BraveHeart – The 10 historical inaccuracies you need to know before watching the movie
December 5, 2011 80 Comments
The 1995 movie, BraveHeart, is a cinematic master-piece. A multiple Oscar winner, an awe-inspiring cinematic portrayal of Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace and his greatest accomplishments. It’s also an extremely historically inaccurate film, but that doesn’t devalue it as a cinematic achievement. Star and director Mel Gibson himself notes that the film is a “historical fantasy” and shouldn’t be taken as the accurate portrayal of Wallace’s life.
Here is a list of the most important historical inaccuracies that people should be aware of before watching the movie. This is intended to enhance one’s enjoyment of the film and not berate it and its makers.
Although Gibson can be excused on a lot of inaccuracies relating to Wallace’s early life on the basis that his pre-military life and career is not well documented, many historians may take offense to how Wee William is depicted in the film. The movie gives off the image of William being born to poverty and living the simple life of a farmer before being taken under the care of his uncle Argyle, when his father dies fighting the English.
In actuality, most historians believe Wallace was born to the Scottish aristocracy and was already a knight by the time of the Battle of Stirling (and wasn’t knighted afterwards like the movie suggests). But again, no actual historical texts say one way or another, so Gibson could be just as right as the historians as far as we know.
As an added side-note: Wallace’s wife was called Marian, not Murron. Gibson changed the name because he wanted to avoid the audience confusing her with Maid Marian from Robin Hood.
There are two major wardrobe related errors in the film. Probably the most discussed and well-known is the portrayal of Scots wearing kilts in the 13th century. In actuality, kilts did not become a popular form of men’s wear until well into the 17th century, which means that the film’s portrayal can be considered grossly inaccurate. However, there might be a legitimate cinematic reason for it which I’ll get to in a bit.
Another inaccuracy is the fact that the English soldiers are shown wearing uniforms while such was not in fact the custom in Wallace’s age. Martial dress code didn’t become a norm in England until the 17th century. In the age of Wallace, soldiers would wear pretty much anything they could get their hands on (as most were so poor they didn’t have two coins to rub together). Aristocratic knights did wear suits of armour head-to-toe, but the only insignia they would wear was frequently their family coat of arms which ensured that if they were captured alive, they would still have a chance of returning home once their family paid their ransom.
What can be seen both on the Scottish and English side of this wardrobe malfunction is a “uniformalization” of both sides. This is done for the audience’s convenience so that during the big battle scenes we can tell who’s who, without having to listen to who’s dying with a RP and who with a Highlands accent.
The first night or Primae Noctis is apparently considered by most historians as a bit of a historical urban myth. There’s plenty of writings that allude to it, but very little scholarly evidence that it was ever actually used by any rulers anywhere. Certainly, during Wallace’s time, Primae Noctis was never used by Edward Longshanks (that actually was his nickname) to piss off the Scots.
However, BraveHeart is neither the first nor the last movie to have adapted Primae Noctis as a story-device and we can definitely see why it’s used in the film. It certainly sounds like the sort of debauch stuff that the high and mighty of the 13th century might have done but the ugly fact may be that it’s actually mere fiction.
At least they no longer did by the time of Wallace. What Gibson was obviously alluding to is the Scottish Picts’ tradition of painting their faces blue to scare off those pansies, the Romans, from their lands. Of course, Emperor Adrian would have nothing of it and built a wall to keep those evil buggers from sacking the rest of Britain while the sandal-folk still ruled the scene.
The blue face-paint is so iconic, though, you couldn’t imagine BraveHeart without it. These days of course the tradition is to paint the flag of Scotland (a white X across with blue sides) for sporting events.
Probably the most glaring error in the entire film is the absence of the proverbial “Bridge” at the Battle of Stirling. This is an error that, Gibson admits, was done to make the battle more cinematically appealing.
In the actual Battle of Stirling, the English had to cross a bridge in order to attack the Scottish on the other side. The Stirling Bridge was badly built and very small, only allowing three cavalrymen to cross at a time. Wallace’s troops achieved victory by waiting for the English to cross and killing them immediately as they made it to the other side. The Scots achieved a brutal victory against a far larger force and the battle was a turning point in the Scottish War for independence.
