The Legacy of 'Braveheart'

Never mind the critical, box office and Oscars success. 'Braveheart' has achieved an even greater legacy than most hit Best Picture winners.

Braveheart

In 1995, medieval epics weren’t the hottest commodity in Hollywood. The early-decade interest in Robin Hood ran its course a couple of years prior thanks to Mel Brooks’ parody. The Middle Ages in cinema had gone the fantasy route in the 1980s, and the trend was not as successful as hoped, by the industry or the fans. Swords and shields action wasn’t the safest bet, even if Disney managed a minor hit by combining formulas of Young Guns and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in 1993 with its version of The Three Musketeers. And it wasn’t well-received by critics. Period pieces could be acclaimed and award-worthy if rather serious and stuffy or they could do well at the box office if they weren’t all that good.

Then came Rob Roy, a historical drama set in 18th century Scotland that not only earned professional praise, garnering awards buzz along the way, but it also performed rather favorably in its modestly released theatrical run. Perhaps it even paved the way for Braveheart, another action-filled Scottish biopic that arrived on the big screen the following month. This one set half a millennium earlier — not that audiences knew any different given the kilts and clans stuff blended together (the easiest superficial distinction: Rob Roy has guns) — it also starred one of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time, Mel Gibson, who’d recently proven he could appeal to mainstream audiences and critics alike with period pieces of the Shakespearean and Western varieties.

But Braveheart, which was also directed by Gibson, really managed to stand out. Never mind the positive reviews or the leggy box office success that kept the movie in cinemas for more than a year. Never mind its 10 Oscar nominations and five wins, including the honor of being named Best Picture. The biographical portrayal of William Wallace became a pop culture phenomenon and inspired a change in Hollywood where action blockbusters set in the past could be lucrative if produced with care and delivered a mix of quality drama and entertainment value. Some of its followers would also make tons of money while also garnering accolades, others wouldn’t. Still, there’s not been anything quite like Braveheart, which out of its three-hour runtime is mainly iconic for a single climactic moment remembered for some blue face paint and a rousing battlefield speech.

Almost 25 years later, Braveheart‘s influence can still be felt at the multiplex and in prestige television. Its main character may not always be recalled by name (who hasn’t heard someone just refer to William Wallace as “Braveheart,” as if the title is eponymously about a 13th-century superhero?), but his look and dialogue continue to be cited and quoted in both real life and in movies and TV shows. The film’s legacy is even stronger than that of its subject, if only because its success reestablished and furthered the significance and notoriety of Wallace and, more generally, put Scotland in the historical and geographical spotlight. Here is just a spattering of where Braveheart‘s influence has circulated this past quarter-century:

“Freedom” (1996)

Freedom Statue

The origin of Braveheart is rooted in tourism, as Randall Wallace became inspired to write the screenplay during a trip to Scotland to learn more about his ancestry, so it’s fitting that the movie’s popularity would, in turn, spark a boost in travel to the area. Reportedly, just a year after the release of Braveheart, tourism in Scotland was up almost $25 million (in US dollars) and it’s been up ever since, even if not quite the peak levels of the movie’s influence on fans worldwide 20 years ago. One of the most obvious spots for visitors who love the movie is the Wallace Monument, a tower built in the 1800s in tribute to the legendary hero played by Gibson. And for a time, the attraction included a newly carved statue of William Wallace.

Well, it’s more of a statue of Gibson as Wallace. The sculptor, Tom Church, was inspired by Braveheart to create his 1996 piece “Freedom,” which represents the hero in full but also has the face of the actor who plays him in the movie. In 1997, the statue was placed near the Wallace Monument visitor center, but it was so controversial you’d think it was a Confederate monument in the American South in 2017. While loved by tourists, locals hated it so much that it was regularly vandalized and had to be caged for its own safety. Finally removed in 2008, Church attempted to gift “Freedom” to Donald Trump in 2008 for placement at his golf resort in Aberdeen, which was controversial enough on its own. But apparently, even Trump didn’t want it. (Photo by Rudolph Botha via Wikimedia.)


Roar (1997)

Heath Ledger Roar

Like a lot of hit movies of the 20th century, Braveheart appeared to spin off a small-screen copycat in the form of Roar. The beloved but short-lived Fox series about a young Celtic man (newcomer Heath Ledger) uniting clans and leading his people (including pre-stardom roles for Keri Russell and Vera Farmiga) to freedom against the Roman Empire was likely more of a byproduct of the cult popularity of the fantasy adventure shows Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess (both also originating in 1995). But with its Atlantic Archipelago in the almost-Middle Ages setting of Ireland in 400AD, Roar easily invited comparisons to Gibson’s recent Best Picture winner.

