With all the discussion surrounding the future of Scotland, it was inevitable that some people would start to quote and reference, what for them, was the greatest film about the country. The film was released in 1995 to enormous acclaim and was both a critical and commercial success culminating in it receiving five Oscars at the 1995 Academy awards. Having seen the film at the time of release and never since, it seemed like an opportune moment to revisit it and see if it stands up to the test of time.
William Wallace (Mel Gibson), in the film, started out as a modest man. At a young age, he lost both his father and brother to the fighting against the English. His uncle (Brian Cox) stepped in and took him away to raise and educate him. As a man he returned to his home and the woman he loved only wanting to live life as a farmer. After marrying Murron (Catherine McCormick) in secret their joy is short lived. A squad of English soldiers attempt to rape Murron. Wallace fends them off, but Murron is captured and executed as an example of what happens when you disobey the English law. This is the action that radicalises Wallace and he and his friends ransack the English garrison and kill all the soldiers. This is the start of something bigger than one man. Meanwhile, the English king is taking notice of the uprising and dispatches his son and heir to address the issue.
The first thing that stands out is the manner in which the English are portrayed. To a man there is not a single one with any redeeming qualities. The King (Patrick McGoohan) is perceived as a bully and a tyrant. His son, the prince, is a simpering fool who is more interested in his man servant than ruling a kingdom. The resident English lords are no better with their manners and use of casual violence. The Scots on the other hand are viewed in an altogether different light. Hard working, hard playing, proud and friendly. It’s fair to say that the extremes of both nations are on show here.
The film has a relatively sedate start when we are introduced to the young Wallace and the events that shape him. We do not see Mel until twenty minutes into the proceedings. When we meet him he is in his full glory replete with an impressive mane of hair. What is less than stirring is his accent. It is appalling. He is not alone though. A number of the cast who are not native Scots have the same problem. Their accents are all over the place. I won’t even go to the mad Irishman.
When we get to the action scenes the direction of Gibson really shows. Most of the battle scenes are seen from the middle of the battle and you get a really good sense of the frantic and bloody nature of conflict. It certainly earns its 15 rating as some of the scenes of violence are brutal. Remember this was made in the days before CGI could be used effectively for crowd scenes. The marshaling of a cast of thousands is no mean feat and it could all have gone so wrong with large crowds and many practical effects in use.
As I touched on earlier the characters outwith the main cast are all caricatures. Unsurprisingly the Wallace character is well developed and has all the best lines. The rest is pretty forgettable with only the likes of Brendan Gleeson and James Cosmo rising above their characters lack of depth to give excellent performances.
The principal complaint leveled at the film is the lack of historical accuracy. It has been pointed out that some aspects of the film (kilts and bagpipes) didn’t become popular for a couple of hundred years and other aspects (face paint) were well before the time period. The answer to all these points is that it is a film! Hollywood has a very loose relationship with history and this film fits right in. It’s a case of if it looks good and feels authenticate then it is in. Very little is in fact known of the time and the man that was Wallace so the film makers taking artistic licence is fairly justified. Remember, the film doesn’t start with the line ‘Based on a true story’.
Overall a passionate and exciting, if inaccurate, take on the life of a Scottish folk hero. Recommended.