Braveheart is the quintessential ’90s Oscar movie: A war epic full of battles, romance, and rousing speeches constructed for quotability, directed and led by one of the biggest movie stars of the moment. The film cast a spell over audiences in 1995, and became a cable stalwart in reruns for the next 25 years.
According to screenwriter Randall Wallace, whose credits at the time only included episodes of forgettable crime dramas from the 1980s, very little of Braveheart changed from his first drafts. The story of William Wallace leading his scrappy faction into the First War of Scottish Independence, he says, was pure, and whereas movies today might undergo extensive rewrites, and see multiple screenwriters punch up the action or pepper the monologues with award-friendly one-liners, his history-remixing choices mostly made it to the finish line intact. Actor-director Mel Gibson (who’s notable now for a history of racist and sexist remarks), producers, and studio heads still had notes and ideas that would have drastically changed the movie that people know, but Wallace spent most of development time slowly boiling Braveheart down to its heroic essence.
Boiled down to ... 178 minutes. And according to Wallace, rumors of a four-hour cut have merit. There were still scenes left on the cutting room floor.
On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Braveheart, and Paramount’s celebratory new 4K steelbook Blu-ray, Polygon spoke to Wallace about the riding into the battle of Hollywood production for the first time, what it took to bring William Wallace to life, the versions of the film we didn’t see, and his latest project: a sequel to The Passion of the Christ focused on the resurrection of Jesus.
Braveheart was your first movie after a stretch writing television. Why did a movie studio want to make Braveheart? Why did it make sense on paper to gamble on you and the script? Did you get a lot of notes as you worked closer with Paramount?
Randall Wallace: Well, it was revised very little, in my view. I’d say Mel and I worked together and refined it, but we didn’t get notes from the studio. Paramount was the studio that ultimately greenlit it and made it, but it started over with Alan Ladd, the head of MGM, and then he moved to Paramount and bought the script with him. I think the studio saw it as something different, but I’m not sure the studio at that point knew what they had.
I’m not sure that any studio ever knows what they have. What I mean by that is that we can’t know. It’s like having a child; you have all sorts of aspirations and then the child comes into the world and and it it takes on its own identity. It is who it is. You can put your trust in the filmmakers, you gamble on them, and for me, of course, I was an unknown quantity. I had written a screenplay. Mel was the world’s most popular act but his only his first movie directing was The Man Without a Face, which is a wonderful movie, and much more intimate sort of movie, for them to be willing to gamble on, not just an epic historical movie, but a movie in which the hero is disemboweled and beheaded in the end, that took some courage, that was a leap.
Did anyone ever say, “Can we not decapitate our lead?”
I had chosen Mel, and Mel chose everyone else in terms of casting, but I had written the script without any other producers involved, and there was of course a partnership with the creative people at the studio, but it was it was up to me to say who I believed could play William Wallace. And Mel was the only one that I thought had the vision and the courage to do it.
When any actor starts to speak about themselves in the third person, that’s when you know you’re really in trouble, and an actor might say, “The audience doesn’t want to see me, Joe Blow, die like that. The audience wants to see me prevail heroically.” That’s defining heroism in a cartoon way, in my view. I knew we could get the note, “Let’s let the kids friend throw the sword and he’ll swing in on vine until he beheads the executioner and we’ll live happily ever after.” And there might be some people within the studio or within the acting community who would want to do that, but Mel understood the power of sacrifice, what true victory really was.
That comes out of a shared conviction we have of life being greater than than just your time here on Earth. And that’s where the line “Every man dies, not every man really lives” comes from. If William Wallace had lived, let’s say he had escaped, and we bent history (of course, I was bending history left and right, the story isn’t about historical facts, it’s about truth, and those are two different things sometimes) but if William Wallace had not been executed and had somehow escaped, he’d be dead now anyway, and what would be the meaning of this life? To me very little. But for someone to die, to willingly choose to say, “I can keep fighting forever and nothing will change, but if I actually am willing to go in with faith and courage and vulnerability, the people that I need to face, then that might transform them,” that’s real heroism, real victory.
Did you ever consider a Scottish actor for William Wallace?
No. I might have been if there had been someone Scottish of that stature, but the problem is that the camera is a real lie detector. And very few actors, very few people, really believe in heroism and know what the cost is of it. I knew Mel believed it.