Press at the time leaned on the Braveheart comparison because, as they noted, Roar treats its material more seriously than the Hercules and Xena types. TV Guide showcased it as looking to Braveheart for inspiration in their 1997 Summer Preview article. The Hartford Courant’s review favorably called it “Braveheart: The Series.” Variety championed it as “Braveheart meets Star Wars meets Bonanza meets Excalibur meets Conan the Barbarian meets The Lion King. Entertainment Weekly claimed, more negatively, “The producers regularly crib from Mel Gibson and Braveheart.” And when Ledger died in 2008, The Irish Times wrote that it was the young actor’s “Braveheart portrayal that got Hollywood interested in him.”


South Park: “Starvin Marvin” (1997)

South Park Braveheart

Parodies of Braveheart could be found all over the place after the movie’s release, and they’ve continued more than 20 years later. Among the most prominent and memorable, you’ve got the boring Bob Newhart bit from the 1996 MTV Movie Awards, Triple-H’s tribute in Wrestlemania 21, and even a version for TBS’ Dinner and a Movie cast with chimpanzees. But the one to rule them all from those first few years of the movie’s legacy is the classic South Park episode “Starvin Marvin.” The Thanksgiving-themed eighth episode of the animated series’ very first season features Chef in blue makeup a la William Wallace leading the citizens of South Park against an army of genetically engineered turkeys, who are also led by a Wallace-inspired bird gobble-gobbling about their freedom.

According to Trey Parker in the audio commentary for the episode, “This is the first time we did a full-on parody of a movie, which we’ve since done a lot of,” though the previous episode, “Pinkeye,” spoofs zombie movies, most notably Return of the Living Dead. It’s also apparently the first time they got to show someone’s butt, for Kyle to moon the turkeys as the clans do in the movie. Parker and Matt Stone also say they enjoyed Braveheart, with Stone stating, “Braveheart‘s a cool movie” and Parker admitting, “It was cheesy and dumb, but it was sweet.”


“The Clansman” (1998)

Clansman At The Empire

A movie as stirring as Braveheart is obviously going to inspire musical compositions (beyond James Horner’s Oscar-nominated score, that is). The first real notable tune to come out of Braveheart‘s influence is the appropriately rousing Iron Maiden track “The Clansman,” found on their 1998 album Virtual XI. Leave it to a London-based heavy metal band to deliver a crowd-riling ode to a movie about the Scottish fighting the English. The song, which by name sounds easily mistaken for being about the Ku Klux Klan, is obviously inspired by the movie given its singalong chorus of “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” These days, it’s hard to find a video of a live performance of “The Clansman” that fans haven’t added Braveheart footage to.

But the anthem didn’t necessarily begin as a Braveheart tribute. In the 2011 book Iron Maiden in the Studio: The Stories Behind Every Album, bassist and songwriter Steve Harris is quoted as saying that it began with the music, with its “wind in your hair” vibe and “Celtic flavor.” The latter is “why I wrote the lyrics about the Scottish clans,” he confessed. They were also inspired by the Braveheart and Rob Roy films.” Yeah, but try finding a video on YouTube with Rob Roy clips mixed into the concert footage.


Scottish Parliament (1999-present)

Scottish Parliament

There are many ways in which Braveheart affected the land of its setting. National and cultural identity for Scots immediately changed, while the tourism industry became more successful than ever. Historical and political rallies, as well as sporting events, featured more attendees in outfits inspired by the costumes in the movie. But Braveheart did more than just reinvigorate national pride and international curiosity on a superficial level. Some historians believe the film directly influenced the people of Scotland toward greater autonomy and desire for independence from the UK. This all began with the 1997 devolution referendum that led to the creation of Scottish Parliament in 1999.

Scottish author Lin Anderson, whose books include the nonfiction work Braveheart: From Hollywood to Holyrood, said this while promoting that publication: “Without a doubt, Braveheart contributed to the political movement within Scotland, although I am not saying devolution would not have happened without it. But it gave an international perspective on Scotland, which gave people confidence. It has become part of the fabric of Scotland. There was anger that people didn’t know who William Wallace was and had been cheated of their history. But whether it is myth or reality, it created an aspirational national hero at a time when we needed heroes.” (Photo by pschemp via Wikimedia.)

The Modern Sword and Shield Movie (2000-Present)

Gladiator

As noted in the intro above, Braveheart started a resurgence in action movies set in the past. There’s a degree to which we could also include 20th-century-set war movies in this bunch, as everything from Saving Private Ryan through Gibson’s own Hacksaw Ridge have similar aesthetic interests in the grittiness of the battlefield, but those likely would have existed in some form regardless. Would we have had all the sword and shield movies (including sword and sandal and sword and sorcery genres) we’ve seen in the last 25 years had it not been for Braveheart‘s success?

