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Braveheart turns 25

May 17, 2020

Braveheart landed large on movie screens 25 years ago this month, with Mel Gibson pulling double duty, directing and starring as Scottish rebel leader William Wallace. Three hours of kilts, drama, brutally cinematic battle scenes and a literal cast of thousands were involved.

Today, Gibson admits it was fellow actor-turned-director Kevin Costner who planted the "big" idea, after Costner helmed his sprawling 1990 Western “Dances With Wolves," which went on to win seven Oscars.

Mel Gibson Braveheart

“I spoke to him and I was like, ‘That was amazing. I'm so smacked that you did that with your first film,' " Gibson recalls in an anniversary interview with USA TODAY. "And he said, ‘There’s only one way to go, man. Big.’ “

“And I said, 'OK, I'm going big.' "

Gibson followed through on that promise in 1995's “Braveheart," which earned five Oscars (including best director and best picture) and marks its 25th anniversary with a commemorative Blu-ray release on June 16.

Mel Gibson directing Braveheart

"This was 3,500 people on set, nine cameras and me on a four-wheel motorcycle in costume with blue face (makeup), whipping around checking camera positions because I only had like two monitors," says Gibson, "It was fun."

The scale came at a significant cost that went beyond the movie's $70 million budget, necessitating that Gibson move screenwriter Randall Wallace's hero story out of his ancestral Scottish highlands to next door Ireland.

The move provided a tax break, open locations for battles and a government deal to use 1,800 members of the Irish Defence Forces to bulk up the film's extras. The troops served as both Scottish rebels and the opposing English army in an era before crowds could be added by computer graphics.


"They were playing both sides. One day they'd be dirty, filthy with bad wigs and kilts, and the next they'd get all tooled up with the armor and stuff," says Gibson. "Then we'd split them in half (to battle). It was crazy."

The central "Braveheart" conflict, the Battle of Stirling Bridge, was shot on Ireland's vast Curragh plain. The noticeable lack of a bridge signified the director's frequent disregard for historical accuracy for the sake of grand cinematic appeal.

"Yes, there was a bridge involved in the Battle of Stirling Bridge. We didn't have a bridge because that would've made it too puny. I wanted to do it big, so we nixed the bridge," says Gibson, who disputes some points which have been historically picked apart by critics. But he cops to most divergences, such as the ubiquitous kilts (worn in the film well before their time) and the blue-face war makeup (well after its time).

"I'll admit where I may have distorted history a little bit," Gibson says. "That's OK. I'm in the business of cinema. I'm not an (expletive) historian."

Braveheart horses

Intense, violent battle scenes showed decapitations, impaled soldiers and fallen horses.

"It's nothing compared to what you see now on TV with 'Game of Thrones.' But back then it was graphic, " says Gibson. "I wanted really quick cuts and very staccato. I figured that's the way (battle death) is. It just comes out of the blue and hits you in the head. So I wanted it to be like a blunt instrument and kind of shocking."

The production team created mechanical "horses" to be cut down in battle.

"If we want to do awful things, we have to make fake horses," Gibson recalls. "We made steel skeletons with foam rubber and fur and then we put them on air jacks and tracks that made this undulating motion that looked like they're running. They were kind of like big toys."

It also allowed the fake horses to dramatically fall on the actors in battle, captured up close.

"They were a little heavy, 150 pounds. But it was not a 2,000-pound horse," says Gibson. "You throw one of these (fake horses) on a couple of stunt guys and it's like a wrestling match. It looks good. A horse falling on some guy looks nasty."


They were so effective visually that Gibson had to send behind-the-scene footage to Ireland's animal cruelty society, which investigated potential horse offenses.

"We had to show them some B-roll to convince them that I didn't hurt animals," says Gibson. "I was kind of flattered by the fact that they thought I had been."

Filming the Siege of York, Gibson built a working battering ram outside Ireland's Trim Castle. It was a spectacle that impressed Paul Newman, who showed up unannounced on the set. The legendary actor had come to thank the cast for visiting his nearby camp for children with cancer and stayed for the siege.

Braveheart turns 25

"We're bashing in the walls and I turned around to see Paul Newman sitting in my director's chair," says Gibson. "He showed up and watched us film the battering ram. He was saying, 'Wow, this is like a big job you're doing here.' I had to get a picture. He was one of my heroes."

"Braveheart" would turn into a critical and box office success, making more than $210 million worldwide, setting the stage for similar epics including 2000's "Gladiator." The Scottish tale has continued to inspire new interpretations, such as 2018's "Outlaw King," starring Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce. Scottish actor Angus Macfadyen, who played a controversially duplicitous Bruce in "Braveheart," returned to the role in "Robert the Bruce" (now streaming on Amazon Prime).

Gibson says he hasn't seen either.

"Let's just see how they mess with history because they will," he says. "History is very interesting to me, and I do appreciate the veracity of true history. But I don't know that history is always true. It's written by the winners all the time."

Source: USAtoday

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