Hollywood's Revisionist History: Mel Gibson, Braveheart and The Patriot
An Article by Scott Cummings
The once mighty British Empire, on which "the sun never set" has charged that Mel Gibson's two epic films, Braveheart and The Patriot, rewrite history to shed a very negative light on Britain's shrunken empire. In opening The Patriot in the guise of his character, American Revolutionary Benjamin Martin, Mel Gibson says, "I have long feared that my sins would return to visit me and the cost is more than I can bear."
The British and filmmaker Spike Lee hope those words will come true for Mel Gibson himself. Gibson stars in The Patriot, released in 2000, five years after Gibson starred in and directed Braveheart. In addition to British complaints over historical accuracy in both movies, Braveheart has been called offensive by homosexuals, while The Patriot has offended African-Americans.
In Braveheart Gibson portrayed William Wallace, a commoner who rose to lead the Scottish rebellion against England in the 14th century. The Patriot's Benjamin Martin was a widower who became a reluctant revolutionary in an effort to hold his family together. The screenwriters of both movies cite getting in touch with their patriotism as inspiration.
When in Edinburgh, Scotland discovering his heritage, Randall Wallace saw the fourteen-foot tall statue of William Wallace and became intrigued with his namesake. Randall Wallace found that he is not related to William Wallace, but out of his research emerged the script for Braveheart. Robert Rodat, screenwriter of The Patriot, was looking to top the success of his previous screenplay, Saving Private Ryan.
Rodat found inspiration while watching a local Patriot's Day parade, which celebrated the start of the American Revolution in April 1776. During his subsequent research, Rodat was drawn to the Southern colonies' little publicized role in the American Revolution. He chose one of that region's most famous local heroes, the Swamp Fox, Francis Marion, as his central character.
Braveheart: Fiction and Nationalism
In 1994, Mel Gibson chose Randall Wallace's script for his second directorial effort following 1993's The Man Without a Face. The action movie franchises, Mad Max and Lethal Weapon, had given Gibson significant box-office power. Although he had received some critical praise for his acting in Galipoli (1981), The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) and Hamlet (1990), most of Gibson's roles were considered "lightweight" being action or comedy oriented.
Gibson filmed Braveheart in Ireland, which led to limited publicity in America during filming due to the remote location. When Braveheart arrived in theatres in May 1995, few had expected Gibson to present a three-hour epic film. Although it received warm reviews from critics, many moviegoers passed on the film because of its length. This resulted in a short stay in theatres and the film did not recoup its budget. Later in 1995, Academy Award buzz began to build around the movie.
After it received ten Oscar nominations, Braveheart headed back to theatres in early 1996 for a second run. Braveheart secured Mel Gibson's status as an all-time movie star and gained respect for his production company, Icon Pictures, when it walked away with five Academy Awards, including Best Director for Gibson and Best Picture. The Oscar boost during the second theatrical release allowed the movie to finish paying its bills and turn a profit.
Since Scottish history is less widely known in America, few early critical reviews of Braveheart pointed out the historical inaccuracies. After the film garnered media attention because of its Oscar considerations, scholars began to analyze the movie for its accuracies and inaccuracies. Both Randall Wallace and Mel Gibson readily admitted using dramatic license in their interpretation of history. Gibson was never shy about admitting that he had added healthy doses of fictitious dramatic elements to the story.
William Wallace, who lived in the 14th century, would not have worn kilts, which did not appear in Scotland until the 17th century. There is no record of an illegitimate child born between William Wallace and the Princess Isabella, although the Scottish poet Blind Harry, who composed the epic poem 'Wallace' about a century after William Wallace's life, may have influenced screenwriter Randall Wallace. In his poem, Blind Harry had Wallace and King Edward Longshanks' wife involved, which had no historical basis either.