Societal Commentsand Historical Inaccuracy In Braveheart Essay

, Research Paper

William Wallace, Joan of Arc, George Armstrong Custer, and the list goes on of the people or groups of people who have had historical films made about them and their accomplishments or blunders. Many of these films have different areas in which they indirectly comment on every aspect of life from the roles of women to a particular look at social class. The idea that film is a medium in which a director can comment on the ills of society has been around since the first motion picture was made. The problem with this fact is that director?s and producers often change the historical facts and even the attitudes of the characters in order stimulate public interest through the striking of some common chord that the public feels strongly about. The story of the life of William Wallace in the movie Braveheart while historically fairly accurate in the depictions of the battles while leaving out many important fact in regard to relations on what is now the United Kingdom. In addition to deleting information about the relations between England and Scotland, the writers of the Braveheart script added some plot twists that have almost no historical backing. The events that have no historical foundation were most likely added to make the story more appealing to the audience or to comment on a current social trend. Specific trends that are commented on in the tale of the Scottish hero William Wallace are the changing place of women in our day, the rapid growth of nationalism, and the tendency of man to act in his own best interests. In addition to the comments made on society, those involved in the making of the movie Braveheart purposely deleted events with historical significance in order to make the character William Wallace an infallible hero of the Scottish people instead of portraying the whole truth about his life and times. Individuals in the movie business have shown disregard for historical fact in their pursuit for profits and a chance to address some social issue and there is no better example of this than the movie Braveheart. The historical inaccuracies in the movie Braveheart have several basic areas which include adding or deleting characters and inaccuracy regarding the lives and actions of historical figures. Edward I, William Wallace, the Prince and Princess of Wales as well as many other minor players in the Scottish resistance to English domination of Scotland have some aspect of their lives fictionalized in the movie Braveheart. In addition to the fictionalization of people?s lives there also happens to be military inaccuracies as well as periods of time which the movie does not account and instead inserts fictional events to make the movie more entertaining rather than historically accurate.

The first example of historical inaccuracy is that of the portrayal of Edward I, also known as Edward the Longshanks, as an individual who claimed that he was the heir to the Scottish throne and would torture and murder anyone who got in his way1. Henry I who happens to be the great great grandfather of Edward I married the daughter of the Scottish King2. Malcolm III ruled Scotland from 1058 until 1093 and his daughter Matilda married Henry I3. That is the basis of Edward?s claim to the Scottish throne in addition to the fact that his sister also married a Scottish King by the name of Alexander III who was the last Scottish ruler to hold the throne until Robert I was crowned at Scone in 13064. By all accounts of Edward I, he was indeed a man to be feared although the movie Braveheart portrays him as a incredibly cruel man who wanted nothing more than to crush his enemies. He was in fact an expert in English law, which he often used to his advantage. He was also a champion of the chivalric code and could be incredibly generous when the mood struck him5. Edward I was incredibly ambitious and even his biographer acknowledges the fact that he was a, ?hard-headed ruler who was determined to uphold his rights as he saw them, and ruthless in the methods he used to adopt his ends?6. While Edward I was most likely a ruthless ruler, he was not necessarily as evil as he is portrayed in the movie.

