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Feature


Following the wartime death of his father William Wallace (Mel Gibson) is taken a raised by an uncle. He returns to a Scotland still crushed hard beneath King Edward’s oppressive regime as a peaceful man, and secretly marries a childhood friend. Meanwhile, Edward, aka: Longshanks, increases pressure on the region and gives his troops almost unlimited power over the Scots. When his wife is killed by the local magistrate Wallace fights back, and what starts as simple revenge turns into a leadership role in the Scottish resistance. Wallace’s battlefield intuitions become legend, and Longshanks takes notice, as does the corrupt Scottish nobility.

Braveheart: Shapphire Series
I like to call Braveheart ‘My First Epic’, as many of my generation truly discovered the possibilities of grand scale, historical filmmaking for the first time in 1995. Most of us had seen Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus and Ben Hur, but those were ‘old people’ movies. Braveheart was new and exciting, and perhaps even more importantly, really freaking violent. I’ve personally grown apart from ‘My First Epic’ over the years, thanks to a more adult understanding of superior epics like the aforementioned three, not to mention Peter Jackson’s little three film Hobbit opus. Gibson’s film (like all his films) lacks rhythm, and feels as exceedingly long as it is. Even those once beloved battle scenes drone a bit these days. Arguably the film teems with Gibson’s usual pretentious slant. I preface with an ‘arguably’ because making such films requires real commitment, and the assumption that you, as a director, can do it better than anyone else. For some reason Gibson’s particular brand of self-importance rubs me a little more raw than those of David Lean, Kubrick, Ridley Scott, or Peter Jackson (it’s also a good possibility that Mel’s recent social activities have coloured my opinions unfairly).

Braveheart: Shapphire Series
Braveheart is still an achievement, without a doubt, but it’s more of a technical achievement than a satisfying emotional experience (that said, I still get choked up over Wallace’s dying word). Gibson and his collaborators craft a world rich in tactile details and textures, like bloody wounds, torrential rain, cool grass, splintered wood, and scratchy wool clothing. The brutality of the subject matter and era is so viscerally achieved the viewer can practically touch the on-screen events. Even though the overall pacing is kind of a mess, there are single scenes and sequences that are truly perfectly rendered. These are almost exclusively the violent scenes, but Gibson manages to infuse a bit of genuine artistry into some of the more spiritual and quiet scenes too (the romantic sequences are darned mawkish though, If you ask me). A relatively inexperienced director at the time, Gibson had the foresight to surround himself with the most talented, and often underutilized cast and crew possible. The best choice was DP John Toll, but the cast is a masterstroke, including several actors, like Brendan Gleason and Tommy Flanagan, that built a career on these early performances.

Braveheart: Shapphire Series

Video


Following the whole Gladiator debacle I was worried about Paramount’s entire ‘Sapphire Series’. Braveheart was released the same day, and as if the two films hadn’t been constantly compared enough, they’re dual Blu-ray releases will likely go down in AV geek history. In short, Braveheart hasn’t ever looked this good. This isn’t a perfect transfer, or comparable to the best I’ve seen on this set, but it’s a definite upgrade from the DVD release. The new transfer allows one to explore previously unavailable details, specifically Longshanks’ prosthetic nose, which for the first time I notice doesn’t match the rest of his face. It beats the Gladiator transfer in any non-close-up shot. The focus is occasionally rather shallow, and the shallow pull leads to some slight image doubling (the fault of the original negative, not this transfer), but for the most part the majestic fields of green are sharp, if not occasionally a little flat. Most importantly there’s little sign of all that nasty edge-enhancement. There are more print artefacts than I had expected (mostly small white flecks), but grain is fine (save a few of the more overcast and foggy scenes), and for the most part compression noise is absent. The print’s colours are rich (Gibson’s baby blues are pretty intense), and as natural as cinematographer John Toll’s filters will allow, but aren’t exclusively consistent. The blacks are deep for the most part, but are occasionally the victim of a little colour bleeding during the darkest shots.

