Friday, June 14, 2013

A 'Braveheart' for Every Nation

Despite its historical inaccuracies, the 1995 movie  Braveheart  has always been my favorite ‘Scottish’ Film. Yes, I know, it missed out on details- but what it lost in the minutia, it made up for in passion. I shake my head at the Irish accents and ignore the silly throwaway dialogue, instead I focus on my gut. I feel the movie rather than watch it. I feel the passion that drives the story to the last scenes. I shiver as poor Sir William Wallace dies; hung, drawn and quartered for all of Christendom to see. A wee tear shimmers to the surface of my tough old een as Wallace floats back to ‘Bonnie Scotland’ to join his resurrected true love, Mirren (spoken with as much ‘R’ rolling as my quivering Celtic tongue can permit).

Driven with nationalistic passion rather than historical accuracy,  Braveheart becomes more than just a movie; it typifies a whole genre. And although I will use Randall Wallace's title as nomenclature for this genre I am proclaiming, it certainly wasn't the first example.

In 1959, the year I was born, a huge undertaking began in the Cinecittà Studios on the outskirts of Rome, Italy. I don’t know whether to list Ben Hur as a Jewish Braveheart, or a biblical one encompassing the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. However you cut the cake, you end up with a sprawling three and a half hour epic that still is unrivalled. It only cost $15 million to make, but cashed over $140 million at the box office. And, trust me, a tenfold profit is real good money.

Ben Hur won an amazing eleven Oscars, a feat not to be equaled until Titanic and Lord of the Rings, four decades later. Considering the ultimate status of the film, it's quite incredible how many top actors turned down the juicy lead role… Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Rock Hudson, and Leslie Nielsen. Kirk Douglas, keen to star, felt snubbed in favor of Charlton Heston, and this inspired Douglas to force Spartacus into production.

Fifty thousand extras were cast in Ben Hur. YES! I said 50,000. This will never be replicated. Ben Hur will forever sit at the pinnacle of the Braveheart genre; the shining city on the hill for all to aim at. And who can forget that white haired Scotsman, Finlay Currie as both Balthasar and the great narrator’s voice?

In 1960, Italy threw their hero Spartacus into the Braveheart ring. With Kirk Douglas in the exciting lead role, Britons Tony Curtis, Laurence Olivier,  and Peter Ustinov headlined a dazzling cast. Anthony Mann was originally hired to direct, but was fired after the first week, which paved the way for a young Stanley Kubrick to take over. Ouch! With a cast of over ten thousand, and a budget of $12 million, it was the year’s biggest hit, grossing $60 million at the box office. It would be a long time before the Roman Empire would inspire another Braveheart.

In El Cid just a year later, Spain’s own voyage into the Braveheart genre cast Charlton Heston again in the lead role. Who can forget the closing scenes with Charlton riding along the Peñíscola beach, his corpse tied to his horse, inspiring his nation to rout the infidels from Europe. El Cid was one of the last true spectaculars, filmed in 1961 at a paltry cost of six million dollars, yet grossing five times that amount with a gorgeous Sophia Loren as the love interest. Just two years after Heston's appearance in the epic of Ben Hur, it would have appeared to investors as a guaranteed winner.

In true epic fashion, Anthony Mann’s El Cid involved 7,000 extras, 10,000 costumes, 35 ships, and 50 outsize engines of medieval warfare.

In 1962, Greece was the next country to showcase its national heroes; 300 Spartans depicted the Battle of Thermopylae, Spartan warriors against the might of Persia. A very young Frank Miller (the Comic Artist who wrote 300, adapted into a major film in 2007) saw the movie and said "it changed the course of my creative life".

A decade later, in 1970, England took nationalism to a whole new level. Cromwell was a terrific effort to show the complicated plot arcs of the English Civil War. At a cost of just $8 million, it cast Richard Harris as Oliver Cromwell, and smashed all records for ‘extras’ in a British film. Yes, it dodged the truth; yes it threw facts to the wind. But it held an audience, rooted into history, and that’s what counts… isn’t it? Plus, it gave work to so many English actors, Richard Harris, Alec Guinness, Timothy Dalton, Patrick Magee, Nigel Stock, and so on….. forever.

