Last night my girlfriend and I pulled Braveheart up as a kitschy couch-potato flick, and in that respect we were not disappointed. It didn’t seem like a film anyone would confuse with a good movie, and we attributed its Best Picture win to the Academy’s predictable taste for historical epics.
I was surprised, then, to later read the reviews and find that the film was immediately adored by critics—not just the famously unsnobbish Roger Ebert, but by the New York Times, whose writer Caryn James called it “one of the most spectacular entertainments in years.” Even The New Yorker‘s Anthony Lane, as fun to read as he is hard to please, gave the film a largely positive review that included complimentary comparisons to The Passion of Joan of Arc and Laurence Olivier’s Henry V.
Why has this film, acclaimed less than 20 years ago, aged so poorly?
1. It looks and sounds dated. There’s a certain fascination to watching historical epics from years past: despite attempts to evoke a distant era, they inevitably hint at the time of their creation. The best example of this in Braveheart is Mel Gibson’s hair, which seems to have been taken as authentically unruly (Lane, impressed: “Gibson has to speak with the right accent, wear a kilt, and scrupulously avoid anything than resembles a comb”) but now looks like a blow-out created by a celebrity stylist whose chair had been recently vacated by Michael Bolton. James Horner’s wheezy score also shows its age: there are the trembling flutes you’d find in any Scot-centric epic, but then there are also the Hearts of Space synths.
2. The gay subplot is offensive. With gay marriage becoming legal in states across the country, it’s hard to understand how policies like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage act could have been espoused by a Democratic president within the lifetime of today’s teens. In that sense, Braveheart is an illuminating time capsule. The prince of England is a simpering stereotype, incapable of leadership and impotent to impregnate his strategically-garnered French wife. For plot purposes he’s homosexual, but the tone of the film makes him asexual: a hapless eunuch. The offensive suggestion that being gay is akin to having no sexuality at all—no potency in any respect—earned Braveheart a statement of protest from the Gay Alliance, and yet passed notice by all three reviews I read. Ebert, in fact, seems to have missed that there even was a gay subplot, referring to the prince’s lover as “his best friend.”
3. Mel Gibson. In 1995, Braveheart was seen as evidence that Gibson’s flair for acting was matched by behind-the-lens savvy, a talent that had brilliantly matured. That didn’t last long. It took Gibson nine more years to direct another film, and that film was The Passion of the Christ. For anyone who’s seen—or even, really, just heard about—that latter movie, it’s impossible not to see Braveheart as an earlier, more palatable, product of a deeply disturbing set of fascinations. The masochistic martyr, the abuse of human bodies, the uncomplicated tie between ethnic origin and moral character. It’s understandable why Gibson, a man who likes to very explicitly remind us of the unspeakable agonies our forebears suffered for our sakes, would be interested in producing a Holocaust film—but given Gibson’s anti-Semitic inclinations (to put it charitably), it’s just as well that the director has kept his focus on the distant past.
1995 wasn’t all that long ago, but Braveheart makes the 20th century seem almost as distant as the 13th.