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Braveheart: The immortality of William Wallace


Scottish hero William Wallace was hanged, drawn and quartered on 23 August 1306. 600 years later his fight for Scottish independence was immortalised in the 1995 film, Braveheart, and in 2018 both Robert the Bruce and Mary, Queen of Scots are set to be portrayed in new films that have already attracted criticism for their lack of historical accuracy. Thanks to Braveheart William Wallace has never been forgotten, but has the film done more harm to Scottish history than good?

William Wallace has attracted a great deal of attention from interested enthusiasts, but surprisingly little from historians. Of the several biographies readily available at the time of writing, not one has been written by anyone with a background in medieval history generally, let alone with any scholarly understanding of the society in which Wallace lived. The lack of an understanding of the context has led to the easy acceptance of material that is at best questionable and at worst fraudulent.

This is most evident in the film Braveheart. Not content with relying on Blind Harry’s largely fictitious poem The Wallace as the sole source of material, the writer, Randall Wallace, simply changed the story to suit a script that made no sort of historical sense and has, in fact, deprived Scottish people of part of their history by effectively undermining the factual material. The benefit of the Braveheart phenomenon is of course the extent to which it has heightened interest in medieval Scotland – an important consideration in a country where there is no viable programme of history in schools. Although Braveheart did help to make Scots more aware of their past, the damage done to our perception of Wallace and of the early period of the Wars of Independence is incalculable. If it is true that a picture paints a thousand words, how damaging is it when the picture is a fantasy?

Many readers will have seen pictures of armoured knights being lowered on to their chargers by means of a block and tackle and a set of sheerlegs. The pictures may have been very well executed, but the premise is nonsensical. Armies did not carry large arrays of engineering equipment simply to enable cavalrymen to get mounted. Practical demonstrations of the ability of a middle-aged man (such as this writer), little accustomed to armour and only a little more accustomed to horses, encountering no difficulty whatsoever in getting mounted draw the defence that ‘armour was heavier then’, which is simply untrue – the weight to volume relationship of steel has not changed appreciably in the last 700 years. The same applies to the oft-repeated observation that an armoured man who had the misfortune to fall over would have been unable to stand without the help of an assistant. No one can realistically accept that men went into battle wearing equipment so heavy that they would be completely compromised if they should happen to slip.

The Braveheart film takes this problem to an extreme degree. The costumes worn by the Scots were, presumably, chosen by a design team with an extensive background in Brigadoon studies – they certainly bear no resemblance whatsoever to the clothing of medieval Scots. The same applies to other visual aspects of the film. It can only be presumed that the project was carried out without any of the benefits of historical research into the clothing, housing, social and political conditions or military practices of fourteenth-century Scotland and England.

Mel Gibson was perfectly honest about the production values of the project. He described the film as being his ‘fantasy’ of William Wallace and his many adventures. This is a fair point – none of us would expect that a film about any romantic hero from history would necessarily have any great claims to historical validity. For one thing, a movie is not a documentary, for another, Braveheart was made before the current, and highly laudable, vogue for visually convincing sets and action, as exemplified by Saving Private Ryan or Gettysburg. All the same, unwittingly or otherwise, Braveheart has made an enormous contribution to a romantic ‘kailyard’ (‘cabbage patch’ – a Scottish term denoting literature with a romantic and rather parochial flavour) vision of medieval Scotland that historians find almost impossible to dislodge with mere evidence. Quite why it should have made so great an impression is impossible to say, though the involvement of a major Hollywood star in a heavily promoted production must surely be part of the explanation. What is harder to account for is the reaction of audiences. A medieval historian attending a screening of the film at the town of Alnwick, Northumberland, was disconcerted when the audience cheered Wallace enthusiastically as he unleashed his men to sack and destroy … Alnwick, Northumberland!

Normally enthusiasm engendered by a history film dies out quickly, as the film recedes in public memory or as it is increasingly ‘debunked’ by students of the period concerned. For reasons unknown, Braveheart has lasted the pace more than most. In 2001 re-enactors attending an event at Bannockburn were astonished – and not a little put out – when they discovered that a man dressed as Mel Gibson (in the sort of costume he wore in the film, and complete with blue face paint) had put himself at the head of their procession. Given that most, if not all, of the re-enactors had taken a great deal of trouble to provide themselves with reasonably appropriate arms, armour, footwear and clothing, they were understandably rather less than impressed. When approached, this ‘Mel Gibson’ character was able to defend himself on the grounds that the makers of a film – expert professionals – were bound to be more thoroughly informed about Scottish medieval society than historians, none of whom, as he accurately pointed out, had ever ‘…taken Braveheart seriously as history’.

Inevitably there is a danger in writing history for the cinema or stage. The needs of the narrative do not always coincide with the parameters of recorded history. A similar outcome can be identified from other productions and from other artistic genres. The average person’s view of the First World War is probably the product of the poems of a small number of middle-class poets, men from a privileged background with no previous military experience and a very insecure understanding of the strategic or tactical issues facing their commanders. The other ‘popular’ experience of the same conflict is the musical and film production Oh What a Lovely War. It is a fine work of art, but is of less than zero value as an insight into the 1914–18 conflict – not only does the picture fail to give a realistic view of the practical nature of the conflict on the Western Front, it ignores the other fronts entirely and promulgates an inaccurate (and fundamentally dishonest) representation of the commanders and their staffs as being universally incompetent, uncaring, ignorant, bloodthirsty and stupid. The only way to combat that lack of reality is to read the history of the period rather than the poems. The poetry of the First World War does constitute useful, even vital material, but it is only one strand of the experience, and in no sense a common one. The same principle applies to the life and career of William Wallace. The poetry and romance of medieval Scottish writers are a part of the history and historiography of the Wars of Independence, but only a part.

Extracted from William Wallace: The Man and the Myth by Chris Brown

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Quick Facts
  • Did you know?

    William Wallace has an affair with Isabella of France in the 1995 film, Braveheart, but when Wallace was executed in 1305 Isabella was only 10 years old!

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