DAY FOUR: Braveheart
QUICKIE DESCRIPTION: True epic
LESSON OF THE DAY: What makes a film big.
I’m pretty certain that the only people in the world who could possibly hate Braveheart are English historians. Braveheart is an extremely liberal interpretation of the First Scottish War of Independence that centers on Scottish hero William Wallace. I don’t want anyone to think that me saying that is passing any kind of quality judgement on the film, because the story Braveheart tells is amazing. It’s so easy to see why this movie pervades our popular consciousness as much as it does. The writing, production and directing all work together to make an epic so damn good I’m a little surprised it wasn’t made in the sixties.
Braveheart is an epic, and it’s important to understand that epic is more than just a synonym for awesome. Wikipedia defines epic poetry as “a lengthy narrative, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation” and that’s a pretty good summation. Braveheart is a serious movie about loss, betrayal, revenge, and yearning for freedom, as it plays out over the backdrop of Scotland maneuvering for independence. Troy/The Iliad deals with hubris and rage in the most famous of the Greek-Asia conflict myths. You can see the same setup in The Ten Commandments and Lawrence of Arabia. Epics have a sense of scope that the wannabe McEpics we’ve been drowning in lately don’t even come close to achieving. Without getting too bogged down in it, I want to try to explain why this movie has the sense of size it does that Clash of the Immortal Barbarians of Mars completely fails to achieve.
I believe it really boils down to the shape of the story. Everyone remembers that godawful plot triangle that’s been shoved down their throat since middle school:
But of course, the triangle we’re all familiar with has far less words. Beginning, Initial Incident, Rising Action, Climax, Denouement. What nobody realizes is that this is supposed to line up with a five-act structure – as in, the climax happens halfway through the play. For example, Hamlet’s play-within-a-play and the death of Polonius, or when Macbeth has Banquo killed. It’s an entirely different meaning of climax then we tend to use today, but for some reason we still cling to this triangle for dear life. Thinking that the only high point in the movie should be at the very end is why so many movies fail to make you care about the characters and only invest you in the “and next, this happens” events plot. But if all we cared about were events, documentaries would reign supreme. Movies have to be about character. This movie is as much, if not more, about William and the affect he has on people, mainly the next Queen of England and the Scottish noble Robert the Bruce, than it is about the battles that make up the war. For contrast, Clash of the Titans is just about Perseus’ totally internal journey bringing him to the point where he is able to pull off the final battle. That isn’t why the movie is bad, mind you, just why it isn’t an epic, and would have done better if it had abandoned the world-at-stake thing it sucked at and been a little more earnest about the sword-and-sandal adventuring.
Braveheart has very clear ups and downs that don’t conform to these stupid “strip everything away until you have the simplest plot possible” analysis formulas that lead to unimaginative, simple plots. (What did you expect?) And these aren’t just things that slow down the race to the finish. There’s wins, losses, reversals of fortune, when we say rising and falling action we totally miss the far more interesting words on those lines: complications and unravelling. The most basic plot description is: A character wants something badly… but something is in the way of him getting it. This something is the complications. In Braveheart the primary complication is King Edward Longshanks who just doesn’t want to leave Scotland alone. Longshanks complicates William’s journey of fighting for freedom through waging war on all sorts of fronts. Contrast with movies where shit gets summoned up to fight, gets defeated, and then the movie moves on as if nothing ever happened. Every action William takes is met by complications from the Scottish nobility and countermoves by Longshanks. Sometimes King Edward seems to be winning. Sometimes William seems to win. I started thinking the movie was over at least twice before it actually did, because so many movies just cut win and loss into black and white. And what happens after the last big action climax? What felt like a good half hour at least of things unravelling before the emotional resolution and end of the movie. So that’s my message today. Don’t just keep building up to a solitary high point. Sometimes, build your story down.