Mel Gibson’s Braveheart is routinely named in polls of film critics as the worst movie ever to have won the Academy Award for best picture, and it is easy to see why. The acting in the film ranges from the blandly unmemorable to the mortifying. Negligible as Scottish history, but it is undeniably a political film. Gibson clearly did not intend to venture into a political debate—the film is structurally and visually standard Hollywood fare, a costume drama of the sort normally considered a “prestige picture” or “Oscar bait,” and the Academy swallowed it whole and awarded Braveheart the 1995 Academy Award for Best Picture. Coincidently the 1995 release date would coincide with the political push towards Scottish “devolution” from the United Kingdom—with the establishment of a separate and independent Scottish Parliament—in 1997. I hope to ultimately show that not only is Braveheart a political film—not unlike those of Leni Riefensthal—it is precisely in keeping with Riefensthal’s fascist aesthetic.
Braveheart: The Worst Film for Best Picture
While I will concede that this questionably semi-historical, legend based film is meant to romanticize the audience with its use of raw human emotions like love, honor, deceitfulness, and war to keep the viewers immersed in the action, the clichés used within the film were ad nauseam. The crudity of Gibson’s overall directorial style can be seen by contrasting the cinematography and editing, I will give example from two scenes: the erotic encounter between William and his bride Murron, and the scene in which Edward Longshanks kills Philip.
The sex scene finds Gibson as William roaming in the gloaming, whereupon he flirts with Catherine McCormack as Murron by tossing stones. The natural light filming here is used to great effect by filming during the actual gloaming, the quality of long twilight found in the northern highlands of Scotland, and thus their long kiss is filmed in dusky light. Soon they elope to the forest by night, where they pledge marriage vows with a friar (in again what seems to be a Shakespearean borrowing) beside a Celtic stone cross: the camera then pans out, leaving the framed figures in moonlight to hold in a tableau that looks like religious iconography. Gibson’s production company is clearly called “Icon” for a reason. Then follows the most mortifying scene in the entire film, the sexual encounter in which Gibson and McCormack walk around naked by moonlight, in which their hairstyles and indeed their breasts look remarkably similar under slivers of silvery light. The simple answer here is that a frank sex scene would have broken the faux-primitive / pastoral magic of the film’s utterly lurid (and dishonest) imagination of the past. Here, a manifestly un-sexy coupling—Wallace and Murron have no chemistry whatsoever, and Gibson merely looks elderly doing the playful stone toss to get her attention—is made to seem chastely erotic by the purposefully atmospheric lighting and framing. We can contrast this with the cinematography in a very different scene, one which is morally ugly rather than aesthetically ghastly, the scene where Edward Longshanks throws his son’s catamite out the window. Here, Gibson is still filming by natural light: it is a bright sunny day outside, and indoors there are lit candles but the somber tones of the costumes here (like the Bayeux tapestry) are caught by the bright sunlight. The scene opens with Edward the Second fussing: then he sits down and pouts, pulling long faces like Carol Burnett until his father strides in the room. The scene pauses for a rustic messenger to deliver a scroll announcing the sack of York, and a severed head in a basket. This apparently prompts Philip (young Edward’s boyfriend) into offering Baywatch-breathless political advice until Patrick McGoohan flings him off the roof, whereupon he lands as comically as the cow lands upon Graham Chapman in Monty Python and the Holy...
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