The second example of fictionalized character is that of the great Scottish patriot William Wallace. In the movie about his life, Wallace is introduced to the audience as a common man with very humble beginnings whose father was a farmer7. He was in fact the son of Sir Malcolm Wallace of Elderslie and the daughter of Sir Reginald Crawford the sheriff of Ayr8. So William Wallace was in fact not the son of a common farmer but the son of a low-level noble family. Not much else is known of Wallace?s early life until he emerges from obscurity between the ages of 25 and 279. Wallace first acted in anger against the English when he was insulted by the son of an English governor and proceeded to strike him dead and thus he began his military career10. His military campaign to free Scotland started in May 1297 after the murder of Marion Braidfoot who is the historical basis for the character Murron in Braveheart11. Wallace went on to regain a great number of Scottish towns and fortifications that had been held by the English. By this time news of Wallace? uprising had reached Edward I in France and he dispatched 40,000 soldiers and 300 cavalry to deal with the Scottish situation12. The stage was now set for a great Scottish victory at Sterling and Wallace was no longer an inexperienced military commander. Wallace was victorious at Sterling, but he knew at some point he would have to fight the English king. After several devastating raids into northern England in early 1298, the English king brought his army North. The English army consisted of infantry and archers as well as over 3000 cavalry13. The Scottish army was only half the size and had almost no cavalry. The Scottish defeat was total although Wallace survived and went into hiding14. After the crushing defeat at Falkirk, the writers of the Braveheart script would have you believe that Wallace went around killing his enemies in Scotland, there is however no historical basis for this assumption. Wallace is said to have left Scotland in search of military aid for another campaign15. He visited the courts of the French, Germans, and even the Pope in Rome without much success. The political environment was beginning to change due to the manipulations of Edward I and even England?s enemies wouldn?t offer Wallace much support. Wallace returned to Scotland after almost 7 years abroad and was subsequently betrayed to the English by a Scottish noble named Sir John Menteith and was turned over to the English for trial near Solway Firth16. He was then taken to Carlisle and then 300 miles to London for trial and execution. The movie is almost completely accurate in this part of the movie. After all of the charges were read William Wallace said that he was guilty of all of them except for treason because he had never sworn loyalty to the English king. Sometime after August 22nd, 1305, William Wallace had all manner of torture carried out on his person and was eventually beheaded17.

In addition to the historical inaccuracies regarding the lives of William Wallace and Edward I, minor characters in the movie such as the prince and princess of Wales were not portrayed accurately. There is absolutely no evidence that supports the suggestion that either of these two people ever had any kind of contact with Wallace or his cause. Isabella was the name of the French princess who married Edward II three years after Wallace?s execution18. She also was not a nice person like she was shown to be in Braveheart. She had her husband murdered and was therefore nicknamed the she-wolf of France19. The Prince of Wales on the other hand was quite similar to the character portrayed in the movie. He was allegedly homosexual and his lover was in fact killed although not by his father but by his nobles sometime after his father died20. Also in at least one case the writers for the Braveheart script omitted a historically significant person. Andrew Moray was completely omitted as a character in the movie even though some consider that he would have been a better soldier and leader than Wallace had he not suffered such an untimely death at the battle of Stirling21. Moray was the son of Sir Andrew Petty and a member of one of the great Highland families22. Andrew Moray used his superior knowledge of the land to defeat the better-equipped English. With all the craftiness of a fox, Moray led his growing band of patriots to a great number of victories. After conquering a great number of northern castles, he believed the time was right for him to join a military leader farther south named William Wallace and fight the English outright23. All of the characters in the movie Braveheart have some aspect of their life changed in order to make the story more appealing.

