Braveheart Review

“They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our film grain!”

The Film

Click to enlarge image to full size
The extent to which any of this bothers you will depend on how much of a stickler you are for historical accuracy. As Gibson and Randall Wallace, among others, have been quick to point out, when you’re making a film, the need to tell a compelling story trumps the need for historical accuracy any day. And on a number of occasions, you get glimpses of tacit admissions on the part of the filmmakers that the heavily romanticised story they are telling is more fact than fiction. Prior to the Battle of Stirling Bridge (depicted, oddly enough, with no bridge in sight), soldiers express disbelief that Wallace is who he claims to be, since word of mouth has led them to believe him to be seven feet tall and capable of killing hundreds in a single sword-stroke. A similar technique is repeated as word spreads regarding the murder of Wallace’s wife, in Gibson’s film the catalyst for his crusade against the English: already heavily romanticised in its on-screen portrayal, the tale has only become more absurd by the time it reaches the ears of the Princess. As Roger Ebert famously put it in his review of the film, Gibson is not filming history but myth. The central message, it seems, is that factual accuracy doesn’t matter; however, ideas do, and Braveheart’s central idea, that of freedom, is about as straightforward and universal as they come.

Of course, “straightforward” goes hand in hand with Gibson’s sensibilities as a filmmaker. There are few layers to Braveheart, and subtlety seems to be a concept wholly alien to the director. His later The Passion of the Christ, classy “torture porn” for those who turn up their noses at the Hostels and Martyrs of the world, may have truly confirmed his taste for violence, but it’s hard not to look on Braveheart, with its multiple dismemberments, decapitations, amputated limbs and of course the eventual torture and execution of Wallace, as something of training ground for that later offering. The film’s morality is actually very Old Testament, espousing the notion of “an eye for an eye” in the filmmaker’s apparent complete lack of awareness as to the hypocrisy of Wallace harping on about the tyranny and brutality of the English while happily cutting an equally vicious swathe through them, soldiers and civilians alike. (There’s actually a moment where the Princess confronts him about this, but this is blithely brushed under the carpet with the counter that “Longshanks did far worse.”) Of course, like The Passion, Braveheart looks like a million bucks, thanks to the contributions of then-inexperienced cinematographer John Toll, and of course the decision to mobilise the Irish Army Reserve and do the numerous crowd scenes for real. There’s something quite jaw-dropping about the sheer scale of the thing: when you see a thousand soldiers charging across a field, you know that there actually are a thousand soldiers there, not just a couple of dozen extras and a bunch of CGI dummies. As a result, we can actually believe that what we’re seeing is taking place, because in a sense it did – well, minus the actual bloodshed and slaughter.

It’s old-school filmmaking through and through, and it’s this sense of scale and embracing of simple, easily recognisable emotions that makes the film’s myriad flaws a little easier to overlook. While the romance that occupies the first feels overly trite (and there’s something rather absurd about watching the 40-year-old Gibson capering around after a pretty girl like a goofy, love-struck teenager), it quickly gives way to meatier fare, with the in-fighting among the Scots nobles providing an intriguing backdrop to the death and destruction being meted out on the battlefield. Among these nobles, Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen) emerges as a far more interesting character than Wallace himself. Conflicted and characterised more in shades of grey than any other character, it’s actually a crying shame there isn’t more of him in the film. That said, Wallace is the glue that holds the whole thing together, and it has to be said that Gibson, despite looking more like cavemen than a thirteenth-century Scotsman (and here I await the inevitable “What’s the difference?” jokes), does a fine job of inhabiting the role. He has enough charisma for you to believe that entire armies would have been compelled to march into battle behind him, against seemingly insurmountable odds, and even his Scottish accent, which has come in for a lot of stick, doesn’t seem all that bad – at least in comparison to some of the Irish bit players who ham it up something rotten.

Click to enlarge image to full size
After the Gladiator fiasco, it’s really something of a relief to be able to write about a release like this. I believe Gibson’s Icon production company were responsible for the creation of the master, under the supervision (or at the very least with the approval) of John Toll, and it really is every bit as good as people have said. Actually, it’s better. As I watched it, I was continually flabbergasted by the sheer level of detail up on the screen. It compares very favourably to the likes of How the West Was Won and The International in that regard, with even the widest crowd scenes maintaining an impression degree of clarity.

Not only that, it’s also one of the most naturally film-like images I’ve ever seen on BD. The grain, which varies in intensity from shot to shot (as you would expect to be the case), never looks anything less than completely natural. You really do forget that you’re watching an optical disc and think you’re actually seeing a print being projected in front of you. Someone (Mel Gibson? John Toll?) clearly ordered this to be run through with the DVNR switch marked firmly at “Off”, as there is a smattering of white nicks and flecks throughout the film. Pause the disc on the appropriate frames and you’ll see them as clear as day. Watching the disc in motion, though, they are never a distraction, and actually add to the film-like nature of the presentation. (It’s what I believe Steven Spielberg refers to as the “sparkle” you get with film but not digital video.)

