“Braveheart”: The highly fictional life of William Wallace

Movie: Braveheart

Date Released: 1995

Starring: Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan

Period of history in focus: The Scottish War for Independence (roughly 1296-1305)

Most people I have spoken to know that Braveheart is not a film rife with historical accuracy.  Indeed, Mel Gibson has caught a lot of flak from historians for a number of his films, but this one in particular.  I don’t want it to seem like I’m hopping on some sort of bashing bandwagon, but the fact remains that this movie has maintained a lot of influence.  It won Best Picture and Best Director in 1995 and while people seem to know it’s not all true, there are some things in this movie so egregiously wrong that they can’t help but paint our knowledge of Scotland’s battles with England.

When visiting the IMDb page, for example, one of the FAQs on the page asks who the real father of the Edward III the third is, Wallace or Longshanks.  This stems from the movie showing Princess Isabelle (in real history, Princess Isabella) and Wallace sleeping together and her revelation to the dying Longshanks.  The other option for the father is not her husband, you’ll notice, but the cartoonishly evil king himself.  That also stems from the movie.  In her introduction when we learn of whispers that for her to produce a son Longshanks would have to do the job himself, and through portraying Edward II as far too weak, effeminate, and ineffectual.  Let’s dispel this first myth.  William Wallace died in 1305, when Princess Isabella was only ten (born in 1295) and not even in England yet.  She married Edward II after not only William Wallace’s death, but Longshanks’ death as well.  Her first son, the future Edward III, was born in 1312.  Not only that, but she and her husband had three more children.  Historians widely acknowledge that Edward II had relationships with male favorites that were likely sexual, but he at the very least still had a grasp of his medieval kingly duty – get his wife to bear him sons.

Also, I doubt he cared as much about clothes.

With the bare minimum of research, one of the cruxes of Braveheart and one of it’s emotional centers is completely torn to shreds.  Overall, this is true throughout most of the far too long film.  It does have it’s moments, but the characterization and historical inaccuracies are so bad, that the film does not really hold up on any sort of merit once you’re done with the research.

I’d like to acknowledge straight up that I haven’t done as much reading on the subject as I’d like.  Ideally, I’d get my way through several biographies and histories, especially considering Scotland is not my area of expertise.  However, I trust the sources I have used, and believe that my ability to highlight the flaws in the movie further show its weaknesses.  Really, anybody who doesn’t know anything about history would at least be able to guess that Longshanks probably wasn’t pure evil.

My God, battle is tedious. Someone bring me a puppy to kick!

Let’s start with a bit of chronology shall we?  Take the opening lines of the movie:

I shall tell you of William Wallace. Historians from England will say I am a liar, but history is written by those who have hanged heroes. The king of Scotland had died without a son, and the king of England, a cruel pagan known as Edward the Longshanks, claimed the throne of Scotland for himself. Scotland’s nobles fought him, and fought each other, over the crown. So Longshanks invited them to talks of truce – no weapons, one page only. Among the farmers of that shire was Malcolm Wallace, a commoner with his own lands; he had two sons, John and William.

We also get an accompanying date flashing across the screen of 1280 A.D.  It’s hard to determine exactly when William Wallace was born, but he would have been a young boy at this time.  That’s fine.  What’s not fine is that this completely misconstrues the actual political dealings going on.  Alexander III, who is the king of Scotland mentioned in this opening monologue, was still alive in 1280.  In fact, he didn’t die until 1286.  His first wife had been Edward I’s sister, so he and Longshanks had a fairly good relationship.  He did have sons, who unfortunately died before him, but his daughter had married a prince in Norway and died giving birth to a daughter, Margaret.  The Scottish nobles had enough loyalty to Alexander to agree to keep control of things in Scotland until Margaret was old enough to take over as queen.  They even got Edward I to agree to have his son enter an engagement with her.  When Margaret died in 1290, Longshanks still hadn’t made a move on Scotland, and he never actually declared the crown for himself.