Braveheart: Shapphire Series

Audio


The Gladiator Blu-ray wins one event, that of audio quality. Braveheart is presented in a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track, rather than a DTS-HD track. The overall quality is pretty similar to the DVD release’s Dolby Digital track, with a little more volume, bass, and obvious spatial representation. The film shows its age a little bit here in that the mix isn’t quite as aggressive in the surround channels as more modern releases. The sound design is glorious, but the mix isn’t quite up to revamped standards. The track’s finest moment is the massive Battle of Sterling, which features screaming, multi-channel crowds, galloping horses, clanging metal, swishing swords, and squishy, flying viscera, and which ends on a pretty massive orchestral cue. I used to have parts of the Braveheart soundtrack on a mix tape I kept in my first car. I was going through a sort of Highlands phase. James Horner’s Scottish influenced score isn’t as impressive as it once was, mostly because it’s been mimicked to death over the last 14 years, but on this track the drums are heavy, the strings are warm, and the traditional instruments cut through the noise without overwhelming.

Braveheart: Shapphire Series

Extras


To continue the Gladiator Blu-ray comparisons, Braveheart features oodles of previously unavailable extras, and a lot of them are actually presented in HD. The extras begin with Mel Gibson’s commentary, which was available on that original DVD release. The track is just as tonally dull as it always was, and there are a few 20 minute gaps of utter nothingness, but Gibson does find room for a few interesting factoids, and fesses up to some of his more grievous historical inaccuracies. Disc one also features the ‘ Braveheart Timelines’, a big pile of text and video facts concerning the film, the production, and the real history. I’m entirely unclear as to why these weren’t included as pop-ups.

Disc two features start with ‘Battlefields of the Scottish Rebellion’, an interactive timeline of the historical events bastardized by the film. The timeline leads into maps, text-based facts, video interviews, scenes from the film, and animated battlefields. It’s a little overwhelming to behold at first considering the volume of menus, but once one gets the hang of it one finds some valuable historical information (and it does feature an ‘auto play’ option). Again, this would be better served in a pop-up form, or as part of the first disc’s timelines.

Braveheart: Shapphire Series
Braveheart: A Look Back’ (60:00, HD) is a three part retrospective documentary. The well structured doc covers the major bases including conception, hiring Gibson to direct and star, putting together the production, character development, casting, shooting in Scotland and Ireland, Gibson’s direction and relative selflessness, practical jokes, using the Irish Army as battle extras, make-up design, editing, shooting the big battles, walkouts during test screenings (the torture scene original featured a warning from the torturer), audience reception of the final cut, and the lasting effects. The gamble of the production is the most interesting aspect of the behind-the-scenes story. Most of the crew, including Gibson, was relatively untried, and such historical epics hadn’t been popular for decades (and wouldn’t be again until after Gladiator). I’m not clear on the point of separating the doc into three relatively random parts, but with the ‘play all’ option employed it’s easy to pretend its all one big thing.

Braveheart: Shapphire Series
‘Smithfield: Medieval Killing Fields’ (25:00, HD) is a historical featurette about Smithfield, a dark and disturbing town just outside of London where Wallace and countless others were tortured and killed before crowds of thousands. This is the set’s biggest surprise. I had zero knowledge of the area, and the movie itself barely touches upon it. Over the course of the featurette a motley crew of historians are interviewed, and their words are set to amusing animated versions of wood carvings, footage of Wallace’s 2005 official funeral, and images of the modern look of the city.

The rest of the extras were available on the special edition DVD, starting with ‘Tales of William Wallace’ (30:00, SD), a slightly subdued, but largely informative featurette on the real Wallace (often compared directly to the film). ‘A Writer’s Journey’ (obviously intended as a companion piece to the original DVD’s ‘A Filmmaker’s Passion’, 22:00, SD) looks into writer Randall Wallace’s history with the project. Things are completed with two theatrical trailers.

Braveheart: Shapphire Series

Overall


Braveheart’s historical accuracy is fuzzy, to say the least (ironically enough, Gladiator is probably more historically accurate), but the choice of historical figure is interesting from the standpoint that he wasn’t known in pop culture until after the film was released. It’s a legendary (and broadly drawn) version of the historical figure, but it is still notice that was previously missing. Such a thing arguably hadn’t been done since Lawrence of Arabia, if that even counts (T. E. Lawrence was definitely better known than William Wallace). I see this as the film’s biggest achievement, as I don’t think the whole thing has stood up as well as I had hoped, and don’t think Gibson had as big an effect on modern cinema as he maybe should have (big budget historical epics with 3 hour runtimes were pretty unheard of in 1995). This Sapphire Series Blu-ray release doesn’t disappoint, and includes a solid transfer, and solid, new extra features. The closest thing to disappointment is the slightly unimpressive audio, and a few missing DVD release extras.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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