I don’t consider minor print damage to be a problem. What I do consider a problem, however, is an entirely digital problem which afflicts the film’s opening scenes. Until the 22-minute mark, every shot suffers from a degree of blockiness in the vertical domain, as if the image was transferred at a resolution with a height of less than 1080 pixels and then crudely upscaled. It’s actually a fairly minor irritant, all things considered, and a lot of the time it isn’t even noticeable, but it’s there if you look for it. Watching it on a 123” projection setup, I was only actually aware of it in a couple of shots, but when viewing it on my desktop monitor it was a bit more pronounced. Then, at precisely the 22-minute mark, during the bridge between Chapters 3 and 4, the problem disappears completely and never again resurfaces. From then on, it’s reference quality all the way, with only the inevitable optical shots suffering from any degree of reduction in clarity – and even then, they look far more detailed than many entire movies.

If the whole of Braveheart had looked like the final 155 minutes, the disc would undoubtedly have made its way into the highest “tier” of my ranking system. As it is, though, the initial 22 minutes, although still very good, do suffer slightly in terms of overall definition, marring the presentation slightly. If those early scenes were to be ranked separately, they would net an 8/10 (or perhaps a very high 7/10) while the rest of the film would be a 10/10. 22 minutes is only 12% of the total running time, so it doesn’t seem fair to give this disc anything less than a solid 9.5/10. Unfortunately, DVD Times doesn’t allow for fractions in its scoring system, so 9/10 it will have to be. Consider it, however, an extremely high 9.

You can see a whole bunch of screen captures of this exceptional disc on my blog.

The Audio

Click to enlarge image to full size
Spread across two discs, Braveheart gets considerably less content than Gladiator did, but on the other hand, the material that is included is presented in a far less piecemeal fashion, making it more satisfying to watch as a whole. Broadly speaking, the extras take a fairly fact-based, historical slant, perhaps to counter criticisms of the film’s lack of such an approach.

Resurrected from the original DVD is a slightly sporadic but nonetheless enjoyable solo commentary by Mel Gibson, in which he talks about the logistical issues of shooting, and fills the listener in on some of the historical liberties taken by the script. Regardless of what his most recent public persona suggests about him, on the track he comes across as witty and self-effacing, and is interesting enough to listen to even if his comments do have that unplanned, “Oh yeah, I remember this bit” quality.

Also included on the first disc is an interactive timeline feature, which allows viewers to brush up on their history by comparing information about the real William Wallace with the fictionalised version presented in the film, in addition to discovering information about the film’s production. This is conveyed in the form of a mixture of text- and video-based snippets, and while the navigation seems a little on the clunky side, it’s worth persevering to uncover all the content hidden in the various sub-menus.

The first feature on Disc 2 is Battlefields of the Scottish Rebellion, an interactive map centring around the three major battles depicted in the film: Stirling, Falkirk and Bannockburn. A section on Glasgow is also included, as this was the site of Wallace’s eventual capture (not Edinburgh as depicted in the film). While the Stirling and Glasgow sections merely bring up a single screen of perfunctory text, making them seem like little more than an afterthought, choosing either Falkirk or Bannockburn allows you to “enter the battlefield”, providing a visual representation of the battle, along with narration. A variety of brief video-based factoids, consisting of interviews with historian Fergus Cannan, can also be selected. I can’t say I found any of this particularly engaging, but then my interest in history has always leant more towards the people involved rather than the nitty-gritty of combat manoeuvres. Those with a keen interest in military history will likely find much to enjoy here.

More up my street is the high definition Braveheart: A Look Back, a brand new, three-part, hour-long documentary which – guess what? – looks back at the making of the film. Most of the main players are interviewed, from Gibson and Randall Wallace to members of the supporting cast, with James Cosmo and David O’Hara bagging the bulk of the screen time. It’s an enjoyable and broadly all-encompassing piece that left me with a new-found appreciation for just what the crew was able to pull off given the somewhat limited resources (not to mention the less than cooperative weather) at their disposal.

Meanwhile two featurettes, Tales of William Wallace and Smithfield: Medieval Killing Fields, both approximately 25 minutes in length and ported over from the recent 2007 DVD release, examine the real William Wallace and area outside London in which ritual executions took place at the time, respectively. Both of these are likely to be of interest to history buffs, although there’s something slightly difficult to reconcile about video footage of modern day London set against James Horner’s uilleann pipe music. The former is presented in high definition while the latter is in standard definition.

More specific to the film itself is A Writer’s Journey, a 22-minute standard definition piece which dates back to the very first DVD release and features screenwriter Randall Wallace explaining his methods of research (practically non-existent, it would seem!) and writing, as well as the various hurdles he had to overcome in terms of defining Wallace’s motivation.

Two theatrical trailers are also included, both in high definition. Not ported over, unfortunately, are the documentaries Alba Gu Brath! – The Making of Braveheart and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart – A Filmmaker’s Passion, which accompanied the earlier DVD releases. To a certain extent, much of the information they conveyed is duplicated in the new A Look Back documentary, but for completion’s sake it would have been nice to have had everything included.


Michael Mackenzie

Updated: Sep 07, 2009

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Braveheart Review | The Digital Fix