Rather, the nobles, now fighting with each other who should get the crown without a clear successor in place, when to Longshanks and asked if he would grant the man with the strongest case a crown.  He agreed, on the condition that the nobles swear fealty to him.  They agreed (by and large Scottish nobles had a really hard time doing what was right for the country when they had the opportunity to do something that would benefit themselves) and John Balliol became King of Scotland.  Balliol was largely ineffective, and didn’t know how to deal with constant pressure from Edward I to do things for the English crown.  The people began to grow resentful that he wanted taxes from them so he could fight his battles in France, or his demand that Scottish lords fight in his army.  So, Scotland went to France and created an alliance against England, and in March 1296 Edward I launched a campaign against Scotland for their seeming insolence.  The crown of Scotland wasn’t his, because the country itself was lesser, weaker, and barbaric.  As king of England, he had had control of Scotland, he didn’t need to be the king of it as well.

Furthermore, Edward I was not a pagan.  He fought in several crusades.  This is such a nonsensical and absolutely unnecessary accusation.  My only guess as to why it possibly made it into the film is so that we can further admire the Scottish for being good Catholics and scoff at Longshanks for paganism?

What do you mean Mel Gibson is biased toward Christianity? I don't get it.

Now let’s address the last part of these opening lines.  Longshanks invited nobles to talk of a truce and among the men invited was Malcolm Wallace.  Traditionally, Malcolm Wallace has been indicated as the father of William, but according to Andrew Fisher, a bit of evidence proves this incorrect.  In signing his name after the Battle of Stirling Bridge (which we’ll get to), William claimed him as the “son of Alan Wallace.”  The movie can’t be blamed much for getting this wrong, but it seems that Malcolm was wealthier and had vague connections to Scottish history, whereas Alan would have been more of a commoner.  Furthermore, William Wallace had two brothers, John and Malcolm, both of whom fought with him against the British later.

To the narrator at the beginning of the film: YOU ARE A LIAR.

It is probably not surprising that the events to transpire after this opening are also entirely questionable.  William Wallace might have been educated by an uncle or two, but it wasn’t in the aftermath of his father’s death, and it almost certainly didn’t involve him traipsing around Europe.  Best as we can tell, William grew up with an education that would suit him for a position in the church.  He was a younger son, and that meant he wouldn’t inherit his father’s land, and the church was the next best option.  This means that he probably did know Latin, but he never got to use it to seduce ladies.

Amor vincit omnia...? Wait, why are you, like, forty?

Historians are also not entirely sure how William Wallace learned military strategy.  The movie explains this through his education in Europe, and I guess he had to get it somewhere, but it baffles me as to why the film makes a point of showing he can fight, and then never shows him training his army in any way.  I am not a military historian by any means, but there are countless examples of the better trained armies crunching the “rabble” time and again.  That’s why Rome was so effective in taking over most of the ancient world, and why Alexander the Great kicked Darius’ ass multiple times (Darius didn’t seem to realize that running away wasn’t inspiring to his troops).  The great threat of the English army at this time was that it was highly trained and effective, led by a man with extensive experience in war.  Part of William Wallace’s appeal was that he defeated a seemingly invincible army.  This means that the Battle of Stirling – complete with blue war paint and fancy speeches – is total crap.  Soldiers running straight at each other?  Absolutely not.

For one, the Battle of Stirling was not fought on an open plain.  It was fought near the castle at Stirling, in a hilly place, surrounding by winding rivers.  William Wallace did not randomly show up and inspire the troops, he was there all along.  He had combined forces by this point with another Scottish rebel, Andrew Murray with more pedigree than Wallace, who had been stirring up trouble further North.  They pitched battle against the two men that Edward had left behind to run things in Scotland while he turned his attention on France – Cressingham and Warenne.  In a battle where they charged directly at each other, the Scots would have had some trouble.  Wallace had trained the army well with spears, but the English had far more heavy cavalry.  So, Wallace and Murray set themselves up on Abbey Craig.  This forced the English forces to cross a bridge to reach them, which allowed them to move two men abreast at a time.  Not only would their progress be painfully slow, but when the Scottish army moved forward, they would have a nearly impossible time retreating.

They fought in the bend of the river. Horses got bogged down in the water in attempted retreat.

Wallace and Murray won the battle due to good strategy and an accurate read out of the land.  Not because they were more inspired by “FREEDOM”!  Also, it was highly unlikely that they showed off their genitals as a sort of taunt.  There are two more details about the battle I think are important: the English army pulled back before the battle started because Warenne overslept and recalled them.  Then, he recalled them a second time to offer Wallace peace terms.  He responded in a way you might expect the movie Wallace to respond.

