officer commanding Malaya, who surrendered on 15 February 1942 at the fall of Singapore, a fall Winston Churchill described as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”.

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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 that defended the encampment, 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, or the dumb natives in King Kong movies, 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 and ethnic liberties.

In summary

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. He merely instruct Hoby’s, his shoemaker in London, to make his hessian boots watertight? It was Hoby who dubbed them the Wellington, a smart selling ploy.

Remember, no British critic objected to Gibson the Aussie playing Hamlet in a filmed version scenes set outside Edinburgh. That was Shakespeare, after all.

Of Braveheart: “I cannot bring myself to think of that awful film,” uttered a half-dead earl in the House of Lords. Unlike William Wallace, no one can recall the earl’s name.

(If that isn’t enough to have colonial fools choke on their cream teas, two films were released in 2019 on King Robert the Bruce, and one on Mary Queen of Scots.)

England has a right to its heroes and their elevation to mythical status but not at the cost of Scotland’s achievers. England is not entitled to demote Scotland.

If only the enemies of democracy were honest. It is not what Braveheart gets historically wrong or omits that is objectionable. It is what it stands for that is the real threat.

 

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13 Responses to Braveheart Shmaveheart

  1. Braveheart is loved on all the continents of the earth especially by the suppressed/persecuted only in UK has it been subjected to the ridicule of lickspittle historians with an agenda to wipe out any wellspring of Scottish culture abetted by half wit journalists and unionist traitors.

  2. “It is not what Braveheart does wrong that is objectionable. It is what it stands for that is the real threat.”

    Yes, but what does it stand for? What does it say about us as a people?

    While I appreciate the point that you are making about English history, you are quite dismissive when it comes to some of our finest historians. I would hardly call Professor Ted Cowan, or Dr Fiona Watson – for example – “obscure academics, funded by unnamed institutions”.

    The issue is not whether ‘the Wallace Myth’ bares any resemblance to the historical fact – in essence the problem is that Wallace represents so much of what we are not – barbaric, bloodthirsty, brutal, viciously Anglophobic and vengeful beyond measure. Blind Harry’s Wallace – the basis of the screenplay- feeds the basest instincts. It extols the ‘virtues’ of violence and hatred. In short, it plays right into the hands of anti-Scottish propagandists – and we know where most of them are, don’t we.

    There are many men – and women – who are far more deserving of the role that the Wallace has held since the 1470s. People of honour, humanity and enlightenment. People who would better represent our cultural sophistication, enlightened thinking and innate humanity. Many of whom have been denigrated and vilified by English ‘historians’ specifically because they represented a far greater threat to the status quo. God forfend that we might be seen as something more than blue-faced, bare-arsed, ignorant teuchters.

    “Braveheart” was – prior to Mr Gibson’s revisionist re-writing of history – always the Bruce, never the Wallace.

    I would hate to be divisive by suggesting one replacement for the Wallace, however, we could do far worse than start with a few like John Napier, Adam Smith (both books mind), David Hume, Adam Ferguson, Thomas Muir, James Clerk Maxwell, John Reid, Elsie Inglis…

    It matters little that the Braveheart film is laughably inaccurate. It dilutes the Declaration of Arbroath – a remarkable document of enlightenment – into little more than a Whitmanesque barbaric yawp.

    We deserve better and should be demanding it loudly – and eloquently!

  3. Grouse Beater says:

    I am dismissive of those who waste time dissecting a piece of fiction for historical accuracy as if historical documentary. A pleasant pastime, but you miss the point, it was exploited to demean a nation. And there were, what you might call pop-up historians, who had not written on a Scottish theme before pontificating at every opportunity. Scottish historians that pointed out flaws were exploited by opponents, used as a stick to beat us. How naïve were they?

    How careful must we be to avoid reactionary anger?

    Are we to subdue all attempts at allegory and symbolism in drama in case we offend the neighbours?

    In an effort to denigrate anything historically sympathetic, even John Prebble was subjected to revisionist history as if out-of-date and irrelevant.

    I await reams of analysis and publications on Wolf Hall, and questions in the House about its authenticity, and endless boredom.

    You mention the Declaration of Arbroath. Getting hung, drawn and quartered means what, exactly, when related to the Magna Carta, of which only two clauses are extant in English law. The rest are ‘ held in respect.?

    Yes, there are other Scottish figures to represent our cultural sophistication, but how can we remedy things when we do not own the means to promote them and their ideas? The work of Adam Smith, for example, has been hijacked and deformed by neo-cons and neo-liberals for decades now, to suit their agenda, until his essential tenets are almost unrecognisable.

    As for characters in ‘Braveheart playing right into the hands of the anti-Scottish;’ opponents show no mercy even when it’s Robert Burns we quote. Their animosity has little to do with William Wallace the warrior as subject matter, everything to do with success being Scottish and applauded. We might get too uppity and need slapped down again.

  4. yesguy says:

    Bravo Grousebeater.

    Braveheart….. 🙂

    What an entertaining read and great repost. Loved the film. Noticed the bridge was missing but humour and script were magic.

    Scots heroes are aplenty. Sadly our kids know little of what this small country has contributed to the world. Even Winston Churchill was supposed to comment that only the ancient Greeks surpassed the Scots contribution. We have every right to be proud of our history. Schools should concentrate on telling our kids .

    The grand old Duke being an Irishman was a hoot. I served a few years with the Dukes of Wellingtons Regiment. Great folk and they knew he was Irish.

    I was told of Scott’s poler expeditions as a school kid many moons ago, but remember Amundson efforts and he won the race. That was taught too.

    Thanks for another cracking read. GB .