The same year, 1970, saw a coalition of Soviets/Italians release its own ‘French’ film in the Braveheart genre. Waterloo featured Rod Steiger as the Emperor Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington. Yup, they met at Waterloo, and kicked lumps out of each other until some Prussians arrived, when they decided to call it a day, and wondered how they’d killed a hundred thousand men. In a single day.

In Waterloo, 15,000 infantry of the Russian Army acted out the main parts, with 2,000 cavalry. At the time, the film had the seventh biggest army in the world. But names like Orson Welles, and Jack Hawkins and the Russian Army don’t come cheap, and the film/movie cost $35 million for its two hours on screen. It would never recoup half of it.

Unless any of you can recall similarly veined tomes, the next twenty years were slightly barren as far as far as our newly designated Braveheart genre is concerned. The historic hero seemed to have fallen out of fashion. This is possibly due to the rise of the cinematic adoration for imaginary heroes like Superman and Batman (but dont get me started..superheros-Bah, humbug!)  I credit Braveheart itself for resurrecting the genre in 1995, and thus don't feel as guilty for the genre's naming.

In 1999, France decided it was time to honor a brave heart of it's own and The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, was released. It attempted stardom, but for many reasons fell hopelessly short. Stars were dispatched to remote locations to film the ‘one true’ version of Joan of Arc; Milla Jovovich, John Malkovich, Faye Dunaway, and a cameo by Dustin Hoffman led a cast that also involved named British actors too numerous to mention. Some famous faces never spoke a word on screen. I cannot imagine the depth of cuttings that lay on that editing floor. Despite the most terrific medieval siege warfare scenes I’ve ever seen on film, it cost $85 million to produce, and never made a ‘sous’ of profit. I still say that Milla’s role was deep, engaging, and worth every second she appeared on the screen. But the role was not critically acclaimed, unfairly winning her a ‘Raspberry Worst Actress’ nomination. Academy Awards? Whatever!

The United States of America’s found it's own Braveheart hero the next year. Mel Gibson's Benjamin Martin rushed through autumnal forests with his tomahawks in hand, dispatching redcoats willy-nilly. The Patriot  took $110 million to produce, but grossed more than double the amount. Like Braveheart, it gave a nonchalant nod to  historical accuracy, but relied on the passion of the film to carry the day... and great performances by Gibson, Heath Ledger and Jason Isaacs. Again, like Braveheart, it caught hold of the gut of the indigenous population. It worked.

The Roman Empire finally returned to the genre when Gladiator hit the world’s screens in 2000. Costing $103 million, it was a risk. But director Ridley Scott created a masterpiece, and lead man Russell Crowe stole the show, making it the proverbial box office smash. Again, there was an inescapable British influence: Richard Harris as a dying Emperor and consummate performances  by Derek Jacobi and Oliver Reed spread over the piece like honey over Graham Crackers. Oliver Reed died during filming, and they used a body double, and $3 million of special effects to put Reed’s face posthumously onto the screen.

Even the Mayans had their own Braveheart. Apocalypto, filmed by Mel Gibson in 2006 cost $40 million, but grossed three times that. (Is anyone seeing a Mel Gibson pattern here?) It’s a super movie/film that deserves a widescreen showing and a good surround sound turned way up loud.

Creative expression of  ethnic pride is of course nothing new.  William Shakespeare started the ball rolling: his plays are lacking in historical fact, yet steeped in nationalistic fervor, with Richard III, Henry V, and Macbeth as prime examples. But if he rolled the original ball, others have picked it up and run far... Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, and Daniel Defoe's Three Musketeers to name but a few.

YES! There’s room for more Braveheart films. Every nation should have at least one. Throw the facts out with the bathwater, as long as it gets our blood boiling, it's fine by me. Bring them on.


NOTE: As always, I would love to hear your thoughts, opinions, (corrections, plaudits??) on all of the above.  Feel free to leave a comment in the section below!

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