Tell your commander that we are not here to make peace but to do battle, defend ourselves and liberate our kingdom. Let them come on, and we shall prove this in their very beards.

Secondly, when the Scots got hold of Cressingham, they not only killed him, but flayed the skin off him.  William Wallace would use his skin as a sword belt.  I think this is a great example of the violence of the battles between these two countries.  Wallace did not pull punches.  He burned the land so that when Edward marched north, he would not have resources around him.  He butchered innocent people, just like Edward did.  There is even some evidence he killed English clergy.  Yes, he’s a hero, but he wasn’t perfect.  This is a point where Braveheart fails.  Wallace is so perfect, it makes him impossible.  I am all right with Mel Gibson’s claim that they “romanticized” Wallace, but he should have some depth.  I like characterization in my movies, and the fact is, that Wallace doesn’t get any.

Speaking of, let’s look at the other characters in the film.

Edward I “Longshanks”: Completely and ridiculously evil.  He was pretty terrible to Scotland in real history, but he wasn’t one hundred percent bad, and might have even been somewhat mentally unstable at the end of his life.  What does he do in this film?

Instates the practice of primae noctis or “first night.”  There is little evidence that this practice ever existed at all (for those of you new to the film: this is the idea that a lord has the right to take a bride’s virginity on her wedding night to “breed out” barbarians) and no evidence that Edward I ever instituted this practice on the Scots.

Perhaps intending to impregnate Princess Isabelle himself.  Like I said before, Edward II was very likely bisexual, but he wouldn’t have been a walking stereotype.  Suggesting that Longshanks intended to sleep with her increases his creep factor.  The real Edward I didn’t allow the marriage between his son and Princess Isabella, and they had to marry after his death.

Pushing “Philip” out the window and beating his son.  The portrayal of Edward II might be one note, but he doesn’t deserve seeing his boyfriend get pushed out a window or having his father slap him around and insult him.  This behavior comes across as pointlessly brutal, and also makes no sense.  Why would Edward II let his father see his weaknesses if he’d been raised by such a hard nosed asshole?

The Battle of Falkirk.  Longshanks won the Battle of Falkirk in 1598, and the cavalry did desert, but we don’t know why.  If he paid them off, fine, but that’s not the evil part.  Rather, when one of his men suggests they shoot off arrows, Longshanks scoffs that arrows cost money, but they can sent out the Irish because the dead don’t cost anything.  All right, so his xenophobia has increased.  Once the Scottish cavalry has left, Longshanks next orders the archers to fire.  When one of his men points out the arrows will kill English soldiers as well, he doesn’t care: “Yes… but we’ll hit theirs as well. We have reserves. Attack.”  This is just bad military strategy.  Why would he do that?  What a dick.

I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

Edward II: Weak, ineffectual, obsessed with his little velvet outfits, he accomplishes nothing the entire film.  The one time he tries to send troops north, they completely fail.  He can’t impregnate his wife and the film essentially proves that when he becomes king he’ll be at the mercy of his smarter, better, more kind hearted wife.  I don’t think the moment where Philip gets pushed out the window is an “applause moment” as some have suggested, and I feel badly for Edward in the direct aftermath of the death.  But showing him walking down the halls with a mirror in front of him and adjusting clothing?  This is the 13th century.  The portrayal is homophobic.

Princess Isabelle: I wanted to defend Isabelle’s appearance in the film.  I like female characters.  I like strong female characters.  Despite the fact that she was five, I might have defended the choice to age her up.  Unfortunately, the interpretation in the movie becomes, women do noble things to help men and are absolutely useless after they fall in love.  They should never have slept together, and if they did, Isabelle could at least have done with the dreamily walking through hallway shots.

He burned a barn full of soldiers, you say? How dreamy.

Robert the Bruce: I might argue that he actually gets the chance to be conflicted in this film.  Robert has to fight against the political suggestions of his leper father (by the way, that didn’t happen and his father wasn’t a leper).  However, I think that a more accurate portrayal of him would have made things more dramatic.  He was by no means less violent than Wallace, and by extension, no less brave.  He did waffle back and forth between supporting Edward and fighting for Scotland, much like many of the other men who had claims to the throne.  However, after Wallace’s death, Robert moved forward decisively and violently.

