How accurate was "Braveheart"?
This article was originally published in the Clann Tartan newsletter. I researched the life of William Wallace while doing research about Robert the Bruce, whose life overlapped Wallace's and whom Bruce succeeded as the leader of Scottish resistance to the English occupation. Anyone who wants to see my version of the story should jump over to my play about Bruce, which includes a historical background of events before the play begins. You might also want to see The Declaration of Arbroath.
The film "Braveheart", to which Clann Tartan members should need no introduction, has been nominated for Academy Awards and re-released, which prompts me to do something I should have done when it was released the first time; namely, review this film for historical accuracy. Clann members will, I expect, be interested in the history, and won't even need an explanation of why accuracy matters. I feel qualified to review it artistically too, being in "the biz" (even if I'm still at the "starving artist in his garret" stage), but there are plenty of reviews around. What I feel more uniquely qualified to comment on is the film's accuracy. In the course of researching and writing my own play on the life of Robert the Bruce, I have become somewhat learned on the period.
In brief, the history in "Braveheart" is absolute garbage.
William Wallace did indeed lead a rebellion against English occupation in 1296. He won a surprising victory at Stirling Bridge and lost at Falkirk. After his capture, he was tried and executed as depicted. That's about all that matches history. The rest of the film was inaccurate, grossly distorted, or absolutely made up. I can't cover it all (and I should have done this when my memory of th film was fresher) but here are some, er, "highlights".
Wallace was portrayed as a poor man who was secretly married right before he got in trouble with the English. Actually, he was a landed commoner with a good education, and in peaceful times he might have been a scholar. All landed men were required to sign the Ragman Roll, which bound signatories in loyalty to England's King Edward I. Those who refused, like Wallace, were outlawed. In response, Wallace and Andrew Moray organized other outlawed men into an army. Moray was killed at Stirling Bridge and mostly forgotten, and was not mentioned in the film. Wallace was invovled in a romantic relationship, but he was unable to settle down due to spending his entire adult life at war or in hiding. He was with her when the English discovered his hiding place. When they discovered she had stalled them to give Walalce time to escape, she and the rest of the household were killed.
From watching "Braveheart", one would think that Wallace invented the use of spears against cavalry in a moment of improvisation. Everyone in the Clann knows that this tactic is literally ancient. From the film, a viewer would think that these Scottish peasants could find swords and axe heads, but somehow couldn't manage spearpoints. Also, they didn't stand in one big mob, but in circular formations called schiltrons, the predecessors of our pike blocks, and a formation Wallace might have invented but certainly perfected. At least they looked impressive with their painted faces, which was indeed a Celtic practice---during Roman times, over a thousand years before.
During the battle of Falkirk, Wallace was shown going into battle against the wishes of the other Scottish commanders. The accounts I've seen indicate the opposite, that he opposed fighting then on the grounds that the field did not offer the advantages of Stirling Bridge. It was a neat scene when the Irish troops with the English switched sides as they were supposed to charge into battle, but I never heard of this incident. We also saw the Scottish nobles desert Wallace and ruin his plans right as the battle started, but I haven't heard of this happening either. The cavalry did withdraw without orders, but the circumstances are unclear, though he might have won with them available. It's true his hold over the Scottish lords and chiefs was weak. He wasn't knighted until after Stirling Bridge (quite possibly by Robert Bruce) at which time he was made Guardian, which gave him the power of a king. However, having no land or vassals, his leadership depended wholly upon success in battle. When he lost his luster he was replaced.
In the aftermath of Falkirk came the scene that almost made me yell at the screen. When Wallace goes riding after King Edward, one of the knights accompanying Edward turns to stop Wallace and knocks him off his horse. When his face is uncovered, this knight turns out to be----Robert Bruce. A great dramatic twist, but why don't the histories mention Bruce at Falkirk? Most likely he wasn't there, or else he fought with Wallace but did nothing significant. "Braveheart" portrayed Bruce so villainously that the English chroniclers who demonized him would have been envious. When, at the end of the film, Bruce asks the soldiers at Bannockburn if they will fight for him, he wouldn't have reason to doubt: they had been following him for years already. I'll admit having Bruce as narrator was a great idea, but that doesn't alter my opinion of his portrayal.
Hollywood thinks movies have to have romance, but Wallace and Princess Isabella? I've never heard of a princess being used as an envoy, and with such an important mission to boot. I don't even know that she had gone to England and married Edward II during Wallace's lifetime. It's difficult to believe she ever met Wallace or that she was this delicate flower who was ashamed of English cruelty toward the Scots. On the contrary, she had her husband imprisoned and murdered when he refused to abdicate in favor of their son, and she then launched her own invasion of Scotland.
It was a dramatically satisfying moment when Edward I died as Wallace was being executed, and was thus denied seeing Wallace die. He really did have a vendetta against Wallace and he appears to have been as mean an s.o.b. as portrayed. Unfortunately, he survived Wallace by a couple years. He died in 1307, during the first months of Bruce's rebellion.
Anyone who wants to argue my history is welcome to, particluarly since doing so will require brushing up on, or reading for the first time, Wallace's biography. Most of this could even be drawn from a biography of Robert the Bruce. Anyone who does this, even if they catch me in a historical error, will no doubt agree with the main point. The real history is itself an interesting story. It made no sense to make up a whole new one.
There's just one more point I want to mention, something which I found continually annoying. I said above that Wallace was a minor knight. Without his mystique, the nobility would have thought him worth little attention. Nonetheless, he would have had the basics for a knight, meaning warhorse, surcoat, and armor. He might not have had much else, but he would have had those. So why, during the whole part of his life portrayed on celluloid, could Wallace not once wear sleeves?