Braveheart: Scotland’s Greatest Myth?

In a new feature for we’re looking at historical films, analysing with reference to the period whether a film is more fact or fiction. If mostly fictitious, we look at why this is and what effect it has. The first film to ‘go on trial’ is 1995’s Braveheart…

The Patriot reminded us, in 2000, that Gibson didn’t learn his lesson, despite criticism of Braveheart. This is a worry… his new film Hacksaw Ridge set during WWII is soon to be released and features a story in no need of ‘embellishing’.’s preview of Hacksaw Ridge can be found here…

But instantly blaming Gibson is too easy; he is a man who invites criticism given his reputation and temperament. No, Braveheart is fundamentally flawed in its script and source material. The screenplay, written by Randall Wallace, a hugely successful writer and director of many historical films (his career will be heavily scrutinised one feels by this series), is drawn from a poor source.

As historians will tell you, historical accounts of events can be hugely insightful but terribly risky to base any work upon. The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace by Blind Harry falls into the latter, the epic poem charting the life of ‘The Wallace’, written not amidst the First War of Scottish Independence in the 13th Century but in the late 14th Century.

The film reeks of this throughout. The list of historical inaccuracies is huge, honestly there are several historical papers on it, and the film enraged historians who largely like to keep themselves to themselves… this film shook the foundations of the subject. The title is a good place to start, ‘The Brave’ not the name for Mel Gibson’s character, William Wallace, but in fact Angus Macfayden’s Robert the Bruce.

So a bad start if the name is wrong… it gets worse. The Battle of Stirling Bridge, led by Wallace in the film, was not his inception but an instance in which the last man standing got the glory. Historian Sean Duffy highlights the biggest flaw with the battle’s on-screen depiction- “it could have done with a bridge”. *writer face palms*

Stirling Bridge in, funnily enough, Stirling. Sadly it does not feature as a ‘cast member’ in Braveheart depsite the battle being named after it…

Quite possibly the worst and most disturbing inaccuracy comes with the portrayal of Isabella of France, played by Sophie Marceau, who after meeting Wallace engages in an affair with him and tells Edward ‘The Longshanks’ that his son will soon be displaced from the throne by Wallace’s child. Okay so sounds exciting but this never happened, at the time Wallace and Isabella meet in the film she was in fact 3 years old and lived in France. (To clarify the current monarch, Elizabeth II, is not a William Wallace relative.)

So it seems nearly every part of this film is drenched in historical nonsense, one can only imagine the Scottish medieval history scholars upon viewing the film clawed at their faces hoping it would stop. BUT this was not the case as, despite widespread castigation by experts, the film won Best Picture and is considered one of the Best of the 90s.

It is an incredible film, the scale of it is awe inspiring and Mel Gibson is compelling as the man who does the fighting (one refuses to call him Braveheart now). How better to measure this captivation than by looking at the film from Scotland’s viewpoint. Most Scot’s, when you inevitably end up discussing the film in a pub over several pints of Tennents, agree with you it is, to quote directly, “a bunch of pish”.

Some historians have rebuked even smaller details, such as the the use of long swords and clothing of Wallace’s men not being from this period.

But the country has adopted the film, some of its score used by Visit Scotland promotions and locations such as Glen Nevis playing on their role in the film. In an official report in 1996 the film was credited with bringing approximately £10 million pounds in tourism revenue and even now the tourist shops in Edinburgh, Inverness, Glasgow and even Arbroath sell Wallace related memorabilia.

The verdict: Mel Gibson and Randall Wallace accept it is inaccurate but when a film captures the imagination like this and does so with such success you can’t argue with that, no matter how much of a kick in the face it is to respectable historians.

By Arran Byers

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