The movie Braveheart, directed by and starring Mel Gibson, has been highly regarded in Hollywood since the time of its release in 1995. It has been nominated for and won multiple Academy Awards and Oscars, including the coveted Academy Award for Best Picture in 1996. Because of the amount of positive attention Braveheart received after its release, it may come as a surprise to many that Braveheart is considered by historians and analyses as one of the most historically inaccurate films of the modern era. It centers around the famous Scottish rebel and knight, William Wallace, who led multiple revolts against the English monarchy in the early 14th century. While the setting of the story may display traces of accuracy, the portrayal of many events are exaggerated and fabricated in order to keep audiences engaged and provide a more fluid and understandable storyline. Braveheart seems to use the content and context of historical events only as inspiration for its scenes, valuing the entertainment aspect of the film over the creation of an accurate retelling of history.
From the few records of William Wallace’s early life that historians have access to, it is known that Wallace was born during 1270 in Paisley, Renfrew, Scotland. New revelations by historians have revealed that he was the privileged son of a minor nobleman in Scottish lands. Because of this, William Wallace was most likely trained as a “man of arms” during his childhood, meaning that he learned to fight as a medieval knight would. The William Wallace portrayed in the film, however, directly contradicts these historical records. He is portrayed in the film as the son of a farmer who had spent most of his early life behind a plow. It is now known that this is an extremely inaccurate representation of his early life. It can be inferred that the producers of the film wanted to make young Wallace more susceptible to favoritism from the audience, portraying him as a young boy with a god given talent for fighting injustice, instead of just another wealthy, privileged child with extensive military training from his father.
The event that sparked rebellion in the heart and mind of William Wallace in the film Braveheart was the execution of his wife, Murron MacClannough. Early on in the film, Murron fights off the English soldiers who attempted to exert their right to Prima Nocte, which was a supposed legal right in medieval Europe which allowed lords to “deflower” subordinate women. Because of her refusal, Murron is captured and publicly executed. In retribution for this killing, Wallace leads his clan to slaughter the English troops stationed in his hometown. This is supposedly the beginning of a statewide rebellion of the Scottish people against the English rule. Multiple historical inaccuracies can be pulled from this depiction. Firstly, there is no documented evidence that William Wallace was ever married. Another historical inaccuracy is the concept of Prima Nocta being enacted throughout Scotland after the ascension of Edward I. According to many historians, Prima Nocta was a myth in medieval Europe, or they believe it was a false claim used to make rulers of foreign lands seem more barbaric. Even if Wallace’s wife did exist, the idea that her murder was the basis for William Wallace’s motivation for fighting would also be a stretch. It is more likely that Wallace was either ambitious to break English authority or resented their current occupation of his country. It is also inaccurate for the filmmakers to assume that Wallace’s initial fight against the British men who executed Murron triggered a wider rebellion against the English throughout Scotland. In fact, many Scottish people were rallying against British rule prior to Wallace’s involvement in any sort of revolt.
The two major battles that the film revolves around are The Battle of Falkirk and The Battle of Stirling Bridge, which are both true events in history. The Battle of Stirling Bridge came first, which occurred on September 11, 1297 in real life, but was stated to have transpired seventeen years prior in the film. The battle was led by William Wallace and Andrew de Moray, who was never mentioned in the film. An English army confronted Wallace and his men at the bridge across Forth River near Stirling. Wallace’s forces were vastly outnumbered, but the English were forced to cross a narrow bridge before they could reach them. Peter Armstrong describes the bridge in his text Stirling Bridge and Falkirk 1297–98 – William Wallace’s Rebellion as the following: “Medieval Stirling Bridge was a substantial wooden structure, carried on eight stone piers, though barely wide enough to allow the passage of a horse and cart…” (citation). The Scottish used clever tactics, packing men on the bridge which mitigated their numerical disadvantage. They waited until about a third of the English’s forces were packed onto the bridge before launching their attack, catching them off guard and leading to an unlikely victory. In Braveheart, however, this battle occurred on a wide, flat plain. The writers of the film took many liberties during this battle scene, as filming around a bridge would have been very difficult at the time, but they maintained the idea of the Scottish being severely outnumbered, yet still emerging victorious.
The Battle of Falkirk also has many qualities that portray the events of the past inaccurately. It occurred on July 22, 1298, according to the records historians have access to. In the movie, Wallace loses this battle because of the betrayal of some of his most trusted men. In real life, however, it was lost because of a technological disadvantage. The English has just developed longbows for their infantrymen, which could outshoot even the most skilled Scottish archers. Because of this and many other factors, the approvimatly 10,000 Scottish soldiers were slaughtered in battle. This great failure was detrimental to Wallace’s reputation, as it forced him to resign from his position of Guardian of Scotland and began the decline of his involvement in the growing rebellion.
It can be argued that the most historically inaccurate section of the movie occurs between the Battle of Falkirk and the execution of William Wallace. The movie depicts an aging Edward I as being tormented by that attacks that Wallace heads against the British Empire. The attacks were displayed in the film as successful confrontations in most cases, but it is likely these attempts were insignificant in the grand scheme of the war. They did not have a meaningful impact on the English presence in Scotland. Edward I most likely did not consider Wallace a major threat, as Wallace was struggling to raise an army after his failure at Falkirk. He traveled to countries such as France and Rome in an attempt to find support for the failing Scottish Rebellion, but his military reputation had been tarnished and he returned to Scotland with no foreign support.
The success of the film Braveheart relied greatly on the creation of a manichaean mindset regarding the conflict between the Scottish and the English. By establishing the Scottish as “the good guys” and England as “the villians”, the directors of the film allows the audience to relate more personally to William Wallace, empathise with him, and feel strong emotions toward his actions and the negative actions against him. More specifically, his failures and death are supposed to make the audience feel pain for Wallace, and can even inspire anger toward the invasive country of England who has caused this harm against him This makes for a successful film, as viewing become emotionally involved in the characters and conflicts. This is a large criticism of the film, however, as many reviewers claim that Braveheart promotes anglophobia, which is a strong dislike of or prejudice against Britain.
- Armstrong, P., McBride, A. (2012). Stirling Bridge and Falkirk 1297-98: William Wallace’s Rebellion. United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing.