Mel Gibson's Braveheart won five academy awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Most people would assume that Gibson's character, William Wallace, about whom the movie was named, was the movie's central character. Was he?
A Movie's Central Character
Often the main character is the one with whom the audience is meant to empathize. The central figure is the one in whose shoes we are walking throughout the film, as if we were that character ourselves. Alfred Hitchcock mastered this technique. While watching North By Northwest, we feel the anxiety and frustration that Roger Thornhill (played by Cary Grant) endures. Hitchcock intended that reaction on our part. Roger Thornhill is the central character and we are meant to feel as if we are in his shoes.
Another way of distinguishing a movie's central figure is to determine which character is encountering the greatest amount of tension. In Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, the George Bailey character (Jimmy Stewart) encounters the most tension throughout the film. If sreenwriting guru Syd Field is correct (and I think he is), conflict is what drives a story along. The conflict in a story is the story. So, too, the character at the center of that conflict is thus the story's central character.
In Braveheart, William Wallace certainly encounters tension. It is he whose family is killed, whose wife is murdered, who is betrayed by fellow countrymen and who eventually loses his life. That is tension par excellence. There is no doubt: William Wallace is a central character in the movie. But I do not think he is the central figure.
William Wallace's tension is external. That is, things are done to him by others. But in spite of all this, he has little internal tension. Internal tension is the wondering, "What do I do now?" William Wallace has grief, sorrow, anger and frustration. But these are not the type of tension that makes movie characters most memorable and most empathetic for viewers. The tension that really personalizes a movie character for viewers is an internal one-the character's dilemma of wondering, in the face of trying circumstances, "What do I do now?" That was the case for George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life and Roger Thornhill in North By Northwest.
William Wallace, however, has no such internal tension. From the moment his wife is killed, he knows exactly what he has to do and exactly what he will do. He never asks himself, "What do I do now?" For he knows, and he does. He may concern himself with the how, but never the what.
Braveheart's Central Character
There is a character, however, who has the kind of internal tension for which an audience can empathize, and is supposed to empathize. That character is...Robert the Bruce, the Scottish noble who is next in line for the Scottish throne. It was not until my third viewing of Braveheart that I noticed that the movie began and ended not with William Wallace, but with Robert the Bruce. He is the opening and closing narrator for the film. And for him, there is a big "What do I do now?"
What is the internal tension going on within Robert the Bruce? To answer this question, we must look at the two characters who have the greatest influence on Robert. These characters are the driving forces (two opposing forces) for the internal tension within him.
The first character is Robert's father, the man physically withering away throughout the movie. If you recall, Robert has some key conversations with his father in the film. In these conversations Robert's father tells him to do whatever he has to do to keep his land, his possessions and his title. That means lying, cheating, betraying...whatever it takes. These immoralities are inconsequent. What is important is land, possessions and title.
The second character influencing Robert is William Wallace. This brave-hearted man has no care for land, possessions or title, at least none when compared to justice, honor and personal integrity. Robert learns of Wallace's courage to do what is right. As with his father, Robert has occasion to talk face-to-face with Wallace. The result: Robert is inspired by Wallace to do what is right (without worrying about land, possessions or title).
And so the tension begins. What will Robert do? Will he go against his father's wishes and fight for justice, honor and integrity? Or will he go against what he now knows to be the right thing to do, in order to secure his land, possessions and title? That is internal tension par excellence. "Do I heed the words of my own father, or do I follow the man who has inspired me to do what I now know to be right?"
In a sense, the William Wallace character and the character of Robert's father are mythical characters. That is, they are hyperbolic. Wallace is superhuman, having superhuman wisdom, courage and strength. He is good personified. He is life (hence the famous line, "Every man dies, not every man really lives"). In contrast, Robert's father is a man withering away. He is ugly, weak and cowardly. He is evil personified. He is death. Which one will Robert follow?
What Braveheart is Really About
Robert the Bruce is the character with whom we are supposed to empathize. Great art speaks to our own experience. This is certainly true for Braveheart, especially for us in America. Each person in America is faced with the same dilemma in which Robert the Bruce finds himself: Will I do what I know to be right or will I sell out and go against my conscience in order to obtain or maintain land, possessions, title?
The question the film raises is: What makes a person truly noble? Robert the Bruce discovers for himself that true nobility is not a matter of land, possessions or title. Instead, it is a matter of being true to one's conscience.
The end of the film is not the death of Wallace, but rather the new life that Robert the Bruce now has as a result of Wallace's inspirational life. Robert realizes that it is better to die soon and keeps one's integrity than to live long with land and title and...dishonor. Robert realizes that Wallace truly lived and that his father had never really lived at all, at least not any kind of life worth living.
And so the closing of the film is the great decision facing Robert the Bruce. He is out on the battlefield with the English troops before him. The plan is to give in, to sell out. But he looks down at the cloth he had gotten from Wallace (the one dropped from his hand at his execution) and makes a decision. He decides not to follow his father into death. Instead he will follow Wallace into life, even if that life means physical death. He asks his troops, "You bled with Wallace, will you bleed with me?" The parallel charge for the Christian is obvious.
"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" (Matthew 16:24-26)