In the movie, the Scots build large pikes to counter the heavy cavalry while their own cavalry rides behind the English and takes out their archers. The film’s premise of the heavy cavalry as unstoppable juggernauts on the battlefield is grounded in actual historical fact, so while the battle may not be accurate even in the loosest definition, it is at least historically plausible.
Isabelle of France was Prince Edward’s fiance, but at the time of William Wallace’s military escapades, she was a mere four years old and therefore couldn’t have physically met or been in contact with Wallace (even though Wallace had travelled to France during the war to ask for assistance against the English).
This obviously means that everything she does in the film, help Wallace by informing him of the English Army’s movements, the affair and giving him pain-numbing medicine before his execution did not happen.
A more glaring incongruity might be that French was widely spoken in the English court even around the time of Wallace, which means that Isabelle and her handmaiden’s secret conversations in French, wouldn’t really have been very secret at all.
Error #7: Phillip was never defenestrated
Prince Edward’s gay lover in the film, Phillip, is most likely intended to be Edward II’s actual military advisor Sir Phillip de Mowbray. In this case, Phillip was never thrown out of any castle windows but in fact lived well beyond Edward I’s death.
The film’s depiction of Prince Edward II as a bisexual may not be entirely inaccurate, though it bares noting that he did have as many as five children. Edward was however, an ineffectual King which is why he was deposed at the end of his reign. It’s also unclear if Edward actually was in a homosexual relationship with Phillip de Mowbray, but the point is, as feared and crazy as his father may have been, he never threw the fag* out the window.
(* For the clueless, fag in Brit-talk also means a cigarette.)
Now, obviously the battle of Falkirk didn’t go down quite the way it’s depicted in the film. Edward I was actually present and he was known for using Irish and Welsh conscripts, but at no point did the Scots and Irish stop in the middle of the battle to shake hands and make nice.
The most overlooked aspect of the Falkirk battle is that while it was the first massive military blow for Wallace and the Scots (as depicted in the film) the actual reason for the Scot’s defeat is never mentioned in the film. Edward wasn’t quite as cold-blooded as in the film, telling the archers to fire blindly into the mêlée of Scots and English. But it was the Welsh archers, armed with the latest and most high-tech weaponry, the long bow, that won the battle for the English. They were able to fire from distances far greater than the Scottish archers, some of whom actually used slingshots rather than bows.
Robert the 17th Bruce was one of the many people during the Scottish War of Independence who was trying to claim the throne of Scotland for himself. While during the early days of Wallace’s military campaign, he did publicly disown him, he secretly and later publicly supported him and his war effort. So, his supposed portrayal at the Battle of Falkirk is just some more cinematic fancy rather than actual historical fact.
However, otherwise Robert the Bruce is very accurately depicted within the film. Wallace did support Robert the Bruce for the throne and Bruce’s father (Robert the 16th Bruce) did suffer from leprosy, which is why he couldn’t make a claim for the throne (but he did not engineer Wallace’s capture as depicted in the film).
The most notable fact of all is that the name “Brave Heart” actually refers to Robert the Bruce and not William Wallace. After his death, Robert’s heart was literally carried into battle, giving birth to the nickname.
Wallace’s execution in the film, while not entirely inaccurate, is considerably tamed from what was actually done to him. Like many other famous traitors he was Hanged, Drawn and Quartered: a five stage punishment where a person was hanged, cut open to expose his intestines, castrated, chopped into pieces and finally beheaded. Before the execution Wallace was stripped naked and pulled around town by horse-carriage by a rope around his ankles and after the execution dipped in tar.
The film makes note of how Wallace’s body parts and head were put up for public display and sent to “the four corners of England”. This is historically accurate.
What we see in the film is a toned down version of the Hanged, Drawn and Quartered punishment. Wallace is shown hanged and stretched, and though not explicitly shown, it’s indicated that his intestines are taken out. The slicing and castration bits are left out and instead Wallace is beheaded after he screams “Freedom!” one last time. In actuality, Wallace’s last words are unknown.