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The Dreaded History and Braveheart Rant

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So that it will not disappear, I bring you once again, the Rant.

Okay, we’ll get one thing out of the way before I start on my rant. I love movies and I love history. A lot of times, I love historical movies. However, I’m a little bit of a Scots History fanatic. Maybe not fanatic, maybe enthusiast. In any case, I have a real problem with a certain historical movie set in Scotland and relating what may be considered the most important period in Scots history. That’s right. I’m talking about Braveheart.

Now, I love the movie. I’ve seen it many times and I always enjoy it. However, as much as I enjoy it as entertainment, I hate it as history. Now, primarily, it is entertainment. Great. However, when you are relating something so pivotal to a country’s history as The Scots Wars of Independence, you really should try to be a bit more careful with the history. I mean, imagine a history of the American Revolution that shows George Washington as a simple farmer instead of a plantation owner, that showed Thomas Jefferson as a weak-willed, indecisive wimp who is ruled by an older relative who in real history was long since dead. Imagine this movie with George Washington wearing a trenchcoat, and having sexual relations with the woman who was to become Queen Victoria. Yeah, a little bit weird, eh?

Of course, most Americans (and most people in the world as a matter of fact) know less about the Scottish Wars of Independence than about the American Revolution. Still, the real story of Sir William Wallace and (more importantly) Robert Bruce is as exciting as any movie, and I don’t see why the industry felt it so necessary to take liberties. Entertainment, they might say. Fine then, why set it in Scotland with real historical figures? Why not set it during, say, the time of King Arthur, or just after the fall of Camelot? I mean, Boorman did Camelot with anachronistic armour and fortifications, not to mention ideas, and nobody cared because Arthur isn’t real, or at least the legendary Arthur isn’t real, and is so divorced from any historical Arthur as to make no difference.

Okay, the rant is going now.

There are a few minor historical inaccuracies that were easy to overlook. They were done mostly to simplify the events for the audience, or should we say ‘dumb it down?for the audience. Wallace (and most of the nobles) would have primarily spoken French. Kilts weren’t worn until more than a hundred years after the events in the movie. The English soldiers would not have worn a single uniform. It has been debated, but our best guess it that Wallace’s wife was killed in their home (since this is a debated point, there is no less validity in Randall Wallace‘s and Mel Gibson‘s interpretation, though I would think burning down their home, or her home, would have been as visually exciting as the execution portrayed).

So, those are a taste of the minor historical inaccuracies. A rather larger mistake has Wallace and the future English queen meeting and becoming intimate. Isabella, the French princess portrayed by Sophie Marceau, who becomes the wife of Edward II, did not arrive in England until 1303. The battle at Falkirk, which in the movie Isabella warns Wallace about–which leads to their private time–occurred in 1298. I think somebody was stretching things to try to make Wallace the father of Edward III of England. Edward II was murdered by his wife and son in order to allow that son, Edward III, to ascend the throne. The in-joke of the movie seems to be that the son that murders Ed II and goes on to become one of the more successful English kings was in fact Wallace’s son. Gives a whole new spin to the Wars of the Roses, eh? Of course, Edward III was born almost ten years after Wallace died. Now that’s a long pregnancy.

Also, the whole Falkirk fiasco gets blamed on the nobles. It wasn’t the nobles but the simple fact that Wallace was out of his league when faced with Edward I. The Battle of Stirling Bridge (another thing about the movie I’d like to point out is the highly inaccurate representations of the battles. Where was the bridge at the Battle of Stirling Bridge?) was won by superior strategy but also by the stupidity of the English commander (when the enemy holds one end of a bridge, even if they promise to let you cross, do not send anyone across!) There was no defection by the Irish to the Scots side at Falkirk. There was no fiery inferno on the field. And the English had not bought off the nobles. Wallace got toasted because the schiltron formation (like a turtle with spears pointing out, also known as the tortoise–testudo in Latin–by the Romans) could not withstand the arrow barrage sent up by Edward’s archers. Once the schiltrons were broken, heavy cavalry mopped up pretty easy.

Which brings me to my biggest problem with Braveheart; their depiction of Robert the Bruce. Now, this movie was written by Randall Wallace, who claims some kind of kinship to William Wallace, so it’s obvious the slant of the screenplay. The one thing that the movie fails to represent is that Wallace was fighting for King John Balliol, who held the crown that Robert Bruce felt he was entitled to. Why the heck should the Bruce help Wallace who is helping his enemy?

The actions of Robert the Bruce seem weak and wavering to modern eyes. Let’s put it into modern terms. If you are working for a huge Multi-National Conglomerate, and the promotion goes to someone else who is obviously less qualified, and you are offered another position with the competing company, you’d take it. Patriotism is a relatively modern concept, really born only around the times of the American and French Revolutions. There were limited and sporadic outbursts of it previous, but there really weren’t national identities until recently. In fact, even at the time of Robert the Bruce (who was the third of that name to claim the crown), the king was the King of the Scots, not the King of Scotland.

It was only after the Bruce began his own struggle for the crown that the battle with the English became a truly national phenomenon. This may be attributed to the fact that the Bruce weeded out opposition among the Scots nobles before he took the fight to the English. And, unlike Wallace, his influence was not eradicated with defeat. He had a charisma and a determination that could not be denied. He had setbacks, but he fought through them. He started as a guerrilla fighter and ended with the Battle of Bannockburn.

There’s another thing you need to get straight. The Bruce was not at the Bannockburn to pay homage to Edward II, who led the English army. The Bruce was there because his naive and chivalry-loving brother, oddly enough, also an Edward (Edward Bruce of course), had made a deal with the constable of Stirling Castle that if the English didn’t get within a certain distance by a certain day, the castle would surrender. If King Robert (and he was king by that time) wanted to take Stirling Castle (which guarded the main approach into the Scots heartlands from England) he had to stop Edward II’s army from reaching the castle. He also didn’t need to call on the memory of William Wallace to induce his army to fight for him. They came for him.

Robert the Bruce was the man who succeeded in gaining Scotland its freedom. The words the screenwriter put into William Wallace’s mouth seem to come directly from the Declaration of Arbroath, a document sent by King Robert’s adherents to the Pope attempting to sway the Church (which the English had already bought, which excommunicated almost the entire nation of Scotland, and which refused to address Robert the Bruce as King, though he would accept no letter from the Vatican that was addressed to any other than King Robert).

And those who point to the Declaration of Arbroath as a statement of patriotism, need to consider it as a product of the time and a piece of propaganda. That’s what it was. It did not lead to a free and democratic country, rather a return of a Scots king.

The bottom line is that Mel deserved the Oscar for making such an enjoyable, exciting movie with great, vivid characters and a moving storyline. Braveheart is not even close to history though. When you watch the movie, think of it in the same vein as Boorman’s Excalibur or any other fantasy movie set in a real locale. Enjoy the movie, but if you want the real story, read some of the amazing books available on the Scots Wars of Independence.

Here endeth the rant. Thanks for hanging on for the ride.