The Woad Warrior

BRAVEHEART (1995) *** 1/4. Directed by Mel Gibson. Produced by Mel Gibson, Alan Ladd Jr., Bruce Davey. Screenplay, Randall Wallace. Photography, John Toll. Editor, Steven Rosenblum. Production design, Tom Sanders. Art direction, Dan Dorrance. Set decoration, Peter Howitt. Costumes, Charles Knode. Sound, Brian Simmons. Assistant director, David Tomblin. Music, James Horner. Cast: Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Patrick McGoohan, Catherine McCormack, Brendan Gleeson, James Cosmo, David O'Hara, Angus McFadyen, Peter Hanly, James Robinson. A Paramount release. 177 min. Rated R (graphic violence).
In battle, the ancient Picts, who, with others, eventually made up Scotland, would paint themselves blue with woad, a plant dye. So does, much later-- and probably anachronistically-- the Scottish national hero William Wallace (1270 ? -1305) in "Braveheart"

He is played by Mel Gibson, who became an international movie hero as Mad Max and the Road Warrior. As a Woad Warrior he looks good with his two-thirds painted face that matches so nicely his baby blue eyes. In fact, while he and the many English and Scots fighters engage in some of the most graphic bashing, slashing, dismembering and killing in movie history, their faces somehow never look frightening, murderous or horrible.

Braveheart is William Wallace, though no one ever calls him Braveheart in the film. For the first half hour we see the oppression of the Scots by the English King Edward the Longshanks (Edward I) who is played with admirably sneering villainy plus BBC accent and elocution, by Patrick McGoohan. He treacherously hangs Scottish chieftains and their kin. Then, after Williams' father and older brother fall in battle, the young boy is adopted by his uncle who sees to it that he gets educated, travels and learns French and Latin. Above all, the wise uncle reiterates the advice of Williams' father that brains come before brawn. This sets the stage for William as a future strategist.

Years pass. Now grown up, William reappears in his old neck of the woods. The English are shown as a hated army of occupation, depredations and all, but William merely desires a good rural life and a large family. There's an interesting encounter with a now hirsute and burly childhood friend who challenges William at rock throwing. The "duel" is reminiscent of the Errol Flynn swashbuckler where Robin Hood and Little John fight it out with sticks and become best friends.

Another page from the hallowed Hollywood recipe book is used when William and Murron (gorgeous Catherine McCormack who sometimes looks like Donna Reed) fall in love at first sight. Their rapid courtship and secret marriage are lovely, entirely phony, and totally reflecting 20th century manners, sensibilities and humor. During those sequences Gibson shows, with nice reserve, many glimpses of his old self in the "Lethal Weapon" movies, where he could pass in a flash from winking and joking to decisive action. It is quite endearing and does not last long since the film becomes deadly serious as it picks up velocity.

Now comes another page from the Guidebook to Plots, the one about the peacenik who mutates into a fierce combatant. The English bring such personal tragdy to William that he becomes a leader of rebels and, step by step, the chief of Scottish resistance to the English crown.

The time taken up by the preliminaries and exposition --until William Wallace begins to make his legend --is well spent. Mel Gibson, over and above being a matinee idol, is a first-rate, versatile actor: just think of his unexpectedly good Hamlet and his humorous Maverick) and a surprisingly fine new director ("The Man Without a Face" and "Braveheart.")

The film moves fluidly, builds up without flagging or padding; production values and visuals -- from splendid sights of nature to period reconstructions -- are superb. (The movie was shot in Scotland and Ireland.) Then the battles begin, not only impressive physical combats but Wallace's constant efforts to unify the Scots, to unite clans that fight one another, to make a defensive and counterattacking whole out of nobles whose allegiance is often to King Edward, for reasons of privilege, position and riches, and who, even when swayed by Wallace, are not above intrigues and defections.

The rip-roaring battles against the English are some of the best and most savagely realistic ever staged, with the handling of massed men owing much to assistant director David Tomblin whose specialty this is ("Gandhi," "A Bridge Too Far," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "The Empire Strikes Back," etc.) In fact the rebels shouting in unison is like a throwback to the gathering of African warriors in "Zulu Dawn." The excellent cinematography by John Toll (1994 Oscar for "Legends of the Fall") also includes striking slow motion (including flying arrows) that is, in its poetry, reminiscent of, though different from, "Henry V", "Bonnie and Clyde," or "The Wild Bunch."

Not very much is known about Wallace the man, so that the film can afford to invent personal details. Quite a lot is known about the history of Scotland and England though, so that the eyebrows of history buffs may keep getting raised before cinematic liberties that range from ho-hum to hokum. These include stirring addresses, wild anachronisms and total fabrications.

The script has the Prince of Wales married to Isabelle of France- something that happened in 1308, three years after Wallace's death. It concocts outrageous interventions by Isabelle and no less than an affair with Wallace! It creates a power-greedy leper who is the father of Robert the Bruce; a misreading of a feudal law that gave nobles the right to sleep with newlywed women; an imaginary defenestration; and much else.

Still, those inaccuracies are, as a rule, put to good, colorful dramatic use. They are less fanciful than Shakespeare's historical plays. The hocus-pocus is eager to give an impression of authenticity -- and in a way this succeeds far more than in the huge majority of "historical" or "biographical" movies.

Although "Braveheart" is by no means a docudrama, it captures up to a point a certain medieval life, rough and simple people and complex machinations. Above all it is what cine-jargon calls "an actioneer," visually thilling and not a bit dull in spite of its length.