25 June 2012

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: SCOTS WHA HAE

Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: the new Pixar film Brave is, above and beyond any other considerations, a blow-your-brains-out gorgeous CGI depiction of the Scottish highlands, one of the most over-the-top dramatically pretty landscapes on God's green earth. Let us therefore take a look at another divisive epic (with an uncommonly similar title) set in the same time and place, and spend plenty of time cooing in delight at the scenery.

I wish to go to bat for Braveheart, though not without some trepidation and even, frankly, guilt. For to defend the movie, released in the more innocent summer days of 1995, now feels akin to defending the worldview of its director-producer-star Mel Gibson, and this is not something anybody wants to do. Also, nearly every critic I respect most has at best lukewarm if not outright hostile feelings towards the movie, and that makes me feel queasily like I have the "wrong" opinion. So permit to ease into things by saying the one thing that I love about the movie the most, and expect to have the easiest time defending:

Braveheart has some of the very best outdoor cinematography in the last, oh, 25 years of cinema, one of the two career peaks for John Toll, himself one of the very best specialists in using natural light and outdoor settings in the history of color film (his other masterpiece is The Thin Red Line, which I think is all the argument I need to prove the latter point). It helps matters that Toll is shooting landscapes in Ireland and Scotland, two of the most beautiful regions in all the world, and ones that can make even the dodgiest and blandly-shot movie look like God's own rock garden; but the difference between Braveheart and e.g. Waking Ned is the difference between an unimpeachable master given almost unimaginable free reign to get exactly the look he wants, and a guy who knows how to expose properly and keep the focus where it needs to be (my understanding is that Toll had an entire village set constructed to his exact specifications to get the precise lighting he wanted - that kind of free reign). The result is an extraordinary pageant of grey and green, the bleak overcast skies present in almost every scene intensifying the verdant landscape; it looks equal parts primordial myth and dramatic, lustful tribute to the damp physicality of the British Isles. And since Braveheart's story is itself a mash-up of history and legend (and outright fabrication by its screenwriter), I am comfortable calling this a successful marriage of form and content. Anyway, it won for Toll the cosniderable achievement of being only the third and, at present, last person to win the Best Cinematography Oscar two years in a row (1994 saw him win for Legends of the Fall, a less-deserving victory, but only in comparison), and while the Oscars should never be invoked to win an argument, it's still the case that when something that rare occurs, it might be worth wondering if it's justified.

So, Braveheart: visual sublimity and nothing less. Nor is it really incidental to the film that it looks the way it does, since Braveheart is, at its best, not really much of a drama. In fact, it's quite irresponsible as a narrative film, for a lot of reasons that a lot of people already know, though the one that I'd call the most important is how completely screenwriter Randall Wallace manages to include virtually no historical data of any authenticity besides this point: around the beginning of the 14th Century, a Scottish man named William Wallace (played here by Gibson himself) fought for Scottish independence against the armies of Edward I, king of England (Patrick McGoohan). That is literally it. There's not one other dependable fact presented in Braveheart, such that I'm not even going to bother listing the things it gets wrong, down to the simple matter of relative dating (okay, so there are other things that are true: names of historical personages, locations of battles, and the broadest possible idea of what the war for Scottish independence consisted of. Still and all, if you rely on Braveheart to explain the history of 1280-1314 to you, then you are severely fucked).

In fact, Braveheart's complete renunciation of history is so thorough and so unmistakable that it doesn't even bother me in the slightest. At this point, historical drama or even biopic have been discarded; at this point, Braveheart is what we could kindly call "historical romance" and perhaps more fairly call "outright fantasy". But as reportage of fact, it's the worst manipulation of traceable Scottish history for largely fictional and dramatically propulsive means since an undereducated glover's son transformed the 11th Century King Macbeth into an existentially tormented regicide.

That, obviously, isn't fair. Braveheart is plainly not Macbeth, though I'd argue that it's at least as worthwhile as any of the Henry VI plays. The point being, mutilating good honest history for dramatic purposes is an old tradition.

