Braveheart, and Blind Harry’s Wallace

Braveheart won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1995, and four others: Best Director (Mel Gibson), Best Cinematography, Best Make-up, and Best Sound Effects Editing. It lost in five categories, two to Apollo 13. The Hugo that year went to the Babylon 5 episode The Coming of Shadows.

I have seen very few films made in 1995, a year when my PhD and my brief political career were simultaneously peaking. Of the other Oscar nominees, I have seen Apollo 13 and Babe, but not Il Postino or Sense and Sensibility. Other 1995 films that I have seen: Goldeneye, The American President, Johnny Mnemonic (which is set in 2021), the wonderful Tank Girl, the brilliant Ian McKellen Richard III, and I think that’s it. Apart from Johnny Mnemonic, I liked all of them more than Braveheart. IMDB users disagree with me and have it third on one ranking and fourth on the other, behind Se7en in both cases.

Edited to add: My sister writes in to remind me that I did in fact see Sense and Sensibility at the time and told her that to my own surprise I liked it. She also points to this piece about Sense and Sensibility which includes a reflection on the contrast with Braveheart.

Here’s a trailer.


This being the sort of film it is, there are loads of actors who have also been in Doctor Who, but I’m going to start with one who wasn’t. Edward Longshanks, aka King Edward I of England, is played here by Patrick McGoohan, much more famous as The Prisoner.

There are a couple of Whovians. The biggest Who name is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-huim moment in Braveheart, where Bernard Horsfall asks Mel Gibson a pointed question about the Balliol claim to the Scottish throne. (In real life Wallace was on Balliol’s side rather than the Bruces’.) Horsfall was in several Doctor Who stories,  in The Mind Robber (Second Doctor, 1968), a Time Lord in The War Games (Second Doctor, 1969), Taron in Planet of the Daleks (Third Doctor, 1973) and Chancellor Goth (possibly the same Time Lord as previously) in The Deadly Assassin (Fourth Doctor, 1976).

Rupert Vansittart plays rapey Lord Bottoms here; he went on to be General Asquith (or rather the Slitheen disguised as General Asquith) in the 2005 Doctor Who story Aliens of London / World War Three.

Michael Tierney here is the evil magistrate who kills Braveheart’s girl; a few years earlier he was an assistant to Honor Blackman in the 1986 Doctor Who story Terror of the Vervoids.

I spotted one actor who had been in a Hugo-winning film: Michael Byrne is Michael Tierney’s sidekick here, and was the main Nazi in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Noting also that Brian Cox, playing Argyle Wallace here, provided an Ood voice in Doctor Who but was not on screen. (I’m a little surprised that Alun Armstrong has never been in Who.)

OK folks, I’ll be brief: this is a violent and also silly film. Clichés abound. Great use of (mostly Irish) scenery, gallant (but occasionally treacherous) Scots, repulsive English, seductive French women, funny Irish sidekick, sanguinary combat, swirling music, culminating in Wallace’s Christ-like martyrdom. I’m rating it ahead of Platoon, my worst Oscar winner ever, because at least the characters are distinguishable and nearly interesting. I can see how it appeals to those Americans who like historical parallels to how they imagine their own revolution, and to anyone who likes a good romantic nationalist tale (which sometimes even includes me, which is why I’m not putting it at the very bottom of my list; I am neutral veering to positive on Scottish independence). But really, it’s the most utter tosh. I’m putting in 59th place out of 68, two places above last year’s Forrest Gump, just above Patton, which is more boring, and just below Mutiny on the Bounty, which carries off its clichés better.

(My observation that a parallel can be drawn between Wallace and the American War of Independence is not at all original, and was probably not original when Robert Burns invoked Wallace in his Ode on General Washington’s Birthday in 1794.)

Incidentally this is the first Oscar-winning film since Chariots of Fire, fourteen years before, to be set in Britain and the first mainly set in Scotland (Chariots of Fire of course had a number of Scottish scenes; we had Wales back in 1941). Since then we’ve had three in Asia (Gandhi, Platoon and The Last Emperor), two in Continental Europe (Amadeus and Schindler’s List) and Out of Africa. I’ll do an overall tally when we reach #70 in the sequence.

This is the second Oscar-winning film to be based on a work of epic poetry. (The first, fifty years earlier, was The Best Years of Our Lives.) The original 15th-century text of Blind Harry’s The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace is readily available online, but like most people these days I satisfied myself with the 18th century translation by William Hamilton of Gilbertfield, available in a nice edition introduced by Elspeth King with impressive woodcut illustrations by Owain Kirby. You can get it here.

The opening sentence of Book III, Chapter II of Hamilton’s version is as follows, cross-referenced with the lines it is adapting from Blind Harry’s original.

When Wallace now had vanquish’d in the Field
The Traitor false, that had his Father kill’d,
And Brother also, that brave and worthy Knight,
With many more, that all were Men of Might;
He caus’d provide, and distribute their Store,
To go on new Exploits, and purchase more.
In Clyde’s Green-Wood they did sojourn three Days;
No South’ron might Adventure in those Ways,
Death did they thole, durst in their Gate appear;
And Wallace’ Word did Travel far and near.
Quhen Wallace had weyle wenquist to the playne
The falss terand that had his fadyr slayne;
His brothyr als, quhilk was a gentill knycht,
Othir gud men befor to dede thai dycht;
He gert dewyss, and prowide thar wictaille;
Baith stuff and horss that was of gret awaille,
To freyndis about preualye thai send,
The ramanand full glaidlye thar thai spend.
In Clydis wode thai soiornyt twenty dayis,
Na Sothren that tyme was persawyt in thai wais,
Bot he tholyt dede that come in thar danger:
The worde of him walkit baith fer and ner.

King warns in her introduction that “As far as the battle scenes and the incidents of killing are concerned, Braveheart is a work of restraint and good taste when compared to Blind Harry’s original text.” She’s not wrong. I must admit that the poem has a cracking pace, even with some unfortunate McGonagallisms. Like the film, it’s a bit vague on geography, but very clear about who the good guys and the bad guys are. Unlike the film, it’s mercifully discreet about Wallace’s horrible death. I’m afraid it did read like one incident of biffing the English followed by another of biffing traitorous Scots and so on, but I can see why people liked it.

Next up: The English Patient.

Winners of the Oscar for Best Picture

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in 80 Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011) | Argo (2012) | 12 Years a Slave (2013) | Birdman (2014) | Spotlight (2015) | Moonlight (2016) | The Shape of Water (2017) | Green Book (2018) | Parasite (2019)
2020s: Nomadland (2020) | CODA (2021) | Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

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