Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Mel Gibson as Mad Savior in Braveheart

Andrew Willis is a guest writer and fellow podcaster. He can be reached on Twitter @movierabble and on Letterboxd @walktheearth. He is also the host of the Movies Now and Then podcast, which is available on various podcasting platforms and can be reached on Twitter @MoviesNowThen.

"It's our wits that make us men."

Braveheart is the story of Jesus Christ. No, scratch that. It is the story of Mel Gibson wanting to play Jesus Christ.

I'm of course having a bit of fun here. Braveheart is actually the story of William Wallace and how he led an army of Scottish farmers and peasants in an uprising against the English King Edward Longshanks.

But I started with a quote because the movie wants you to think that this is going to be a story about a man fighting for an idea. It wants you to think that Wallace is a man of "principles". It wants you to think that he is pure of spirit and noble in the face of corruption.

The movie then goes on to show you the vengeful wrath of a psychopath cloaked in the pretense of freedom.

I wondered at first if this whole film was just some sort of hair fantasy for Gibson. His mane makes Patrick Swayze in Road House look like Patrick Stewart in everything. This is best visualized during the honeymoon scene where his new bride is standing naked in profile. She is in front of a moon-basked lake, surrounded by a lunar hue. Her hair is waist length, and the glow that surrounds her penetrates through her locks. Then into the frame walks a topless Gibson. His hair is larger and more luscious than hers. Their naked bodies entangle in a way that evokes every paperback harlequin romance novel. It is absolutely absurd and hysterical.

Embrace me, for I am your God.

I thought this film was going to be about Gibson's hair envy, but I was wrong. This film is about Gibson's obsession with Mel Gibson. This is very likely the biggest vanity project I have ever seen. Gibson, who is the director here, takes every advantage to show his character as a hero and a god. I will say that Gibson has talent as a director, but knowing that he is behind the camera and making decisions to show himself slowly rising from the fog of a mountain to majestically stand atop it as a helicopter swirls around him is more than I could stomach.

The plot advances as Wallace's new bride is raped and killed by the Englishmen that oversee the Scottish town. Gibson then goes on a bloody tirade seeking revenge for the loss of his wife, as well as for the death of his father earlier in the film. My question is, "What happened to wits?" How does becoming a murderous maniac serve the theme of "It's our wits that make us men"?

We see a fair amount of the English side of the equation. I love movies with gay characters before we could call someone gay, and in this film King Longshanks's son is gay. The movie shows that he has no interest in women and that he makes eyes at a hunky male servant. The King refers to him as "gentle". The gay son is forced into a marriage with a French noble. This is purely a political move by the King, and one that will come back to bite him later.

Hey bro, let's go kill some folks!

Then there's an odd introduction. An Irishman joins the ranks of the Scots so that he can kill the English. He is shown to be mentally unstable, yet also a fun, likable, and charismatic character. I say this is odd because it is the event that started me thinking that he really isn't that different than Wallace. This madman's introduction made me start to question the sanity of our "hero". The feeling was only heightened when—in the very next scene—Wallace has a dream of his dead wife, making me question his ability to judge reality.

Then, in a major twist, the King sends his son's wife to meet Gibson and offer a truce. She is chaste, and is aware of Wallace's dead wife and how he is fighting for her, and so obviously she begins to pine for him. They spark up a steamy albeit distant relationship. I call this a twist because we just had a scene where Wallace is dreaming of his dead wife, and now he is hooking up with another woman. This only goes to further the vanity of Gibson in my mind. He beds every attractive woman in the film regardless of whether it makes narrative sense or not.

Braveheart is known for many things, but perhaps most notable are the battle scenes (along with a motivational pre-battle speech from Gibson that totally gave me goose bumps). The battle scenes are gory and well staged. I think the crew had a lot of fun shooting them. We get into Army of Darkness-style camp at times with all of the decapitations and limb removals. I also could not help but remember Monty Python's Holy Grail as English knights were getting arms and legs chopped off with a single swipe of a sword. These battle scenes are also notable for the way in which Gibson fights. It isn't with his head. He fights with rage and bloodlust. It is very clear that he is a man who finds therapeutic relief in the killing and maiming of his enemies.

*sob* I just wanted to kill some folks!
The shot selection in Braveheart is a bit bipolar too. At times the film is edited in a way that is tight, economical, and impactful. Then at other times the films is constructed like it was a daytime soap opera. The landscapes are beautiful. I feel like Peter Jackson took a lot of cues, both visually and from a score perspective, from this film for his Lord of the Rings films.

On top of the obliteration of human lives, this film also doesn't not shy away from horse injury. There are several scenes of horses being gouged and burned and otherwise horrifically disfigured. In a way, I give Gibson a lot of credit, because I have always thought that taking down a horse must have been a very common strategy in early warfare, and most movies won't show that. But it also provides more evidence of his obsession with cinematic violence.

Once his country's noblemen abandon Wallace, he sets out with his band of merry men on a vigilante quest to overthrow the King of England on his own terms. At this point, the film focuses on building the legend of Wallace. We even get a ridiculous scene of Gibson riding into a nobleman's bedroom—on horseback—and killing the man. He is then forced to ride his horse up a flight of stairs and jump him out a window into a lake below. It is a Fast and Furious moment on horseback. As the film goes on, it becomes less and less clear whether we are supposed to believe in the myth of Wallace, or of Gibson.

I am the myth!

As the attempted coup proceeds, we find out that the princess has been aiding Wallace along the way. In reality, it's the horny princess that is the real hero here, even though she is never shown to be anything more than a dreamy-eyed little girl with little to no agency of her own.

Towards the end of the film, there's a scene where Brendan Gleeson's character says to Gibson, "I don't want to be a martyr," to which Gibson says that he doesn't either. Then in the very next scene, he is caught, captured, and brought into town literally crucified to a block of wood. As he is marched through the streets, the people begin to throw rotten fruits and vegetables at him while they curse and spit on him. All of this could have been avoided with a few simple words or less devotion to his "principles". This again made me question the sanity of Wallace.

In a final "screw you" to the king, the princess tells him—while he is literally on his deathbed—that the baby inside her isn't that of his "gentle" son, but that of Wallace. She tells him that the King of England will soon be half Scottish. This also allows Wallace some redemption and satisfaction as he is about to be killed himself.

As Wallace is drawn and quartered, as he is beaten, hung, and disemboweled, he sees a vision in the crowd. It is the ghost of his dead wife. I couldn't help but wonder how she felt about Wallace shacking up with the French princess.

Hey girl, how you doin'?

The Christ-like imagery and narrative is as thick as shepherd's pie in this film. I really think that Gibson thinks of himself as a modern day Christ figure. When you look at this film, along with his Passion of the Christ, you see a trend that is disturbing, perhaps even more so if you are of the Christian persuasion. When you add his Apocalypto, you do get an impressive body of work, but you also see themes of visceral, bloody, hate-fueled violence that makes him a very troublesome director (and person).

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