The actual characters were portrayed in a fairly accurate way although the military engagements were not very accurate in most cases. The parts that were accurate were those in which Scottish forces drew the better equipped English into traps, hit them hard, and faded back into the shadows. Most of the Scottish victories were small battles in which guerilla tactics were used. The out right battles in which the Scottish forces fought the English were portrayed incorrectly. The battle of Stirling Bridge is the best example of the Hollywood people incorrectly showing what a battle for Scottish independence looked like in 1297. The English and Scottish armies met on the 11th of September 1297 and the couldn?t have been any more different. English leaders had a 5 to 1 advantage in soldiers over the Scottish, but they also enjoyed battle hardened troops and a long military tradition mainly coming from the wars with France24. Scotland, however, enjoyed youthful and energetic leadership as well as unity of purpose in the minds of said leaders. The English leadership on the other hand was made up of several highly trained leaders who on the one hand had a great amount technical knowledge with regard to the art of war, but on the other hand the troops and the other nobles had no respect for their leaders and this made them ineffective. John Warenne, the Earl of Surrey, was the English commander and he regarded Scotland as a whole nation not to be associated with in any way25. The day before the battle he outlined his plan. Warenne ordered the English army across the Stirling bridge over the river Forth and onto a piece of land that was surrounded on three sides by water. Soldiers fighting for the English king would then conduct a full frontal assault on the Scots who held the high ground26. The Earl of Surrey was so confident of the superiority of his troops that he spent no real amount of time planning for the battle. On the morning of the battle the crossing was begun and reversed several times as Wallace pursued diplomatic options in an effort to stall for time in order to confirm intelligence and deployments. When the decision was finally made by the English commander to send his army over the river he had to send them over two at a time because the bridge was so narrow27. The crossing took more than two hours and all the while Wallace and his Captains stood and watched the English move. Many of the English lords and even some of the Scottish nobles who had switched sides believed that the attitude of their leader was suicide. Not wanting to discuss the issue anymore the English Commander, John Warenne, ordered his second in command to cross the bridge and proceed with the frontal attack. Wallace waited until a great number of the English troops had crossed the river. When there was as many troops from England as he thought his force could effectively handle, he gave the signal for the charge to begin28. In such a closed in area, the English cavalry became ineffective because they had no room to maneuver or make efficient use of their weapons. English infantry was in much the same position mainly due to the fact that it took them a good bit of time to form up after the crossing. When Wallace sounded the attack, a small detachment of Scottish spearmen gained control of one side of the bridge thus cutting off the only escape route other than swimming the river, which many tried but few succeeded. The main Scottish army had charged straight down towards the English cutting off the only land route of escape. The English now had river on three sides, the only accessible bridge controlled by the Scottish, and the main force of the Scottish army bearing down on them. A majority of the English army was sealed off from reinforcements and eventually wiped out29. Unlike the portrayal in the movie Braveheart, the Battle of Stirling Bridge was not a situation that both armies charged each other and the battle was decided in typical medieval fashion. It was instead a brilliant move on Wallace?s part by manipulating the English into fighting the battle on his terms. The English on the other hand had to contend with the supreme arrogance of their leader and a prevailing thought that they would easily sweep the Scottish army from the field. John Warenne paid for arrogance and tactical mistakes with the blood of many English soldiers.

Braveheart was released in the year 1995 and since then the Scottish people have made great strides in becoming there own nation once again. While Scotland was never subdued by force of arms, it was never completely free of English rule and even today the English Parliament rules the country from London. The movie Braveheart while not entirely accurate in its portrayal of the Scottish wars for independence brought back to light the story of the great men who fought for their homes and families. Hollywood writers felt that the whole truth of the story wasn?t acceptable as far as the current trends in film went. Braveheart had a great number of different plots going all at once. There was of course all of the following themes: romance, militarism, and a return of the heroic character. Most films that are produced in Hollywood are for the most part appealing to men because the establishment is almost entirely men. Romance as a theme takes on a new meaning because it now fails to uphold the stereotype that so called romance can only exist between a man and a woman. Kellner and Ryan say that, ?male centered romance was revived during a period of reaction against?political instability and potential war.?30 These two authors are saying that movie producers are saying that romance is so uncertain especially in the times in which we live that it is better to depend on a friend that is a male rather than worry about love and all its trappings. Braveheart is a great example of the way in which men bond as friends is some kind same sex romance. Robert the Bruce in the movie Braveheart says, to the troops during the final battle scene, ?you have bled with Wallace now bleed with me.?31 There can be no greater romance between two men than going to war together against a common enemy. Conventional romance meaning that between a man and a woman is also a social statement. The women in Braveheart while few are very headstrong and ambitious. Princess Isabella willfully defies not only her husband but her father in law the king of England. Isabella basically commits what in that time would have been considered treason and helps William Wallace in his struggle. In addition to helping Wallace, she implies that she is pregnant with his child. The treason at least historically seems to have taken place and is an example of how the attitude towards ambitious women have changed. As far as the adultery goes, she was in fact married and even hundreds of years later women were executed for simply being accused of adultery. Romance was the underlying theme of all of this in that it gave the story a powerful and emotional ending by applying present day feminist thoughts about sexuality and ambition to a 700-year-old story. As for the militarism in Braveheart, the theme is quite obvious. Prior to the release date the American military had fought one of the most successful campaigns in military history in terms of achieving the set goals and minimizing casualties and regained some of its prestige that it had lost in Vietnam. Kellner and Ryan suggest that in post Vietnam era films such as An Officer and a Gentlemen Hollywood is attempting to restore the image of the American military in the eyes of the public. Braveheart does the same thing in a post Gulf War era in which the American military takes on a superior force in sheer numbers and practically destroys them. The underlying militaristic theme of Braveheart is that of Americans or whichever side we are on is going to eventually win because America has the moral high ground in everything. Speaking of the moral high ground, the last and most important theme in Braveheart is that of the return of heroic characters. Again according to Kellner and Ryan, ?the idealized self-representations (on the level of both the individual and the nation) help hold a society together.?31 They go on to suggest that the current trend is for more great leaders in order to help us feel like we are regaining something that we have lost in the past. There are three independent elements in the heroic individual. Two of these are present in Braveheart. The first is an assertion that heroic characters are like entrepreneurs in that they stand up to state tyranny. William Wallace could most certainly be thought of as an entrepreneur who stood up to state tyranny. The second element is that of the heroic warrior. The story of William Wallace and his struggle against the oppressive English king strikes a chord with patriotic Americans everywhere. The idea of all of these themes coming together at the right time and place and under the right circumstances and being the product of mostly historical fact produces a movie with impact that Braveheart had.