In 1306 he killed John Comyn – the other man with a strong claim to the throne – in a church.  We don’t really know why.  His act was horrible for its sacrilege and the fact that he was killing another nobleman.  Other Scottish rebels, however, didn’t have much of a choice, and supported him.  Robert spent years fighting battles, escaping the country, coming back and going into hiding.  All of this while he family was kidnapped, tortured, and killed.  The Battle at Bannockburn in 1314 was glorious and showed Robert in a heroic and victorious light (this is the same battle shown at the end of the movie, for reference).  He fought this battle with his own army of battle hardened men, he didn’t ride in and on a whim decided to fight with men who swore allegiance to Wallace.  He won the battle due to strategy and training, and had never promised to submit to Edward II beforehand.  Also, the battle is a shining moment of history, but didn’t grant Scotland independence.

Independence didn’t come until 1328 after Queen Isabella and her lover, John Mortimer, deposed Edward II and put her son, Edward III on the throne.

You can safely assume Queen Isabella was far more hardcore than in the movie, and likely sans Leia hair.

One final point on the film for the purposes of this review.  The extended torture and death scene of William Wallace is both accurate and inaccurate.  Wallace was indeed hanged, let down, and when he regained consciousness the English cut off his genitals, pulled out his intestines, then his lungs, and finally his heart.  After that, they beheaded and quartered him.  His head was put on a spike in front of London Bridge, and bits of his body sent off.  Edward I hoped that by cutting up  his body there would be no grave that the Scottish could use a site of pilgrimage, and thereby lessen his fame.  It didn’t work.

All the chances Wallace receives to call out “mercy” would not have happened.  He was convicted of committing high treason, and his gruesome death was the penalty for treason.  Traitors didn’t deserve leniency.  Longshanks would live another two years, and so see William Wallace die with some sort of jerky glee, I’m sure.

Braveheart aroused a lot of interest in Scotland and William Wallace, but unfortunately did it in entirely the wrong way.  Perhaps some depth and accuracy would have highlighted the brutal violence on each side, showing the horrifying lengths the “good guys” sometimes go to, and that not all English soldiers deserved the deaths they got.  Honestly, at the end of the day, the film crumbles under its inaccuracies and becomes comical in its flat characterization and typical “run at the other guy” battle sequences.

But really, what else could you expect from this guy?

NEXT WEEK: I will be reviewing Shakespeare in Love.  I am hoping to get an article up before the movie review that discusses the authorship question as well as the way Elizabethan theater worked.

Sources:

Blind Harry. The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace. This epic poem serves up most of the folktale fodder for Wallace, including the idea that he began rampaging because his wife was unfairly killed.  You can read about it through Google searching.

Neil Oliver. A History of Scotland.  Serves as a great overview of the country in general, and gives nice context for the Scottish situation before and after Wallace.

Andrew Fisher. William Wallace.  A biography on the man.  Not “definitive” but there aren’t any Wallace biographies considered definitive.

Michael Prestiwich. Edward I.  Considered the definitive biography of the king.

Alison Weir. Queen Isabella.  If you want to know more about all the crazy stuff she did.

BBC’s website on Scottish history.  Particularly helpful in explaining the Battle of Stirling. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/scottishhistory/independence/trails_independence_stirlingbridge.shtml

Alex von Tunzelmann. Braveheart: dancing peasants, gleaming teeth, and a cameo from Fabio.  A movie review that makes quick work of inaccuracies. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/jul/30/3

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8 responses to ““Braveheart”: The highly fictional life of William Wallace

  1. I loved your review and all the historical corrections! And then I had a bunch of brain vomit that got like WOAH long, so feel free to cut it down or whatever. My dissertation stuff was all from this time period and I’m sort of obsessed.
    – Edward I was a total dickwad. He was power hungry, weirdly obsessed with the Arthurian legends (he was found of prancing about in period gear, holding tournaments, and dug up Glastonbury Tor looking for Arthur’s bones), and (to save the best for last) eradicated Welsh independence through a combination of military power and diplomatic asshattery, thus making Wales the first real English colony. But why go into any of that when the film could paint Edward I as a digusting old lecher?
    – Shortly after being deposed, Edward II was supposedly murdered by having a hot poker shoved up his bum. It’s hard to say whether or not this actually occurred, but the fact that this story was born is testiment to the fact that he was a crap king.