And from The Road Warrior, which is the first time I ever saw him, he had an international vibe to him, even though he is in fact American, having grown up in Australia. His actions were amazing, and the point was not for him to speak in ... even if it was English, in period Scottish, we wouldn’t understand a word of it. There was some discussion early of doing it in Gaelic, which I did not want to do — I loved the spirit of it, but I wanted “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom” to be an English not in Gaelic. But Mel had the acting chops and he had the spirit.
Based on his films, Mel Gibson has a real passion for the verisimilitude of violent moments. What were his notes on the script? What did he want to see more or less of?
The way he and I work together is that we both commit to being willing to take everything apart down to its components and assemble it in the most in the most powerful way. In my view, the script, what is on the screen is as close to the original as anything I’ve ever done, including things that I’ve directed myself. But his experience was also that he disassembles everything piece by piece, like he took the engine of a car apart and put it back together ,so he knew what was there and it was balanced exactly the way he wanted it.
Specifically, what we were working with, and something that concerned him that he wasn’t sure how to approach was that he felt he was too old. In my original script, William Wallace was 27, and he worried that he might seem too old, especially in comparison with Catherine McCormick and anybody we might cast to play his first love. The thing I reassured him about was that my father-in-law was a prisoner of war in Germany. He was a bombardier and was shot down and spent two years in a prisoner-of-war camp. He did an absolutely, incredibly heroic thing. He was 19, 20, 21 years old through those times. If you cast a 19-year-old to show that, you would think he looked like a baby. We don’t realize the capability of people so young, but they are capable of great heroism. So a movie has to be an impressionistic painting. You’re creating an experience on the screen. I kept reassuring him that what he brought powerful and authentic, and he would be the perfect William Wallace.
Braveheart is over three hours long, but according to Gibson, there’s a four-hour version that could see the light of day. Is that true? What would be in it?
I think there is, but I don’t know that it would be better than the one we have now. There’s a lot of battle footage that that could be added. But, of course, the battles have this magnificent pace and rhythm to them. Steve Rosenblaum, the editor, did a magnificent job as well. And the composer [James Horner] — it’s all in harmony.
But I think where a lot of things that are cut out would pertain to is the supporting characters. In writing a story like that, I wanted to know what each character was doing, what they were feeling, and what their arc was. Those are all those are all important things to the creative process. But in the end, the character you want to follow is William Wallace. So there were a number of additional moments with the other characters that I think would fascinate the people who love the movie, and I would love to see that four-hour version myself. But I also again say the the final version of the movie is the sweet spot of the movie. Yes. The four-hour version would be intriguing little treasures.
The movie won tons of Oscars and made tons of money around the world. Did anyone ever ask you to take a crack at Braveheart 2?
I certainly thought about how I could stay in this vein of courageous stories. For me, [my directorial debut] Man in the Iron Mask was an example of what to do next. I thought it would be death, creatively, to say, “OK, here’s this is this fantastic experience that they succeeded beyond my dreams, now I’m going to spend the rest of my life trying to recreate that.” That would be cowardice, as opposed to say, “Seize on what this has taught me. Do what you believe do what gives you goosebumps. Tell the truth as you see it, and that’s what for other people will see the truth.” That’s the road I wanted to follow.
I’ve heard about people trying to do sequels to Braveheart, but they never consulted me and I feel sure they never consulted Mel. So, to me, that’s an example of cowardice or creative bankruptcy. But you know, people will try it. I shouldn’t say too much about that. There are ways in which Braveheart has been has been copied or inspired other things and for that I saw a wonderful and and I feel honored by that, but I’ve never wanted to copy it myself.
You and Gibson have worked together, and you’re now working on a sequel to The Passion of the Christ focused on the resurrection of Jesus. What does that look like?
It’s something we continue to discuss. We both consider that the Mount Everest of all stories. There’s a theologian named N. T. Wright, that I heard recently in a lecture ... I am Christian, I’ve always been taken with the Resurrection. It’s a profound mystery, and N. T. Wright says, “If you don’t find the Resurrection preposterous, you’re missing the point.” It’s literally the mind-blowing event that is beyond anything we can make sense or imagine. And yet the earliest Christians died saying “It happened, I believe it.” Or even “I witnessed it.” And that’s something that is a magnificent goal.
We continue to discuss it. We’re not ready to talk about it at all about what we’re planning to do. I think we would rather do all of our homework before we start to make sense what we’re gonna do with it. My mother used to say to me, everything worth having is worth what you had to pay for it, and what you had to go through to get it. And so yeah, the stories that require the most sacrifice may be the ones that are exactly what we ought to be looking to do.
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