Braveheart (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The crown jewel of 1995's summer blockbusters appears to have arrived early. It's hard to imagine any motion picture released between now and August matching Mel Gibson's Braveheart for spectacle. With its clashing armies, heartstopping action, and grand sense of romance, this is the sort of film it's a pleasure to see and review.

Let me state my preferences up front. I'm a big fan of the epic adventure, a category in which Braveheart, like cream, rises to the top. There's a lot in this film that's praiseworthy -- not the least of which is its ambition. Those viewing this picture may be easily reminded of Gettysburg, The Last of the Mohicans, Glory, and such classics as Lawrence of Arabia, El Cid, and Spartacus. The grandeur is certainly present; nevertheless, Gibson gives us not only memorable battles, but characters of real substance.

Borrowing from masters like Sam Peckinpah and David Lean, the actor/director has crafted an exceptional cinematic tapestry in only his sophomore effort. Most of the time, three hour movies have a few flat spots, but Braveheart is constantly on the move -- riveting from start to finish. When the end credits began to roll, I was hard pressed to accept that nearly 170 minutes had elapsed.

The title character is William Wallace (Gibson), a hero of Scottish history whose legend has surely outstripped fact (in its own unique way, the film acknowledges this). Wallace fought for Scotland's freedom in the late 13th century, wielding his broadsword and influence to defeat the forces of King Edward I (Patrick McGoohan), the British monarch who had declared himself king of Scotland upon the former ruler's demise.

Braveheart builds slowly to its first gritty climax. Much of the early film concentrates on Wallace's love for Murron (Catherine McCormack). Their courtship is unhurried, yet this is all preparation. The real meat of the story, which includes political mechanations, betrayal, and dramatic battles, is yet to come. Patrick Henry once said, "Give me liberty, or give me death!" That might well be Wallace's motto. "It's all for nothing if you don't have freedom!" The nobles of Scotland fight for land and riches, but Wallace stands for the individual, and earns respect with words and deeds.

Bulked up and wearing a long-haired wig, Gibson brings his usual wealth of charisma to the title role. Patrick McGoohan, best known from TV's Secret Agent Man and The Prisoner, is almost unrecognizable beneath a snowy beard. His Edward the Longshanks exudes an aura of cold menace. He's a worthy foe for Wallace because his intelligence matches his ruthlessness. Sophie Marceau, the French actress who plays Princess Isabelle, and Catherine McCormack are both immensely appealing.

Braveheart is a brutal, bloody motion picture, but the violence is not gratuitous. The maimings, decapitations, and other assorted gruesome details make Wallace's world seem real and immediate. In addition, few theatrical moments make a more eloquent statement against war than when Gibson shows women and children weeping over the dead on a body-littered battlefield. War is a two-headed beast, and both faces -- the glorious and the tragic -- are depicted.

Lately, certain films have come in pairs: two Robin Hoods, two Columbuses, two Earps, and now two Highlander epics. Rob Roy, the first, is a fine motion picture. Braveheart, however, is better, offering an exhilarating, and occasionally touching, experience that has viewers leaving the theater caught up in an afterglow of wonder. These days, heros like William Wallace are as rare as motion picture displays of this high, uncompromising quality.

Braveheart (United States, 1995)

Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Mel Gibson, Patrick McGoohan, Sophie Marceau, Brendan Gleeson, Catherine McCormack, Angus Macfadyen
Screenplay: Randall Wallace
Cinematography: John Toll
Music: James Horner
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Ranked #4 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1995
Run Time: 2:50
U.S. Release Date: 1995-05-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1