Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Braveheart -- the fight for freedom

Director: Mel Gibson, 1995.

Braveheart is one of those epic films you can come back to time and time again. With a beautiful soundtrack of Scottish music and stunning scenery (Oscar for cinematography) it is a stirring story of one man's fight for freedom and the nation that followed. Not to mention the fact that it captured Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for Gibson.

Some have derided this film for its historical inaccuracies. Certainly some errors are present. For example, Princess Isabelle of France (Sophie Marceau) did not bear Wallace's baby. Nor did the Scots wear kilts until several hundred years after the times of these events. But who can picture a film of Scottish independence without seeing men in kilts in their imaginations! But such criticism misses the point. This is more an historical legend than an authentic biography.

Set in the late 13th century, the prolog gives insight into what drove William Wallace. As a young boy he sees his father and brother ride off to fight the English and never return alive. As he grows up in the care of his uncle, his hatred of these rulers is tempered by his desire to live a simple yet free life in the highlands of his beautiful country.

Returning as a man to his youthful stomping grounds, Wallace (Mel Gibson) is overcome by the love of a woman, Murran (Catherine McCormack). But their secret marriage is barely begun before an English soldier tries to rape her. Wallace attacks and escapes but Murran is caught and executed as a warning to other Scots. With his love gone and his freedom threatened, Wallace's desire for revenge on the English and freedom for the Scots becomes the two driving raisons d'etre of his life.

At first he, a commoner himself, is followed by a rag-tag group of common Scots. But as he wins several battles he comes to the attention of the Scottish nobility. These nobles have more in common with Longshanks, the English King Edward I (Patrick McGoohan), than the Scottish serfs. They have been bribed by the English and have land holdings on both sides of the border. There is much political intrigue and internecine rivalry amongst these Scottish Lords. But Wallace is a plain man who does not play politics. He may be a brilliant tactician when it comes to battles, but he is out of his element in politics and out of his league with these bedfellows.

Wallace is a man of principle. He tells the nobles, "There's a difference between us. You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom." He has put his finger on the purpose of a lord or a king. The king's mission is to govern and lead the people. But he is to do it with integrity and compassion. The later English monarch Elizabeth I epitomized this ideal in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Jesus, the true King of heaven, is the supreme ruler who leads with love. His kingdom is emerging and growing now, but will be ubiquitous eventually. Unlike these earlier kings, his burden is light (Matt. 11:30). He is the ultimate servant-leader.

The battle scenes in Braveheart are spectacular. The camerawork gives the viewer a sense of being in the battle itself. With so much chaos and killing, it is hard to see who is who. Survival is first and foremost. Pretty, it is not. At the culmination of one battle, we see the dead and dying literally littering the battlefield that is soaking up their blood.

Despite Wallace's courage, his quest is eventually quashed not by the strength of the English soldiers but by his lack of compromise and the betrayal of the Scottish lords. The leprous father of Robert the Bruce tells his son (also Robert the Bruce): "You admire this man, this William Wallace. Uncompromising men are easy to admire. He has courage; so does a dog. But it is exactly the ability to compromise that makes a man noble." Wallace was uncompromising in his quest for freedom. The nobles were willing to compromise on anything if it meant their personal gain. Is it possible to lead without compromise? Jesus did. But Jesus was also crucified for his cause.

Compromise and politics seem to go hand in hand. Compromise itself is not wrong. It is its content that is the issue. Compromising on non-essentials is fine. But compromising on our ideals, our character, or our integrity is a form of betrayal.

Betrayal was ultimely the undoing of Wallace. The lords treacherously betrayed him on the battlefield. Worse still, Robert the Bruce betrayed his personal trust. Robert's "wise" father counseled Robert, "All men betray. All lose heart." And so, like Judas, Robert the Bruce led Wallace into a trap and a painful execution.

Indeed, Wallace reminds us somewhat of Uriah. He, too, was a man who would not compromise his principles. A soldier returned from battle, he refused to go find comfort in his wife's arms while his troops were still in mortal danger on the frontlines. His lord, King David, having slept with Uriah's wife Bathsheba, betrayed him by sending him to back to the front with a message to his general to ensure Uriah's death. Betrayal by our friends is worse than capture by our enemies.

But Wallace lived his life for freedom: "It's all for nothing if you don't have freedom." He would rather die a free man than live under the oppressive rule of the English tyrants. And with his death, he inspired Robert the Bruce to lead the Scots to freedom. In a sense, Wallace was a Christ figure. He gave his life for the freedom of his kinfolk. Jesus gave up his position in heaven to come to earth as a man to conquer sin (Phil. 2:6-8). Humanity had been held captive, in bondage to sin (Eph. 2:1) and in need of a liberator, a redeemer. Jesus gave up his life to purchase that freedom (Gal. 5:1). His love for us, the passion of his brave heart bought us liberty. Today, followers of King Jesus can experience true freedom because of his sacrifice.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs


  1. 'Braveheart' - Hollywood strikes again!

    The following extract sums up the film 'Braveheart' -

    'William Wallace has attracted a great deal of attention from interested enthusiasts, but surprisingly little from historians. Of the several biographies readily available at the time of writing, not one has been written by anyone with a background in medieval history generally, let alone with any scholarly understanding of the society in which Wallace lived. The lack of an understanding of the context has led to the easy acceptance of material that is at best questionable and at worst fraudulent. This is most evident in the film 'Braveheart'. Not content with relying on Blind Harry's largely fictitious poem ' The Wallace' as the sole source of material, the writer, Randall Wallace, simply changed the story to suit a script that made no sort of historical sense and has, in fact, deprived Scottish people of part of their history by effectively undermining the factual material. The benefit of the 'Braveheart' phenomenon is of course the extent to which it has heightened interest in medieval Scotland; an important consideration in a country where there is no viable programme of history in schools. Although 'Braveheart' did help to make Scots more aware of their past, the damage done to our perception of Wallace and of the early period of the Wars of Independence is incalculable. If it is true that a picture paints a thousand words, how damaging is it when the picture is a fantasy?'

    SOURCE: 'WILLIAM WALLACE: The True Story of Braveheart' by Chris Brown, p.125, ISBN 0-7524-3432-2.

    Michael Follon

  2. There is a reason that Braveheart is a movie and not a documentary about William Wallace. Movies tell a story and have a message. Braveheart is about contrasting liberty (represented by William Wallace) with tyranny (represented by the King of England). While little is actually known about the real William Wallace, the point of Braveheart is not to paint an accurate picture of the historical William Wallace, but to communicate the message that the compromise of liberty leads to tyranny but dying for liberty leads to freedom (The Moral Premise by Stanley Williams, p. 175).

  3. Ryan Blue,

    The only 'point of Braveheart' was to fill the coffers and bank accounts of those whose only interest in the film was in financially benefitting themselves.

    Michael Follon