Essays · Movies

‘Braveheart’ and Creating the Battle of Stirling

Learn all about how the legendary battle scene in Mel Gibson’s historical war epic was brought to life. No animals were hurt.
By  · Published on August 16th, 2019

This article is part of our One Perfect Archive project, a series of deep dives that explore the filmmaking craft behind some of our favorite shots. In this entry, we explore the creation of one of Braveheart’s epic battle scenes.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge took place during the First War of Scottish Independence. On September 11, 1297, ragtag Scottish forces led by Andrew Moray and William Wallace defeated English soldiers spearheaded by John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey, and Hugh de Cressingham near Stirling. It was a victorious day for the Scots in their quest to gain independence from King Edward I’s rule.

In Braveheart, the re-creation of the battle isn’t entirely authentic. It’s one of several scenes in the film that takes liberties with history for the purposes of entertainment. As a result of shooting most of the film in Ireland, the battle was shot in the Curragh Plain region, a 5,000 acre stretch of land between the towns of Newbridge and Kildare. This meant that they didn’t have a bridge at their disposal, which is why the scene takes place on grassland instead.

In the movie, however, it’s a key scene that does boast some similarities with reality. This is the first time we see the Scots engage in a proper battle, with the end result proving that kilt-sporting infantrymen could outsmart and beat English cavalrymen.

This battle scene also highlights how outnumbered the Scots forces were compared to the English. Some historians estimate that the odds were stacked against the rebellious troops at five soldiers to one, and this is reflected in the scene.

To make up the armies, members of the Irish Army Reserve and local horsemen were brought in. Overall, the film required around 1,500 extras, who were reused and repackaged accordingly to cut costs. As such, they were required to play both English and Scottish warriors. The platoons were also commanded by real commandos and corporals, who helped the filmmakers organize the battles from a military perspective.

Taking place entirely in daylight, the Battle of Stirling saw many of these extras used over the course of a six-week shooting process. The scene required nine cameras to film it, one of which was a computer-controlled stop-motion device that had been used to great success before in Jurassic Park.

Braveheart is a prime example of how to stretch a budget and manipulate technology to make less seem like so much more. To add some epic scope to proceedings, the filmmakers shot the Battle of Stirling — and the other war scenes — in a way that makes the number of soldiers present seem much higher. In fact, 75 percent of the film’s special effects shots were used for the purpose of enhancing the size of the battle-hungry hordes.

According to Matt Earl Beesley, who served as the film’s second unit director, each shot had to be precise to allow visual effects supervisor Mike Fink to work his “magic wand” by incorporating optical duplication techniques.

Questia notes that groups of extras in period costumes were moved between various sections of the location and shot with motion effects cameras then blended into a single dramatic image later to make the battle seem more heavily populated.

Visual effects producer Trishia Ashford discussed the challenges faced by her, Fink, and the rest of the R/Greenberg-employed team in trying to make the digital wizardry appear as natural as the rest of the film.

“When Mike and I sat through dailies, looking at all this beautiful film shot by John Toll, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer, we felt a tremendous amount of pressure. We knew that if you ever thought you were looking at an effect, it would take you right out of the film.”

That said, multiplying the English army was trickier during the battle scene — especially during the moment when Mel Gibson’s William Wallace cuts in while on horseback.

Four different wedges of action were filmed to complete the scene, which required the extras to constantly move around and realign. Coordination between Rashford, Fink, and Gibson was essential in ensuring that there was no overlap between the scenes. Three different cameras rolled simultaneously to capture the action, but the seemingly simple scene of Gibson riding the horse was motion-controlled.

Despite the pressures faced by the cast and crew during the movie, no animals were hurt on set. Horses play a huge part in the movie, with many of them meeting the business end of a spear while crashing into foot soldiers. Fortunately, these horses were all mechanical and able to handle the blows.

In the end, all the hard work paid off. The Battle of Stirling, despite its historical inaccuracies here and there, is an epic battle scene full of blood, carnage, detailed military tactics and a sense of awe that all the best war movies possess. Scenes like this one are why Braveheart‘s legacy is so monumental to this day.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.