by: Richard Grenier



For decades the grand theme of valor has been virtually absent from the movies deserving of Hollywood’s highest honors. That is no longer true, thanks to Mel Gibson’s Brave heart.

Initially, skeptics doubted the potential of a serious, dramatic movie set deep in the Middle Ages and about a man willing to die for honor and freedom. But audiences from Los Angeles to Paris to Tokyo have responded powerful lyto the true story of William Wallace, the greatest hero in the history of Scotland.

Wallace’s legendary fighting spirit has resonated among people of Scottish descent wherever they lived, including America. From Revolutionary War heroes to rebel generals, from duel-fighting Presidents to frontier pathfinders—these warrior--heroes with Scottish blood have fought, in their own way, the distant battle which Braveheart so vividly recreates.

U NDER a bright azure sky, Itwo armies face each other across a vast green field by Stirling Castle in the Scottish Lowlands. We see the English soldiers, handsomely armored. There are row upon row of them: knights on horseback, bowmen, helmeted foot soldiers bearing pikes, maces, battle-axes and great two-handed swords. Then we see their opponents: a ragged, leather-clad, bareheaded mob, some with only farm implements for weapons. They are Scots, wild and unruly, who wish only to be free. We are watching the dramatic historical epic Bmvcheart. England’s harsh warrior king, Edward I, will have no peace except under his dominion, and the Scots have declared their resistance. But now, with the threat of the English army looming, the Scottish nobles are intimidat-ed and want only to negotiate. Whereupon a man rides forth, half of his face painted an electric blue. It is William Wallace, portrayed by Mel Gibson. “Sons of Scotland!” he cries. “ “You’ve come to fight as free men! And free men you are! What will i  you do without freedom?” He pauses, waiting for his words to sink in.

“Will you fight?” At last the men break into a tremendous roar of assent.

Wallace rides across the field with the nobles to give his terms to the English. “Lower your flags, and march straight back to England,” he says grimly, “stopping at every home to beg forgiveness for a hundred years of theft, rape and murder. Do this and your men shall live. Do it not, and every one of you will die today.”

The armies meet, and it is sheer savagery, with men crushing the heads of other men with battle-axes and swords, no prisoners taken. But at the end of this day in 1297, the field is covered with English dead, and the Scots have won their greatest victory.

THE MOVIE has taken some liberties with the historical record, weaving fact with legend, but none with its essence, which is bravery. Although seven centuries ago William Wallace actually did live, little is known about him. We do know that there appeared in the wilds of medieval Scotland—locked for hundreds of years in border wars with England—a fearless rebel called William le Waleys, or “Wallace.” At the head of a lightly armed band of his countrymen, Wallace inflicted on a great English army at Stirling Bridge on the Forth River one of the greatest defeats of English history. It is considered the beginning of Scotland as a nation, and Wallace’s bravery has left a deep imprint on the Scottish psyche.

Betrayed and delivered to the English eight years after his victory at Stirling Bridge, Wallace was brought to London and tried for treason, rebellion, sedition, homicide, robbery, arson and sacrilege. He contested only one charge, treason. Wallace’s death was minutely recorded by scribes in London at the time. He was hanged, his body  quartered, his head displayed on a pike on London Bridge, and his bodily parts were sent to three cities in Scotland and one in northern England “for terror and rebuke to all who should pass by and behold    them.” William Wallace’s last words had been that he had never sworn allegiance to an English king. In the film ,with his last gasp Wallace cries, “Freedom!”

At this, movie audiences in Scotland leap to their feet with a great roar—for unlike Wales and Ireland, Scotland was never conquered by England. The two countries ultimately came together only by agreement, in 1707, with an Act of Union, leading to what is known today as the United Kingdom.

AMERICANS TODAY seem unaware of the remarkable extent to which the warrior tradition survived on our shores among those of Scottish descent. From Revolutionary War soldiers to rebel generals, from duel fighting Presidents to frontier path-finders, the number of our war  nor-heroes with Scottish blood is startling. John Paul Jones, for example, is revered as the greatest hero of the Amer-ican Navy (“I have not yet begun to fight!”). He was actually born in Scotland. There are r   many others of Scottish descent: Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, Sam Houston, Stonewall Jackson, Jeb Stuart—all the way to Gen. George Patton.

The Golden Rule

Scotland, Ireland and Wales were very poor countries in the 18th century. A massive immigration of mostly Scots and Scotch-Irish brought the Celtic heritage and its flamboyant military tradition to America, particularly the South. Some of the immigrants landed in the Carolinas, while the majority landed in Philadelphia, pushed west in Pennsylvania and down the Appalachian and Shenandoah valleys. The first U.S. census in 1790 revealed to some amazement that in the South people of Celtic descent outnumbered Anglo-Saxons by two to one.

The reader should not be confused by anglicized names like “Jackson.” Many of these people—even the Scotch-Irish, who arrived via Ireland—were Scottish by ancestry and religion. President Jackson (“Old Hickory,” the victor of the Battle of New Orleans), who fought no fewer than five duels and entered the White House still carrying two lead slugs in his body from duels fought earlier in his life, represented in positively bravura form Scottish notions of honor.

Recently, scholars have shown that, a decade before the Civil War, probably three-fourths of the white population of the South was of Celtic descent. Those who witnessed the Confederate regiments in the Civil War had no doubt of this. The bloodcurdling “rebel yell,” a high-pitched cry that a Union soldier described as “making your hair stand up on your head,” bore an uncanny resemblance to the war cry of the Highland Scots.

As late as the Korean War, Southerners of Scottish descent won Congressional Medals of Honor far out of proportion to their share of the American population. Of the 78 Medals of Honor awarded to Army personnel in Korea, 31 went to South-erners, half of them of Scottish descent from the small towns of Appalachia. After all these centuries, such men still fought for honor.

BRAVEHEART was first released last May, 1994. It did so well that it was re-released in September, a rare strategy for Hollywood. And for the second time the film reached nearly the top of the charts. It received critical acclaim abroad from Paris to Tokyo, and appeared in a number of European film festivals. The film has earned about $170 million at the box office. Above all, Braveheart has played before cheering crowds all over Scotland. Indeed, it has been adopted by those who once again wish to see Scotland independent. Mel Gibson, however, who directed, produced and starred in this movie, has said that the film is not about politics. Gibson is not a Scottish nationalist; he is an American, raised in Australia. What drew him to the story was its theme: heroism.

Speaking of men such as William Wal,lace, Gibson told the London OBSERVER , “These are people who put it all on the line for principle and were willing to pay the ultimate price. It has to do with their spirit. They have to have a belief in something far greater or they couldn’t exit this life so easily. Most of us couldn’t do it. Yet I think it might be surprising the people who can. Maybe your local shoe salesman is the guy.” Gibson also believes that such ancient stories of heroism are an effort “to raise ourselves above the base, above the normal level of things There is a sense of something higherin all of us. I don’t care who you are.

IN ONE of Braveheart’s most powerful scenes, after the battle at Stirling and after he is knighted, Sir William Wallace meets Robert the Bruce, the nobleman destined to become Scotland’s first real king. He delivers a lecture to Robert on the respon-sibilities of rank.   “What does that mean—to be noble?” Wallace asks. “Your title gives you claim to the throne of our country, but men don’t follow titles, they follow courage! Just lead them to freedom, and they’d follow you.



December, 1995 (pgs. 64-70)

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