Before Braveheart, we’d been decades from the heyday of religious epics and gladiatorial classics of prestige (Spartacus) and B movie (any of the Hercules and Samson stuff of the 1960s) varieties, and the 1980s nearly killed any potential for the genre with its insistence for fantasy fare. It’s hard not to see a chain going directly from this to Gladiator (2000), the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), A Knight’s Tale (more Heath Ledger, 2001), Alexander (2004), Troy (2004), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), 300 (2006), and all the King Arthurs, Robin Hoods, Chinese epics, and so on. Many TV series more successful than Roar followed the trend, as well. Perhaps there would be no Game of Thrones even without Braveheart.


Chicken Run (2000) and The Patriot (2000)

Thepatriot

For Gibson, his fame as the star of Braveheart, specifically, peaked five years later. In 2000, the actor had a few consecutive hits in a variety of genres, and two of them owed a lot to his role as William Wallace. The Patriot (which co-starred Roar‘s Ledger) is basically Braveheart for the American Revolution, with Gibson once again battling the British for Freedom with a capital F. Only this time, while his hero has plenty of words of motivation throughout, his climactic moment involves a flag rather than his voice — somewhat disappointing considering this Independence Day favorite was made by the guy whose movie actually titled Independence Day features another iconic speech from a leader sending people to fight for their freedom.

Released the very same week as The Patriot that summer of 2000, Chicken Run had only Gibson’s voice to work with, but that was plenty. Although the Oscar-nominated animated feature is primarily a tribute to World War II POW escape films, there is a lot of Braveheart evoked, if only due to the fact that it’s him we hear in the role of a rooster with false-legendary repute and plans for “Freedom!” for himself and the rest of the literally cooped-up fowl. The young target audience wouldn’t feel the legacy but their parents would get it, and maybe the kids would grow up to appreciate Braveheart more for having subconsciously experienced its influence in the form of Chicken Run‘s parodic homage.


Ashanti’s Braveheart (2014)

Ashanti Braveheart

“I am Braveheart,” declares American singer Ashanti on her 2014 track titled after the movie, from the album of the same name. And no, she’s not referencing the lion cousin of the Care Bears introduced in the toy and cartoon characters’ 1985 animated feature. Braveheart the album and “Braveheart” the song were inspired by Gibson’s movie. Never mind that the lyrics of the latter, following the speech in the intro, seems more to do with a relationship (“You know I got a Braveheart/He know he got a Braveheart/We both gotta have a Braveheart”). Ashanti told Philadelphia radio station Power 99 (via Rap Up):

“The metaphor that I took was basically in the movie — you have the Europeans, you have the soldiers from London and the UK. They have the big horses, they have the shields, the guns, the weapons. They’re all armored up. And then you have the Scots. They’re all raggedy, homemade weapons, and paint on their faces. It’s not an even playing ground, so I feel like, with the [major labels], they’re bossed up. They have the big engine and all the artists signed to them, and with the indies, it’s depending. It’s homemade, it’s homegrown. It’s a lesser engine. So the metaphor I was using was being brave and putting your blood and guts into it and fighting passionately to win.”


The Birth of a Nation (2016)

Boan

When it premiered at Sundance three years ago, Nate Parker‘s feature directorial debut, The Birth of a Nation, seemed like the movie of 2016. The historical and biographical drama won both the jury and audience awards in its program, received mostly rave reviews, and earned tons of Oscar buzz. Like Gibson in Braveheart, Parker also plays the lead, here the history book figure Nat Turner, a preacher who led a rebellion of his fellow slaves in Virginia in 1831. Before its official release, though, Parker’s rise to fame turned to infamy as the filmmaker’s past as an alleged rapist came back to haunt him. Unlike Gibson, he didn’t even spend many years in the limelight before controversy crushed his career.

Perhaps he’ll seek out advice (or has already?) from the occasionally reemerged former movie icon just as he went to the Braveheart star and director for help while making his own revolt-based period drama. As Parker told First Showing of Gibson’s influence on The Birth of a Nation during Sundance:

“I love that comparison [to ‘Braveheart’] because I do think that is what it is. The key in all of these comparisons that I attach to is the humanity. We’re dealing with people, real people with real issues, and real concerns, and real feelings, and real motivations. So to see ‘Braveheart’ and to see what Mel [Gibson] did with that, and to see the humanity he brought to it inspired me. He was someone I was able to sit and speak with about my film and get some thoughts, and ideas, and tips on how to shoot it…

“I sat with him and… It’s a funny thing. We spoke on the phone the day before my battle sequence since he was in Australia. And he was reminding me of the low angle shots, of how to get around the fact that I didn’t have a lot of time. So I had a great mentor. I do think this is something where I was influenced by ‘Spartacus.’ I was influenced by ‘Glory.’ I was influenced by ‘Braveheart.’ These are films that I feel like are about human people in the human condition wanting to have their most basic privilege, or right, as given by God, and that is – freedom.”

 

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.