The Scottish Nationalist Party hopes to hold a referendum on Scottish independence on 24 June 2014, the 700th anniversary of the Scottish victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn.
Too bad they missed the opportunity to hold it on the 700th anniversary of Stirling Bridge, 11 September 1297, since thanks to Mel Gibson, William Wallace is better known these days than Robert the Bruce.
I first saw Braveheart in very odd circumstances. In 1995 my husband and I visited Turkey. Turkey offers everything to the tourist – history, archaeology, architecture, food and scenery – and in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, tourism had collapsed, so we had the place almost to ourselves. I remember wandering around the ruins of the Hittite city of Hattusa with only a goat for company.
Then just before we were due to leave, my husband developed a hernia (all those bags to carry). We dropped off our hire car in Ankara, then we had 12 hours to wait between checking out of our hotel, and catching the sleeper train to Istanbul – and he couldn’t walk or stand for any time.
There are better things to do in Ankara than go to the pictures, but since we needed to fill the day sitting down, we headed for the cinema complex. We didn’t know, or care, whether films in Turkey are subtitled or dubbed into Turkish, and we didn’t care. We chose Braveheart purely because, at 3+ hours, it was the longest movie showing.
Fortunately for us, Mel Gibson hadn’t reached his Aramaic/Mayan-with-subtitles-phase, and the film ran in English with Turkish subtitles.
The cinema was full. We watched in company with hundreds of young Turks, enthusiastically cheering on William Wallace and the Scottish independence movement – while outside, on the footpaths of central Ankara, Kurdish nationalists sat silently holding flowers and beribboned signs in support of their own Kurdish independence leaders, who were on hunger strike in Turkish gaols.
Nobody seemed to notice the disconnect, but Braveheart touched a chord with Turkish audiences, and played continually there for 3 years.
We know almost nothing about William Wallace. A 15th century poem by ‘Blind Harry’, The Actis and Deidis of the Illuster and Vailzeand Compion Schir William Wallace, is probably as close as we can get to him, apart from a handful of documents with his seal or signature. He emerges from obscurity in May 1297 when he killed William Heselrig, the English sheriff of Lanark, and triggered rebellion. He won a battle at Stirling Bridge, lost one at Falkirk in 1298, and was executed – horribly – in London in 1305.
Braveheart is in many ways a silly film – from the woad Gibson wears to the suggestion, late in the film, that Wallace might have fathered Queen Isabella’s child. She was not quite 10 when Wallace died in 1305, so didn’t look at all like Sophie Marceau. She married Edward’s son in 1308 and their first child was born in 1312.
Such historical niceties are irrelevant to most people, of course, and it’s hard to fault Braveheart purely as an action film. It certainly appealed to the young people I saw watching it in Ankara in 1995, but I’ve no idea whether the Turks and the Kurds in the cinema saw the film differently.
Braveheart has struck a chord with many separatist movements. Umberto Bossi, the leader of the separatist Northern League, who hopes to create a new state of Padania in Northern Italy, has compared himself with Braveheart, and refers to the film often in his speeches. An American mercenary fighting in Chechnya told the Moscow Times in 2003 that Braveheart was the favourite video amongst Chechen fighters: ‘we watched it at least once every couple of days’.
Mel Gibson returned to the theme of the freedom fighter several times after Braveheart. In The Patriot (2000) he plays another noble landowner, this time in colonial America, reluctantly forced to turn against – yet again – English oppressors. Rotten Tomatoes finds it formulaic and gives it One Tomato.
He makes a much more successful freedom fighter as Rocky the Rooster in Chicken Run (2000).
Colin McArthur, Brigadoon, Braveheart and the Scots: distortions of Scotland in Hollywood cinema (2003)
Richard Sakwa (ed.), Chechnya: from past to future (2005)