    -There’s a poem from 1375 by John Barbour called “The Brus” about Robert the Bruce – it’s huge on the whole Freedom thing. I’ve always wondered how much of the film was thinking about this poem rather than actual history. The Celts as a whole have always seemed to have a sort of “wishful thinking” way of telling their history.

    • I soooo wish I had enough time to read the biography of Edward I before I had written this post. It’s definitely on my to-do list. He comes across as a psycho most of the time. But not in the “creep on women, beat up weak son” sort of way. Good to know about this other stuff! I might do a post on him sometime.

      Edward II is the one with the hot poker!? Excellent! I’ve heard that story, but couldn’t remember who it applied to. A+ That should have been included in the movie if they were going for full out inaccuracy.

      From my understanding, most of the movie is taken from Blind Harry. But I’ve seen references to the Bruce poem as well. It seems that you can claim these guys are heroes as long as you ignore the horrible war crimes.

  2. One criticism of your article: Yes, the movie is homophobic, but it is still hilarious when Phillip gets thrown out of the window.

    I love your blog <3

  3. Pierre the Novel

    I heard William Wallace looked exactly like Mel Gibson. Mom probably knew William Wallace – ask her.

  4. This film was not a documentary – it won “best film” that year because it was extremely popular with critics and obviously Gibson’s peers. Of course, the film has the facts twisted up to suit a story intended for entertainment. There are thousands of films that do that very same thing; nothing new here. Fiction, right?

    The battle scenes with the close ups of the horses, the throwing of swords and severe bloody carnage gave new meaning to the “look” of war from that time period in this movie. In 1995, there were not that many films about any types of war.

    Gibson’s (as Wallace) speech and several references to peace and freedom are all over this film. Yes, so he is a Catholic and had the guts to admit it in every sense of the word. He even emphasized it with his wardrobe decoration on the night he won the Oscars. He was wearing a “cross like” sword pin on his lapel and even made reference to it or was asked about it during an interview.

    The film has great performances, a Shakespearean style love story and bloody/brutal battle scenes. I think that is all it was meant to be.. People just enjoy watching Braveheart. The public response to this film to this day is proof alone. It is shown on rainy days on cable every winter since 1995. The ratings prove it.

    • My review might come across as totally dismissive, but really, if you like the movie, good for you! Honestly, I have nothing against people who enjoy the film and even find it entertaining. I wrote about it because the purpose of my blog is to point out what movies about history get wrong and I would be extremely remiss to leave out Braveheart in that discussion.

      I have heard that the way Gibson filmed battle at the time was considered innovative. Great! It’s still historically inaccurate. Likewise, the love story works really well as drama, but it’s also historically inaccurate. I have no problem with Gibson being Catholic but painting Longshanks as pagan is not fair to the historical guy.

      If you want to ignore those things and like the movie there is no problem with that. Movies don’t have some kind of code that demands they are accurate! I’m just hoping to inform people that history is often different from the way we see it portrayed by Hollywood.

  5. I have read a couple of your movie reviews for historical accuracy. I have to say, they are quite dismissive of the intent of the movie. Movies are inspired by real things and have to be trumped up or even factually twisted to appeal to the target audience. I will fully admit that this and many, many movies are extremely inaccurate historically. As a whole, I like the quality of you blog even though you tend to assume the intent of film making tactics. If your aim is to be informative and educational, drop your obvious disdain for the cast and crew at the door. Unless that is the intent of this blog, It makes you seem pretentious and less likely to be heard.

    • I know that movies change things for dramatic effect, etc. Some of the stuff that goes down in Braveheart is more dramatic than real life, for sure! Movies usually are. But, I kind of like being a total jerk about things. Most of it is good natured ribbing and the snark so often found on the internet today. If I really wanted to be informative I would be more meticulous documenting facts and actually write a paper on it. Which I won’t dismiss, but I wanted to take a step back from academia and make snide comments. Ah, anonymity and the internet.

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