Home 2009: 2 “Brave Heart” – The struggle against tyranny

“Brave Heart” – The struggle against tyranny

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On a lighter note, Angeline Loh reviews the movie Brave Heart, which still carries a relevant message for freedom lovers everywhere. The movie, which speaks of political intrigue, corruption and double-dealing, is not a fairy-tale or fiction but based on reality.

The movie Brave Heart, a Mel Gibson directed production in which the famous actor himself also starred as the protagonist of the story, should be recognised as a classic. Based on the historical fact of the 13th century Scots rebellion led by William Wallace, a Scottish peasant knight, against English control of his country, it reflects political tactics and situations we have become familiar with today.

Bribery and corruption are age-old tactics practiced by regimes since time immemorial. ‘Party hopping’ is also nothing new; it is in fact ancient. Yet, the movie is not a comparison of political ideologies or the moral perfection of human beings, but about the will of a people, their virtues and vices. It is the story of a peoples’ journey to freedom and dignity as a sovereign state and the strength of their leaders forged by the fires of trial and tribulation that come with oppression.

From peasant to rebel leader

The English monarch, Edward I (known as Edward Longshanks) ruled with an iron fist and seemed not to possess scruples or conscience. To keep his barons happy, he instituted rules and policies that were oppressive and immoral against the common people, even making it a right of the overlord to rape a newly wed woman on her wedding night.

The common people of Britain at that time were no different from anyone anywhere in the world today. They wanted to go about their daily lives in peace and did not want trouble. William Wallace, as portrayed in the movie, had the same attitude despite his father being murdered by the English King when he was a child. Inevitably, the oppression turned from bad to worse. He realised he could not ignore the situation any longer when the English murdered his wife.

This persuaded him to join other rebels and ultimately lead the rebellion against English control over Scotland in 1297 (Factbook of History, Rainbow Books, London, 1990). The initial campaign in Falkirk, Scotland, was a failure. The Scots were routed by the English, who had a better- trained army and more advanced weaponry of the time.

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Yet the Scots under Wallace’s leadership did not give up. They continued the struggle to keep the freedom and independence of their country.

While Wallace was campaigning for independence, the Scottish aristocracy was in two minds as to which side to be on. According to history, 13 Scottish nobles claimed to be the legitimate rulers of Scotland when Alexander III of Scotland’s granddaughter and successor died in 1290. She was only three years old (Factbook of History, 1990).

These 13 Scottish aristocrats asked Edward I of England to arbitrate their claims to the throne of Scotland. A descendant of the royal Scottish family, John Balliol, was chosen but did not last long, as he rebelled and was deposed by Edward. Edward then assumed direct rule of Scotland.

Shifting loyalties (frog leaping)

Scots clan loyalties were divided and Robert Bruce, a distant cousin of Balliol, was amongst the ‘fence-sitters’, according to the movie. William Wallace made a number of attempts to form an alliance with Robert Bruce and his barons to end English control of Scotland. Robert Bruce and his barons, on the other hand wanted to maintain their political status and interests given as favours by the English monarch in exchange for their loyalty to the English crown, at the expense of Scotland’s sovereignty and independence.

These aristocrats, despite their unease with foreign rule, felt they had too much vested interests at stake to free their own country from English control and Edward’s tyranny. They decided to pay lip service to the cause for independence while remaining in favour with the English crown.

At a skirmish in Stirling, in which Robert Bruce and his barons had promised to join forces with Wallace against the English, they doubled-crossed Wallace by turning up after the battle had begun, keeping a distance away from the fighting and withholding reinforcements to Wallace and his followers.

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Yet, Wallace valiantly managed to force the English to retreat and went in hot pursuit of Edward’s entourage. He was stopped-short by a knight in the rearguard of the King’s entourage sent to prevent his advance. The fight ends when Wallace manages to un-horse this knight and, wrenching off his helmet, reveals his identity as none other than Robert Bruce!

Mel Gibson did a good job of showing the shocked disbelief and incredulity William Wallace would have felt on discovering such treachery by one he thought was an ally.

The producers of the movie show Robert Bruce’s humanity, portraying him as a human character with a conscience. He is apparently riddled with guilt for his part in this treachery, despite the hard-line stance of some of his barons. Nonetheless, Wallace is also an imperfect human being, initiating a spree of assassinations of Bruce’s barons to avenge this treachery against him.

In the context of this medieval period, it is to an extent understandable that the principle of “an eye for an eye” seemed for some people to be valid, despite the prevalence of Christianity in Europe. Moreover, there were no laws of armed conflict apart from a Code of Chivalry, which was only a knights’ code of conduct and did not lay down the rules of war as such. But there were accepted customs regarding negotiation before, during and after war.

Today, we have the Geneva Conventions and other international laws and customs that must be observed by both opposing parties when war is waged. Any contravention of these rules constitutes a war crime, e.g. killing non-combatant civilians, rape and looting.

True to historical reality, William Wallace is ultimately captured through betrayal by the barons, publicly tortured and beheaded for refusing to beg for the King’s mercy and swearing allegiance to the English monarch. Instead, he dies with a cry of  “Freedom!” on his lips.

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After Wallace’s death, Robert Bruce either in remorse for his earlier treachery or convinced of the cause for Scottish independence, succeeds Wallace as rebel leader. He defeats Edward II, at Bannockburn, Scotland in 1314 and becomes ruler of Scotland, when Scottish independence is recognised by England in 1328.

The attempts by Edward I to ‘buy’ Wallace over with promises of wealth and power using his daughter-in-law, the Princess of Wales, as emissary to negotiate these deals, have not yet been mentioned. Despite Wallace’s obvious attraction to the Princess, he is neither taken in by the motive for her visit and clearly refuses these offers. The Princess is impressed by his strength of character and later becomes one of Wallace’s closest friends until his execution.

This movie is not fairy-tale or fiction, it is based on reality and speaks of the reality of political intrigue, corruption and double-dealing. The theme that runs through the story is one identifiable in almost every contest for political power in every ideological system. It speaks of the strengths and weaknesses of the human condition.

“Brave Heart” should be recommended viewing; there is much to learn from this story especially when citizens feel robbed of hope and their hard-earned fundamental human rights, by autocratic and self-interested leaders.

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely…”
– Lord Acton (1834-1902)

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