  5. yesguy says:

    Oh boy misses the point ….. It’s a Hollywood film that was used against by unionists during the ref.

    But a man fighting for the enemy to leave his lands is a brute or thug. Edward was hardly an angel. Doctors and academics ok fighters.. bad.

    Most folk who want to know the truth can find it easy. You sound like you need a read..

  6. Eilidh says:

    Went to Amundson’s museum in Norway. Really interesting. So enjoyed it.
    enjoyed your post GB.

  7. Grouse Beater says:

    Looked up Amundson’s Fram museum – wonderful purpose built museum. Missed a visit when in Oslo – d’oh!

  8. donald says:

    Braveheart for me is really a means to illustrate an ideal all men and women who are oppressed can relate too. Its how things should be more than how they may have been . People often ask what gives a bankable actor star quality and my reply would be ‘the answer is in the question’.
    They resonate and connect because there is within them a heroic legendary quality . But it often only gets captured on screen when they are in the role . Off camera , they resume human proportions and who can blame them for shying away from the attention.
    We all long for that sense of purpose that raises us up but we dont have the long memory to haunt our voice and eye’s and features .
    Its this connection between the soul of an actor and the story that lends real credibility to the part they play . Connery had it , Russel Crowe has it . They know their part . The question is How ?

    For me that question was answered after long inquiry and the evidence provided was an eye opener to say the least . Cometh the hour ,cometh the man. Again.
    Every face is etched with the memories of the man or woman who carries it. Every mannerism and the unique timbre of their voice . Highlander. Man of destiny.

    Birth certificate’s are no proof of nationality ,they are just bonds that give authority to tax . There is a much deeper source that animates courage and loyalty . The high ground is sought after birth , not before . Longing for what was lost drives the authentic hero , not glory . No matter how far he or she may roam.

    That’s what haunts people who watch Braveheart . Memory.

  9. bruce anderson says:

    Braveheart’s historical crime has nothing to do with the dramatic licence of the storyline. Scotland survived English aggression because, unlike Wales and Ireland, it was a mainstream European state, recognised by the papacy, reasonably prosperous and unified and administratively and militarily competent. Scotland’s soldiers for example would have been equipped at each level little differently from the English and I doubt if Wallace ever painted his face. Braveheart portrays the Scots as primitive in all these respects. It perpetuates the good old Whig version of British history where the Scots, plucky losers, would eventually be among the first of the backward peoples to be absorbed and civilised by England on its long march to inevitable world domination – history viewed backwards by purveyors of English exceptionalism. Scots would be more confident now if they could see their history as that of a normal successful sovereign state, of considerable achievement in some areas, instead of as a crowd of screaming blustering losers baring their arses at the `English in a version of their history which was,ultimately, written by the English. The Union was never inevitable.

  10. Grouse Beater says:

    I can’t disagree with the general line you take, but who can call civilised a race that hangs, draws and quarters the leader of another nation, or indeed, chops of the head of its queen? The film depicts Scots men often in debate about the state of their nation, matters of loyalty and protecting rights, none baring their arses during their discourse.

    To be candid, I have a lot more criticism of Local Hero than I have of Braveheart. But then, that film didn’t attract the international impact of Braveheart.

  11. It seems to be something that escapes you, but *good* historical fiction has at least a passing acquaintanceship with history. Dragging out another bad piece of historical fiction for comparison does not improve Braveheart in the least. What grated the most was the vicious, false attacks on Robert the Bruce (who had his failings but cowardice was never one of them) topped off by stealing his sobriquet. And the insult of writing King Alexander out of existence as though the English had always ruled Scotland was a deep undermining of Scots’ right to independence. No, I believe that in the end, it did more to undermine Scottish confidence than it did to encourage it.

  12. Grouse Beater says:

    That’s your personal opinion. And I don’t mind adding, a pretty condescending attitude to creative writing. It feeds and sustains the unionist onslaught that avers Scottish history is bunkum, not worth thinking about.

    I do not ‘drag’ comparisons to ‘improve ‘Braveheart’. I show comparisons to place a spotlight on the hypocrisy of attacks on the film by people who are happy to see less historical accuracy in films depicting their nation’s heritage.

    You are the first person I have encountered who thinks ‘Braveheart’ does a disservice to Scotland’s political ambitions. It had the opposite effect. It boosted strong feelings of Scotland patronised and sidelined by Westminster.

    Historical accuracy? There is barely a Shakespearean historical tragedy that sticks rigidly to English historical fact. So what? That isn’t the role of the dramatist.

    You can riddle holes in Robert Bolt’s screenplay of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, but as a story of one man’s vanity set against the British state’s duplicity and the tribalism of Arabia at that time, it is pretty accurate. As for Braveheart misrepresenting the character of Robert the Bruce, your opinion rather too absolutist for unquestioning acceptance, one could argue the depiction of Field Marshall Allenby in Lawrence of Arabia a travesty of the man doing his best on behalf of the British government.

    If I have criticisms of ‘Braveheart’ they lie in the first twenty minutes shot as if a BBC Education programme; an unnecessary introduction of a French princess – very Hollywood – and the American writer Randall Wallace giving us some dialogue too close to soap. Then again, he was a writer of pulp fiction, but it took a non-Scot free of the cultural Cringe to see Wallace as something other than a lichen and seagull spotted stone statue on a castle rampart wall.

    I am aware you write historical novels. You being so, and criticising Braveheart for inaccuracies, reminds me of the few who praise my Academician wife’s paintings and then add, “If I were painting it I’d do it differently.” To which the answer is obvious: well, yes, but you damn well did not think of the image first.

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