But anyway, historical incoherence has never been the only complaint levied against the film: there is also its terribly problematic depiction of women and homosexuals, and I have nothing to say in its defense on either count, and there is its loving, fascinated, hugely enthusiastic depiction of what the MPAA drily calls "brutal medieval warfare", which translates to: so much violence, with so many weapons designed for maximum effectiveness rather than cleanliness. This is something that has been sharpened by our later knowledge of Gibson's interests, particularly those laid bare his next effort as director, the religious torture epic The Passion of the Christ. Setting aside the particularly conservative Catholic elements of that film (which it is risky to do), and it becomes a movie about the transfiguring possibilities of suffering incredibly pain and physical mortification. And this is precisely what happens in the climactic ten minutes of Braveheart, coming at the end of 160 previous minutes of depicting violence - not just violence in the "bang you're dead!" sense, but lingering, specific, detailed, imaginative, and very clearly presented violence involving swords and spikes and heavy iron balls on chains and flaming arrows and spears - with something approaching awe. It is not a movie that has a fetish for all this violence, so much as it is a movie that is truly worshipful of how men willing to do violence are more manly and capable and powerful and world-changing than those not willing to do violence. And this is not something that I intend to explore at any particular length in the context of reviewing a movie that came out almost two decades ago. Sometimes, the only thing that changes the world is the readiness to commit violent acts, and yet it is still probably not a good thing to treat with such respectful attention.

At the same time, coming after such a long stretch of Saw and its acolytes, not to mention The Passion itself, Braveheart seems a good deal more restrained and purposeful in its use of violence that appeared to be the case in 1995. For one thing, most of it is in the service of battle sequences, really tremendous and magnificently executed battle sequences that find the director, the cinematographer, the editor, the sound mixer, the sound editor, and the makeup artist all working in perfect unison to create little ten-minute poems of the nightmare of chaos and blood that "brutal medieval warfare" entailed for thousands of men who died in these horrible ways. The combat in Braveheart is the current standard-bearer for how pre-modern warfare can be best depicted in cinema just as surely as Saving Private Ryan's jaw-dropping Normandy sequence has still not been touched by any other depiction of contemporary war; the helplessly derivative Gladiator, and the sprawling but harried and CGI-addled The Two Towers and The Return of the King, and the hideously styled-besotted 300, to name the highest-profile of Braveheart's children, are simply not able to compete on their forebear's level (and to my reckoning, only The Two Towers even comes particularly close).

And maybe it's all indefensibly boisterous and giddy about seeing blood spill everywhere (though I much prefer it to Private Ryan, which seems to genuinely think itself an anti-war film despite 105 minutes after that terrific opener that do everything they can to undercut it), but when it comes down to it - and this is the same reason that no matter how much I try to resist it, The Passion still pulls me in like an electromagnet - this is the work of a filmmaker who deeply believes in what he's doing: every single frame of Braveheart, whether it depicts a man losing his leg at the knee, or a slow-motion shot of a woman nobly allowing herself to be raped by a feudal lord, or men in anachronistic kilts flashing their enemies, is entirely sincere. Sincerity goes a very long way with me - it's why the bloodletting in the Saw franchise offends me, even as I'll cheerfully sign up for the bloodletting here, because in that series, the filmmakers couldn't be more overt in their total cynicism about what they're doing, but Gibson... Gibson believes. He is doing this out of a deep and total love for the material and its completely out of place message about individualism and personal freedom in a society where both of those were alien concepts (he'd later revisit the themes in a much more appropriate venue as the star of The Patriot, but since that movie was made by the outrageously ineffective team of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the results were completely awful).

Thus it is that, despite an awareness the second that the movie ends that I've just been had by a faintly awful man espousing faintly awful notions, Braveheart invariably grabs me and holds me solid for 177 shockingly quick minutes: it is completely honest, and completely eager, and subtle as an iron hammer to the skull. The movie makes its point in big, unmissable gestures: Toll's epic-scale "mists of time" cinematography, James Horner's uiellann pipe-driven score - one of the handful of compositions in his career that is not primarily stolen from one of his other compositions, though there's some Willow in it (the cycle would continue, of course, when he transported the music, largely intact, into Titanic) - which adds a veneer of theme park Scottishisms that are positively shameless in their emotional browbeating, but hey, whatever works. You know that hugely over-exposed "They may take our lives, but they'll never &c" line? That moment works almost entirely because of Horner, and certainly not because of Wallace's (Randall or William, take your pick) frankly anemic boosterism.