In conclusion, there have been many films since the beginning of film history that have been based on historical fact. Some of these have been completely accurate while some others have only been a loose interpretation of what actually happened. Mel Gibson?s Braveheart is an example of movie that is in about the middle. Braveheart while mostly accurate as far as dates and places go there were several fictitious events and traits attributed to certain characters. Also there were a couple of people who were deleted from the story who played a major role and there were those who were based on real people but those people played no part in the Scottish war for independence. Hollywood also fictionalized the actual battles in order to make them more dramatic and thereby improve the profitability of the movie. All the above changes were made to enhance the drama of the movie and to go along with the current trends in romance, militarism, and the return of the heroic character. Hollywood in the movie Braveheart manipulated the facts in a 700-year-old story in order to increase their profits and make some kind of social statement and abide by the current social trends.


1. Braveheart (1995), Paramount Pictures, Mel Gibson, dir.

2. Peter Reese, Wallace: A Biography. Canongate Books Ltd., 1996. p. vi

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Peter Reese, Wallace: A Biography. Canongate Books Ltd., 1996. p. 21

6. Ibid. p. 22

7. Braveheart (1995), Paramount Pictures, Mel Gibson, dir.

8. Peter Reese, Wallace: A Biography. Canongate Books Ltd., 1996. p. 37

9. John and Julia Keay, Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland. Harper Collins Publishers, 1994. p. 965

10. Unknown author, Sir William Wallace.

11. Unknown author, Braveheart: the movie. 1995

12. Unknown author, Sir William Wallace.

13. Peter Reese, Wallace: A Biography. Canongate Books Ltd., 1996. p.72

14. Ibid. p. 105

15. Ibid. p. 108

16. Ibid. p. 115

17. Peter Reese, Wallace: A Biography. Canongate Books Ltd., 1996. p.121

18. Unknown author, Braveheart: the movie. 1995

19. Unknown author, Braveheart: the movie. 1995

20. Unknown author, Braveheart: the movie. 1995

21. Peter Reese, Wallace: A Biography. Canongate Books Ltd., 1996. p. 36

22. Ibid. p. 37

23. Ibid. p. 37

24. Ibid. p. 53

25. Ibid. p. 50

26. Ibid. p. 52

27. Ibid. p. 55

28. Ibid. p. 56

29. Ibid.

30. Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner, Camera Politica. Indiana University Press, 1988. p. 217

Societal Comments and Historical Inaccuracy in Braveheart

Chris Bakke

Dr. Ray Pratt

Political Science 324

April 17, 2000


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