Starring Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan and Catherine McCormack
Produced and directed by Mel Gibson
Reviewed by Barry Healy
Scottish history is particularly colourful and fascinating. The wild clans of the Picts and Scots so upset the Romans that they built a wall to keep them at bay. Having kept out slave society, the clans stood against English feudalism for hundreds of years and were finally defeated by the power of capitalism only in the 18th century.
Into this wild and bloody history now rides Mel Gibson (saddlebags stuffed with a reported $95 million) to tell the tale of the great Scots hero William Wallace as a recycled 1950s cowboy epic. He certainly works hard, but is too content to use safe, trite characterisations.
In this telling, Wallace wars against the English in the name of "freedom", a word repeated often but not given content. Moreover, he does so only after the English kill his wife. (Within the recycled cowboy hero genre, the transference of "lost love" onto a purported political motivation appears to be compulsory.)
The recycling comes with a few amendments, of course: the goodies don't wear white hats (they wear fearsome blue face paint); the baddies don't wear black hats (they have consumption or leprosy). But the women still know their place within the patriarchy. It's either panting in the arms of the hero or being mistreated by the baddies (so that the hero can have his excuse for going berserk and wasting all the English with his broadsword).
And just so you don't get some silly idea that Mel in a kilt is in danger of being mistaken for Priscilla, Queen of the Highlands, the film makes quite clear the proper treatment for homosexuals: bashing and murder. The only male characters who aren't bloodthirsty killers are the son of the English King, Edward I, and his lover. They are also a source of sniggering humour before becoming more fodder for the script's sadism.
Admirers of big screen epics will find satisfaction, perhaps, in the battle scenes. You can see for yourself, in cinemascope, where the big bucks got spent. Gibson has certainly succeeded in his stated aim of placing the audience within the sound and fury of hand-to-hand battles. They are truly gruesome and put to shame most representations of war on the screen.
The graphic portrayal of Wallace's final torture at the hands of the English also sets a new standard for stomach-turning accuracy.
Gibson the director spends so much time on the fighting and the suffering that the rest of the story has to be told in cinematic shorthand. At times the characters might just as well be wearing cardboard signs with their plot moves written on them. All characterisations have been reduced to a few broad types: commoner-hero (Wallace), vacillating nobleman (Robert the Bruce), female love interest/victim (Murron Wallace, Princess Isabelle) and villain (anyone English).
Students of cinematic sexism will have much to ponder. I wish I had timed how long women get on centre stage. In all the three hours, I'm sure both female leads don't get 30 minutes between them. But if you stay to the end of the credits, you'll see where women's names crop up. They are the assistants to the director, assistant to the producer, assistant to the art directors — in fact, assistant to anybody.
At the end of three long hours, I felt like history had ridden right over the top of me. It was just too long and too shallow. Mel should stick to Mad Max.