Braveheart, the medieval historical epic for which Mel Gibson won an Oscar as Best Director, was released on May 24, 1995, more than 18 years ago now. I remember seeing it on that weekend. I actually didn’t intend to see it. A friend of mine was in town for just one afternoon, and we were going to see a movie and go have a beer. The movie we wanted to see, Die Hard: With a Vengeance, was sold out, so my friend said, “Hey, how about this other one, Braveheart?” I knew zero about the film before I saw it. Three hours later I walked out of that theater in a daze, having had one of the most memorable experiences I can ever remember watching a movie in the theater.
That was almost two decades ago, but since then, my relationship with this movie has been very much a love/hate one. Of course, being so thrilled by the movie when I first saw it, I was quick to proclaim it an “instant classic” and predict that it would win the Academy Award for Best Picture, which, in fact, it did. I bought its stirring score, by James Horner, on CD, and it was one of the few non-heavy metal albums that got constant play on my stereo in the summer and fall of 1995. The music is incredible. The climactic movement, called “Freedom,” which plays over the execution and final battle scene, was a kind of anthem of personal courage for me. I remember listening to it on headphones just before I took my first final exam in law school. From 1995 until about 2005, I consistently called Braveheart one of my all-time favorite movies. In 2002, I went to a Halloween costume party dressed as William Wallace, with half of my face painted blue and a $200 replica sword based on the one Mel Gibson carried in the movie.
The “Freedom” track from Braveheart, written by James Horner.
The film also had a very emotional connection for me. I always cried during the final scene, but one time I saw the film, in the spring of 1998, happened to be the weekend after the death of a family member, my cousin. When the final scene came on the screen and James Horner’s “Freedom” played, I cried so intensely I thought my spirit would break. From that day I associated Braveheart with my cousin, to the point where I could cry for him while just hearing “Freedom.”
After about 2005, I noticed my relationship with Braveheart changed a little bit. I still loved it, but I didn’t watch it as often as I used to. I was aware from when it first came out that it was historically very inaccurate, to the point where it was basically a pure work of fiction; that never bothered me. But it just didn’t quite call to me the same way it did before. It had a little bit to do with Mel Gibson personally, especially after he made that Passion of Christ movie; he just seemed…well, a bit creepy. Then he got arrested for DUI and spewed an anti-Semitic rant at the arresting officer. Okay. Bad Mel. You’re an alcoholic with anger issues. I get it. That doesn’t affect that Braveheart is still a brilliant movie.
Then this happened. [WARNING!!!! ABSOLUTELY NOT SAFE FOR WORK!!!!]
This, of course, is one of the infamous telephone rants by Mel Gibson against his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, leaked by TMZ.com in July 2010, along with several others. Yes, I was appalled and horrified by Gibson’s anger, his verbal abuse, his racial epithets, his appearance as a total unhinged nutcase. Lest there be any lingering doubt that these rants–or the anti-Semitic DUI incident–were just examples of Mel being caught on a “bad day,” screenwriter Joe Eszterhas wrote a book called Heaven and Mel, which I reviewed on this site, and in which he describes even more profanity-laced temper tantrums by Mel Gibson, as well as his anti-Semitism, his outrageous conspiracy beliefs, and his general unpleasantness as a human being.
I admit these revelations hurt me. Not that I held up Mel Gibson as some sort of hero; I never did that. I cared nothing about the man’s private life or beliefs. But this is the guy who made Braveheart? Who changed cinema history, who charmed and thrilled a generation of moviegoers, whose movie made me cry and became a part of how I think about my family, how I envision history? This, the guy who screams the N-bomb at his girlfriend over the telephone?
But I thought I wasn’t being fair. You have to separate the art from the artist. Yes, Mel Gibson is an unpleasant person with some really horrible beliefs and who has said some very hurtful things. But Braveheart is brilliant. Still. Right?
Mel’s inspirational speech right before the rousing Stirling battle sequence in “Braveheart.”
Largely because of the Oksana tapes, I couldn’t bring myself to watch Braveheart at all between 2010 and this year. I just felt…well, uncomfortable. Actually, I was afraid that the movie would make me feel uncomfortable.
This weekend I finally watched it. Not really because I wanted to see it, but because I was tired of dreading post-Braveheart traumatic stress syndrome. I’ll just watch it, I thought. Get it out of the way, and prove that it’s still a wonderful movie, and still worthy of all the emotion I’ve invested in it since 1995. So i watched it.
You know what? It wasn’t that great.
It’s not a bad film. It’s entertaining, well put-together, and the medieval battle scenes rightfully set a new standard in cinema history. The performance as Patrick McGoohan, as King Edward I, is particularly noteworthy. And the music is still epic. It’s a good film. But this time, in August 2013, for the first time in the history of its existence, Braveheart kind of…disappointed me.
I didn’t thrill to the strains of “Freedom.” I did not cry at the end. I didn’t share Robert the Bruce’s idealism or William Wallace’s sense of heroic destiny. These things happened on the screen, but they didn’t leave an emotional impression anymore.
Why? I really don’t know. Was it really the Oksana tapes? When I heard Gibson shout “Freeeeeeeeeeeeeddoooooooom!!!!” was I tainted by having heard the same voice scream racial epithets? It can’t be all that. But it must be part of it.
Another of the infamous “Oksana tapes.” Not safe for work under any circumstances!
I am 40 now. I was 22 when I saw Braveheart the first time. Have I “outgrown” it? I’m not sure that’s the answer either. I first saw Star Wars in the theater at age 5 and I haven’t outgrown that, more than 35 years later. I cried like a little girl at Titanic in 1997–another movie I can’t wait to watch again. I will admit I have “outgrown” the Kevin Smith “Jay & Silent Bob” movies that were so hilarious in 1994 but seem pretty insipid now. But Braveheart? Does one really “outgrow” a movie like this?
Now that I’ve seen Braveheart in the post-Oksana-tapes world, I’m not sure it still is one of my favorite movies. In fact, although it didn’t make me feel uncomfortable, it didn’t make me feel much of anything–which itself is kind of a problem. I don’t want to go so far as to say that Braveheart sucked. It doesn’t suck. But yet, I kind of want to say…it sucked.
Does anybody want a used DVD of Braveheart?