BRAVEHEART: 4K Blu-ray (Paramount, 1995) Paramount Home Video
Were that every historical epic of the modern age could be as enrapturing as Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995); the multi-Oscar-winning epic that is as intimate and imbued with humanity’s zeal for tender moments, as much as it thoroughly satisfies in its sprawling pageantry and blood-soaked staging of hand-to-hand warrior combat. Braveheart arguably hails from the last golden epoch in picture-making, since to have been thoroughly trampled by our present obsession with gaudy actioners full of unconvincing CGI effects. I recall the sweep and spectacle so well of seeing Braveheart projected for the first time in a theater at a time when film makers were at least marginally sincere in their pursuits to entertain rather than indoctrinate us with their political correctness. What Gibson’s movie does spectacularly well is to capture the essence of a moment in time as it truly (or perhaps, rather unlikely) had once been; director and star, Mel Gibson, immortalizing this Scottish rebel with impassioned resolve to tell a good yarn without any illusions of making ‘a political statement’. How I wish Hollywood would get back to this kind of storytelling. But I digress.
Braveheart remains a master class in movie-making; the battle sequences, teeming in the full-armored regalia and bleeding tragedy of two nations coming to their death grips in what would become one of the longest, most brutal and ultimately, unresolved conflicts in human history. Braveheart is brilliant, chiefly because of screenwriter, Randall Wallace’s expertise in knowing precisely when to boggle the mind in staged bouts of blood-spattered conquest, and when to stagger the heart with equally as riveting sequences devoted to character development and high-stakes drama. Such quiescent interludes, all but overlooked by today’s film makers as quaint and inconsequential, herein are generously endowed with precisely the compassion for William Wallace – the man (or what is known of him) and, by extension, to all those who stood tall at his side to defy England for their independence. Braveheart ought never to have worked for several reasons – chiefly, since there is virtually no way around historical inaccuracies, on occasion supplemented by the director’s impromptu humor and director/star’s overriding vision to embody as well as embrace the total sum of Will Wallace’s earthy heroism through a heavy veil of artistic license.
We can forgive Gibson this, as writer, Randall Wallace knew virtually nothing about William Wallace when he embarked upon a much-needed vacation to Scotland in the summer of 1993 – after which he likely understood even less. Yet, Wallace became so completely engrossed by the legend, the myth and the central narrative of blind lion-hearted heroism as told by historians and the common folk alike, it compelled him to seek out the truth beyond the legend. The curiosity for writer Wallace – as well as the historical record - is the real William Wallace, for all intent and purposes, no longer existed in any concrete form. The legacy of his crusade against the English has, in fact, been severely withered with the passage of time and largely left to the ages as an ancient myth. Following Wallace’s brutal end, virtually all textual evidence, even to his birth or existence, was expunged from the historical record, leaving word of mouth as the only surviving narrative. Scholastic research, written long after the age of Wallace had passed and the yoke of English resistance loosened, has gone along with this suppressed absence, running with the objective that if Wallace’s name appears at all in print it is as an inconsequential footnote to real history, rather than a chapter, rather insidiously torn asunder from it.
Despite Mel Gibson’s proven box office cache, the star/director had grave difficulty encouraging any of the majors to partake in his impassioned indie company production. Warner Bros. tempted Gibson with a blank check, but only if he agreed to another installment in their lucrative Lethal Weapon franchise which Gibson rejected outright. Paramount Pictures agreed to a limited distribution deal in the U.S. and Canada, leaving 2oth Century-Fox as the custodians of Braveheart’s international rights. Budgeted at $72 million, Braveheart would gradually emerge as one of the most profitable and lauded screen epics of its generation; a testament, actually, to Gibson’s resolve in forgoing Hollywood’s crass commercialism and the studio’s insistence he adhere to the MPAA ratings system for a broader audience. Braveheart’s bone-breaking battle sequences are nothing if stomach-churning, polarizing protest groups against such thought-numbing violence in mainstream movies. And yet, gratuitousness is not the goal herein. Neither do these viscerally unsettling sequences make for an ‘unpleasant’ or emotionally thought-numbing exercise, as quite often excess violence can do – brutalizing the audience to the point where they no longer can feel even revulsion for the art of war.