Braveheart is, that is to say, staggeringly primitive: it not only lacks sophistication, it very nearly goes out of its way to avoid being sophisticated. Much as with The Passion and Apocalypto, the overriding impression one gets is that Gibson would much rather have been making movies in the overheated world of simple melodrama and broad gestures of 1910s cinema; mix that demonstrative narrative sensibility in with a bit of the overbaked sword and sandal epics of the late '50s and early '60s, and there it is, Braveheart, a movie that cares about the 1990s only because it allows for so much more violence. Viewed in that light, even the worst elements of the film - the fact that few people in the cast do much more than aim in the general direction of a Scottish accent, and settle for whatever thing the end up landing on, or Gibson's dire inability to fit the role (he's since conceded that the part needed to be filled by a considerably younger actor), and even, especially, the rampant anachronisms - seem more like throwbacks to the don't-give-a-shit menatality by which movies of this sort weren't meant to be serious dramas but unabashed spectacles where the single concern was being as flashy and as well-appointed as possible. That's all that Braveheart is, and all it wants to be: big goddamn spectacle that flattens you over and over again. For me, it works like gangbusters. Like one of the characters in the movie says - he's a bad guy, we can tell because he's a leper, because this is the sort of movie where that kind of metaphor would be trotted out - uncompromising men are easy to admire.

9 comments:

james1511 said...

For viewers of Scottish origin, like myself, it's hard to deny the atavistic appeal of watching Englishmen getting thumped by Scots. The temptation once the film was over to get into a kilt, strap on a dirk, and rampage through the north of England was great.

Thrash Til' Death said...

Another Scot here. It's been years since I've seen Braveheart, and my critical faculties were not so developed then as they are now, but I have to admit that I don't really remember finding the battle scenes in Braveheart particularly inspiring, especially not after the Lord of the Rings films. Then again, the Scottish Wars of Independence is taught with a certain degree of relish in the Scottish school system - partly because it's a proud moment of national heritage, partly because the series of events doesn't really need to be embellished to be dramatic and compelling - and as a result, I think virtually every Scot was confused and alienated straight away by the first major battle set-piece: the Battle of Stirling Bridge where they somehow forgot the damn bridge that was itself key to the Scots' victory.

Thrash Til' Death said...

One other thing before I forget: Tim, have you ever seen John Woo's two-part epic Red Cliff? If there's to be a definitive statement about the most effective sequences of epic historical warfare in recent cinema, by my reckoning it can't really be made without taking that film into account; just about the most lavish and expansive spectacle imaginable from one of the greatest directors of action who ever lived.

Mark said...

Try as I might, I will never be able to forgive this film for winning the Oscar over "Babe". (And let us not even discuss that "Leaving Las Vegas" was not even nominated for Best Picture!) Perhaps this is not a terrible film, but it'll never get a fair shake from me on that account.

Daniel Silberberg said...

Better than Two Towers? I guess I have to watch this movie again.

The.Watcher said...

I have no problem with mel gibson at all, i really like him as an actor and could give a damn about what he says in real life. I believe people have become overly-sensitive to anything they may not agree with. People should have the right to say what they want, even hate speech should be protected, otherwise it's a very slippery slope to censorship.

That being said, i never really liked this movie. It feels too amateurish, the battle scenes lack urgency and the acting from anyone other than Gibson is weak.

KingKubrick said...

This movie kicks ass. So does Apocalypto. Mel's completely insane but he does action scenes better than most. I have to agree with Tim on the Two Towers; having rewatched the Lord of the Rings trilogy a year ago, I gotta say they haven't aged that well. And the extended cuts are arduous to sit through.

Tim said...

James- The teenage me went on a huge Scottish kick after I saw this for the first time (supposedly I'm mostly Scottish on my dad's side; never hunted down a reliable family tree, through), so I very much feel you there.

Thrash- You've got me dead to rights: I have not seen the full Red Cliff. The theatrical cut felt incredibly rushed and inorganic, but extremely good for what it was, and I know that I need to hunt down the proper version, but it's such a time commitment...

Mark- Fair enough; my own pick for "how dare they not nominate THAT!" in 1995 is Toy Story. And Babe is readily my favorite of the nominees. Heck, on any given day, I might even like Apollo 13 more than Braveheart. Since most Best Picture winners beat something that was far, empirically better, I try not to notice it too much.

Daniel & KingKubrick- I never completely loved the LOTR trilogy (Two Towers is my favorite), and in general the action sequences aren't my favorite part of any of the films - I think the effects tend to look a bit more threadbare in the battles than elsewhere. So I'm not the most objective bystander. But we'll all get to revisit this when I review them come December.

The.Watcher- Well said.

Zev- Now I want to make extra-certain to distance myself from what I said: I am by no means a lover of James Horner. This, Star Trek II, and parts of Willow, are the entirety of what I like in his career. God knows I prefer any of Jarre's best work in the same idiom, especially his film-saving work in Doctor Zhivago. And I know you're not accusing me of anything, but I wouldn't want it to get out that I have affection for Horner - oh my word, I do not.

james1511 said...

I'll second the recommendation of the full-length Red Cliff. It just about excuses Woo's Hollywood years.