Braveheart: populist fodder or uncomfortable zeitgeist?

Braveheart' and Creating the Battle of Stirling

Each man could only see pieces of green field before him, obscured by the soaking heids in front. At once an oppressive yet defiantly comforting feeling, each understood the magnitude of the event, as silently they contemplated what victory could mean, comparing it fleetingly with the ever more present threat of defeat – which clung to them now as menacingly fixed as the dark clouds overhead.  Blood rushed to heids, malnutrition and dehydration only adding to this real sense of dreid. Yet victory was not an impossibility. And if only, in that small slice of sky above, their deepest prayers could be answered, for their hands increasingly pressed together, pointing upwards. Looking across the field, they saw their enemy. Terror cowered in favour of rage, as murderous cries reverberated across the battle ground. The 2021 Scotland Vs England Euros match was certainly one to remember.

Up to 20 million in the UK tuned in to watch it. Somewhat comically, if not altogether surprisingly, Braveheart was scheduled on the other channel post-match. Television executives want viewers, and they’re strategic about how they go about it. Win or lose, they knew they could capitalise on the swell of nationalism that bubbled up in the run up to the match.  However, this does seem to highlight something peculiar about the Scottish public imagination: we are still captivated by a 26 year old film depicting scenes of Scots slaughtering English, sacking castles and reclaiming territory, all in the supposed name of nationalism. Many would never publicly acknowledge their fervour in this regard, or even turn their noses up at such a notion. Though even this reaction suggests a certain level of interest (albeit as an expression of disinterest). The question is, what constitutes our curiously enduring, if tenuous, relationship to this film about Scotland’s past?

I started to wonder about this a few years ago watching the film with my girlfriend at the time: a non-Scot with a tattoo of flowers surrounding a peace symbol on her forearm, who was so engrossed in it – essentially a very bloody, often ridiculed, film about Scotland’s medieval history. Why would she be interested in this? It clicked eventually when I realised she was a romantic through and through (and this film was as romantic as they came).

It is widely understood that Wallace’s involvement in the Wars of Independence was precipitated by the murder of his wife, Marion (changed to the name Murren in the film, likely to distance from the love interest of England’s prized mythological hero, Robin Hood). This understanding is the bedrock of the film. In the last few years, however, historians have suggested the invention of this history in the late 1500s, in fact by a wealthy family claiming to be the fictitious wife’s descendants. This misunderstanding, Hollywood can hardly be blamed for at the time.

What is interesting is the symbolism which is essentially the driving force of both the Wallace myth and Braveheart. In this sense, the fight against tyranny or the enduring struggle for romantic love, are synonymous, commonly told myths. In the film, the cloth which his wife gave Wallace, and which he cherished, was the same cloth which eventually fell from his hand when he was executed, and the same garment which Robert the Bruce clutched on the fields of Bannockburn. This is powerful symbolism, as well as the ‘thread’ of the story. The film at it’s core, is a love story.

This is actually fairly evident (it’s in the title after all). But let’s consider the typical critique of Braveheart: the now cliched and glib accounting of the film’s “historical inaccuracies”. Now, it would indeed be an incredibly unusual feat if a Hollywood adaptation did not actually adapt a story, not to mention one which is 600 years old. It is in fact a miracle that the history is contained as well as it is. So why has criticism always centred on these inaccuracies, rather than representing the broader cultural significance which the film clearly achieves? 

We can look at some of the possible factors. As a tenet of postcolonial thinking, cultures understandably have a certain desire for explaining their own history, and not wishing it told by others (accurately or otherwise). There is also something of a reserved Scottish national sensibility, unimpressed by the young and loud flavours of US patriotism via Hollywood. These points, though, are really just scratching the surface. 

More pertinently, representations of nationalism intertwined with violence, even if simply dramatised, are not something peaceful societies can legitimise. This appears to be the case here, despite that violence being medieval (the last historical record of an exclusively Scottish vs English battle can be found in the early renaissance). Others yet may be justifiably cynical about Braveheart and the simplified messaging it perhaps holds. All told, there has been a back and forth of Scottish and Unionist nationalism for centuries, a complicated interplay, which has cut across religious and monarchical lines causing bloodshed and division, even if it was some time ago.