But no, Braveheart attacks with such a groundswell of emotional sadness for the tragedy of all ‘lost causes’ – particularly once they are truly lost – the catharsis remains as liberating as it rattles the apocryphal in a sort of cleansing sobriety and humility for the sanctity of life itself, but particularly, for the heroes, brave enough to test its boundaries. In this, Braveheart possesses something of an almost Christ-like complex, Wallace’s hellish execution at the end, as well as his absolute refusal to bow, even bloodied to the brink of extinction in the presence of his arch-nemesis, is a moment in American cinema not easily set aside; indeed, more likely etched into the collective consciousness as a truly haunting epitaph in our present understanding of ‘history’ – however misshapen and reprocessed through the annals of time – nevertheless, oft writ larger than life from the skewed perspective of the conquerors, without any genuine thought to counterbalance the query with reflections from the other side.
Six weeks shooting in Scotland was supplemented by a relocation to Ireland for the major battle sequences to take advantage of the Irish Army Reserve as extras; granted immunity by their superior officers from their usual strict regimented etiquette to grow beards before swapping their modern uniforms for medieval accoutrements. Further to managing his budget, Gibson employed these same extras, up to 1,600 in a single shot, to portray both armies. Much has been made of the ‘inconsistent’ handling of Wallace’s charge across the open field to fight the English, begun in full stride with pickaxe firmly in hand; then, reaching for a sword behind his back; then, pictured in full marathon sprint with hands pumping in slow-mo by his side, and, finally, with sword fully raised overhead. But are these continuity errors, or director, Gibson paying homage to the various incarnations of Wallace’s gallantry as mythologized through time? In 1995, audiences did not seem to mind; the picture’s titanic popularity at the box office (it grossed $210.4 million) and critical plaudits, not to mention its staggering 10 Oscar-nominations (winning for best makeup, effects, cinematography, direction and, the most coveted Best Picture of the Year Award) earning Braveheart its hallowed place in cinema history. In hindsight, it is rather insulting Randall Wallace’s screenplay eluded such an honor, instead taken home by Christopher McQuarrie for The Usual Suspects, and Gibson (not even nominated as Best Actor), virtually overlooked in favor of Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas (in a year AMPASS also saw fit to nominate Anthony Hopkins for his totally ineffectual performance in Oliver Stone’s Nixon).
Braveheart begins its narrative fictional/history in 1280 as the ruthless King Edward ‘Longshanks’ (Patrick McGoohan) of England invades and conquers Scotland following the death of Alexander III, who left no heir to his throne. As a boy, William Wallace (James Robinson) witnesses the brutalities of this bloody war and narrowly survives his father, Malcolm (Sean Lawlor) and brother, John (Sandy Nelson). Taken abroad on a pilgrimage by his paternal uncle, Argyle (Brian Cox), the lad is schooled. As Longshanks grants his noblemen land and privileges in Scotland, including Prima Nocte, the adult Wallace (now played by Mel Gibson) is reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Murron MacClannough (Mhairi Calvey, as a girl/Catherine McCormack as the full-bodied woman possessing Wallace’s heart). The two are marry in secret after Wallace rescues Murron from certain rape by English soldiers. Alas, in their second attempt, Murron is taken prisoner and later, publicly executed. As retribution, an embittered Wallace leads his clan onto slaughter of the entire English garrison in his hometown and then forces the occupying garrison at Lanark to retreat in wounded defeat back to England.
This change of dominance in the region is mildly unsettling to Longshanks who orders his son, Prince Edward (Peter Hanly) to destroy Wallace. Alas, Edward is an ineffectual leader. Moreover, he has incurred his father’s shame by favoring the comforts of a male suitor to the imposed marriage of state to Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau). Meanwhile, Wallace once more leads a successful rebellion against the English – a humiliating defeat for Longshanks. Now, Wallace’s legend spreads like wildfire across these beleaguered lands. From every corner, hundreds join up to withstand the English; Wallace, leading his new armies onto victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge before decimating the city of York, killing Longshanks' nephew and sending his severed head back to the King. Wallace seeks the counsel of Robert the Bruce (Angus McFadyen), a contender for the Scottish crown. Alas, Robert is dominated by his father, desiring only to secure the throne by whatever means, even submitting to the English. Sufficiently concerned, Longshanks sends Isabella, presumably to negotiate terms of a tenuous peace even as he plots another invasion in Scotland.
Starved for affections at home, Isabella steadily grows enamored of Wallace. She warns him of the coming invasion and this affords Wallace the upper hand in planning his counteroffensive. Confronting Longshanks at Falkirk, Wallace is nevertheless betrayed by his own people, Lochlan (John Murtagh) and Mornay (Alun Armstrong) and the battle is lost with grave casualties. As Wallace valiantly charges the departing Longshanks he is intercepted by Robert the Bruce, a turncoat lancer for the King. Consumed by his shame, Bruce hurries Wallace to safety. Shortly thereafter, Wallace avenges this betrayal, murdering both Lochlan and Mornay. Now, he reigns down fire on the English – a seven-year entrenchment into the bloodiest warfare yet, secretly assisted by Isabella with whom he has an affair. As Wallace’s most ardent loyalist, Robert proposes a détente to discuss their terms for peace with the English in Edinburgh. Once again, Robert’s father conspires to hand over Wallace to the other side. Unearthing this treachery, Robert disowns his father. Having endured years of loveless exile from her effete husband, Isabella now exacts her revenge on Longshanks, who is terminally ill, informing him she is destined to procure Wallace’s bloodline on the English throne, as the child she is carrying is his, not the Prince’s.
In London, Wallace is brought before an English magistrate (Malcolm Tierney), tried and condemned without much effort for high treason. However, as his sentence of public torture and beheading is carried out, Wallace continues to defy his captors, refusing to offer satisfaction in his surrender, even as he is repeatedly hanged to the brink of asphyxiation, drawn and quartered. The tide of the gathered crowd’s sympathies dramatically shifts toward mercy and admiration for this Scotsman’s valor. Very reluctantly, the magistrate presents Wallace with a penultimate opportunity to repent for his sins against the Crown. If he utters ‘mercy’ he will be granted an expedient death. Instead, Wallace, gravely depleted, rears his head in one last act of defiance, shouting for all to hear the word ‘freedom’ issuing from his lips. For this, Wallace is decapitated; his reprieve, a fleeting glimpse of Murron, smiling back at him. We flash ahead to 1314. Robert, now Scotland’s King, leads an army before the English on the fields of Bannockburn, invoking Wallace's memory before decimating the stunned enemy and effectively winning Scotland her freedom.
From beginning to end, Braveheart is an exceptional entertainment, its many virtues since endured the passage of these twenty-plus years after its theatrical release. It is not a film replete with the sort of visualized finesse one generally associates with the Hollywood epic. And yet, its storytelling remains passionately authentic and exhilarating with every gallant victory and painful loss endured, even personally felt from within. James Horner contributes one of his finest orchestral scores to Braveheart (losing the Oscar to Luis Enrique Bacalov for Il Postino), imbued with a full-bodied celebration of both the gallantry and intimacy in these shared lives interrupted by the thought-numbing confluence of war.
For this newly released 4K Blu-ray, Braveheart’s original 35mm Panavision negative has been graded in HDR10 with Dolby Vision. What this means for those fortunate enough to experience it in true 4K is every minute detail in John Toll’s sumptuous cinematography is present and accounted for with stunning clarity. This is a perfect visual presentation on every level, gleaned from a properly archived original camera negative with every consideration of the modern digital age paying its respect. Colors are exceptionally nuanced, the captivating moodiness of those highland overcast skies, augmented by flickering torches or the steely glint of swords crossed; the tartan plaids in Charles Knode’s Oscar-nominated costuming, emerging with superb contrast to reveal even the weave in fibers close up. There is virtually nothing to complain about here. Braveheart in 4K is genuine to the theatrical experience. Having endured these many years in absence of the real thing, viewing the movie once again in 4K was nothing short of a revelation, perfectly matched by Paramount’s remastered Dolby Atmos mix.
For those still on the fence about an upgrade to 4K, this release also includes the Sapphire Series Blu-ray from 2009. Only Mel Gibson’s audio commentary has been transposed to the 4K disc. But the second standard Blu-ray includes virtually all of the extras from the previous release; hours of good stuff including, Battlefields of the Scottish Rebellion, the hour long retrospective, Braveheart: A Look Back, Smithfield: Medieval Killing Fields, Tales of William Wallace, A Writer’s Journey and 2 theatrical trailers. MIA from this release (and virtually every release in hi-def) is the original Alba gu Brath! The Making of Braveheart documentary and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart: A Filmmaker’s Passion featurette that included a photo montage and archival interviews. I suspect, though am not entirely certain, these omissions were likely the result of an inability to upconvert the older content to a true HD signal, or perhaps, merely, Paramount’s way of acknowledging the time had come for newer, arguably, ‘better’ content, produced exclusively for the Sapphire release, and herein, reissued as their definitive investigation of the movie. Paramount Home Video has been late in arriving to the 4K party. However, there is little to deny they are fast becoming the leaders in this medium. For this, we bid the good people on ‘the mountain’ very hearty thanks, and, the humility of a request – more please! Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)