I do have some sympathy for these positions. There is however something glaringly obvious to social historians, which has been largely ignored. Specifically, the misrepresentation of nationalism in the drama. There is an implicit acknowledgment that rising nationalism was the precursor to the uprising north of the border. Many would argue this to be entirely fictionalised. Certainly the cinematic fervour, present in such moments as William Wallace’s infamous “freedom” speech, more than merely an exaggerated and now heavily parodied sentiment, almost certainly would not have existed at the time.

Clans (themselves highly stratified), fought as part of their duty to their Chief on behalf of the Crown, not necessarily their country. Clans may have expressed their own local fervency, though these would have been reserved for the higher ranking clansmen, not the peasantry which made up the bulk of the forces (despite being well trained militaries, their status was immobile at the lower tranches of the feudal system). Certainly, a united, nationalistic front would not have been present. The forces which brought rise to nationalism, motivated by such features as the transition from agrarianism to industrialism, the rise of capitalism, shared formal education and standardised language, had not emerged in Europe by this point, and Scots, like the English, did not yet own a collective sense of belonging. Indeed, the idea of Scottish nationhood – what some scholars call an ‘imagined community’ – is entirely questionable pre-Reformation.

So what makes this film activate the nation’s imagination in the way it clearly has? As alluded to, a common response toward the film, has been an awkward and cynical one. Many laughed at the incredulousness of the epic, as the Oscars mounted up. Despite academy success, critics (professional and otherwise) helped to dislodge the film from any canonic positioning. “The only thing the film got right was the name of the country”, uttered one tour guide. “The English are portrayed as arrogant monsters”, said a film reviewer (probably). And possibly the biggest distractor, “they cast King Edward’s son as a cruel, gay man” (shouted the politically correct – despite the factual correctness of this portrayal).

This all made it very easy to mockingly discard a simple medieval film containing within it, an iconic message about Scotland’s national pride. The film has been placed firmly on the fringes by the mainstream media, connecting it to notions of anti-English sentiment, as reported at the time of release concerning disparate spats between Scots and English. Even this year, the new Alba party got painted in a similar light in their campaign video using the voice of actor Angus Macfadyen, who played Robert the Bruce’s character. The short video talked about “breaking the spine of English superiority” and even used the film’s “unite the clans” line. Such posturing does raise eyebrows around the plight of the Scottish independence debate. But it is all the more ironic that the nationalism of Braveheart was, wittingly or not, entirely invented to engage these modern audiences – mockers, mimickers, and moderators alike. 

Could it be that the combination of a complex love story with its misinterpretations and misapplications of nationalism, played a part (however small) in the rise of nationalist populism in Scotland? Beyond an increase in kilt sales and tourism (though national economics is not a factor to entirely discount when thinking about this topic), nationalism has a tendency to make some people cautious, despite the lack of evidence towards any meaningful extremist sentiment in its aftermath, anti-English or otherwise. 

The question remains: why might we want to simultaneously celebrate and undermine a film about our national heroes? A curious phenomenon in society is the manner in which we attempt to house uncomfortable truths. We may allow air time for overt displays of nationalism on the one hand, only because we are permitted to trivialise them on the other. The net result ultimately, tends towards a misinterpretation of reality. Observing this interplay with a cultural phenomenon like Braveheart continues to present an interesting opportunity.

Social psychologists use the term ‘banal’ nationalism in referring to the everyday representations of nationhood. While concerns of ‘rising’ nationalism are often expressed by news vendors, it would in fact be atypical, and indeed concerning, if levels of nationalism remained static over time. There is an omnipresence of nationalism which exists in every nation in the world, and national sporting events tend to be the best examples of what might be called a healthy rising in national pride, particularly when against a neighbouring country. The Euros match might have ended a goalless draw, but the Scotland Team put on a fearless display. Crowds cheered, belting out The Flower of Scotland from the stands without a cynic in sight. Thank goodness there is some romance amongst the people left to savour. More than that, while sweat and tears perhaps, not one drop of blood was spilt. 

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