[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 15 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Walk Like a Man.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
It’s not every day that you can remember what you were doing 20 years before. This year on Sunday, May 24, however, I could account for precisely where I was, whom I was with, and what we were doing.
That was the night Braveheart, the blockbuster from Mel Gibson (who both directed and starred in the film), was released. I met Greg, Frank, Jason, and others at the closest theater, and soon we were settled into our seats, still unaware of how much the next three hours might change our lives.Braveheart is more than just a great story well-told. It gives a framework for manhood that stands the test of time.
We left that theater in something of a shared stupor: one part awed silence, competing with another part that so relished the film that we were compelled to talk about it. Over the coming weeks, I would see it three more times; the next would be as one of my first dates with the woman who is now my wife.
We loved it. We quoted it to each other all summer, referencing it over the years at weddings and other social gatherings.
Each of us in our group of friends explored to some degree whether we, too, shared Scottish heritage. We didn’t care much about the historical accuracy then (and, though Wikipedia and other sources do their duty in disclaiming the inaccuracies, none of them detract from the movie); nor were we especially put off by the violence of it. We were consumed by the power of the character William Wallace and by Gibson’s portrayal of him.
Braveheart has stayed with me more deeply and subconsciously than almost any other film, though the full impact may not be obvious even to me. I suspect that many young men who were in their late teens or early 20s then may be able to say the same. When I realized it was the 20th anniversary of the film’s release, I began to consider what made this film so monumental for me, especially for me as a man. On reflection, I can see at least four areas of my life that have Braveheart’s imprint upon them.
(Two disclaimers: first, the following will contain spoilers. Second, while some of the characters in the movie are real historic figures, when I refer to them by name I intend only a reference to their part of the movie.)
There was probably no single man under 30 who saw Braveheart and wasn’t challenged to up the ante when it comes to love. More than that, however: Both men and women see something special in the love relationship portrayed that inspires them to greater love.
He’s Got Some Game
An early scene shows young William Wallace at the graves of his father and brother, weeping as fellow clans people disperse. Among the others are the MacClannoughs, and their daughter Murron pulls away from her mother to break off a thistle’s flower and give it to William; their eyes meet, a tear falls from William’s lashes, and Murron leaves. Shortly thereafter, William is taken away by his uncle, not to return to the village for 10 years.
Returning, William seems intent on finding Murron. They connect, and his confidence is attractive, yet she is clearly impatient to know the real man (though she certainly isn’t repulsed). The turning point, however, comes at the end of their first evening together: just as Murron turns to go, William catches her hand and, withdrawing a small cloth from a pocket, he passes it to her. As William rides away, Murron unfolds the cloth to find an aged, pressed thistle—presumably the same one she had given to him years before.
This was a time when the emergence of mooks, bros, and lad culture was in infancy, but young men were already susceptible to them. Many of us (or at least our friends) wiled away hours watching SportsCenter and were genuinely torn between playing volleyball or taking our girlfriends on actual dates. The tensions that exist today between single men and women were in nascent form, and young men needed a prompt to nudge them in a healthy direction.
The depth and extent of William’s enduring affection for Murron was proven by that gift—and at once, every man in the room wished for the opportunity for such a romantic gesture. Braveheart challenged us by portraying the worthiness of the pursuit of someone in order to display great love.
More than just the pursuit, though, Braveheart gave us a vision for how love could and should be a lifelong commitment to another person. William’s comments to Murron prior to their engagement and marriage (“I love you; I always have. I want to marry you.”) are simple, yet they represent an absolute in love that is too easily lost. These words are echoed soon thereafter—when William avows at their secret wedding, “I will love you my whole life; you, and no other”—and in various forms throughout the movie, even at William’s death when he spies Murron walking among the crowds and, amidst extreme physical torture, musters a meager smile.
I wanted to love that way; we all did. We wanted to love someone to such a depth that, as with William in his dream/vision of encountering Murron in the woods, we might literally be caught breathless. We wanted to love in such a manner that, at least indirectly, all that we do we would see as a reflection of our love and a hope that the one we loved would be pleased by our lives well-lived.
This isn’t merely a romantic thing; the love that Braveheart inspires is transcendent of a particular type of relationship. This is most clearly seen at the beginning of the last act, when William and Hamish argue about how to move on in their fight for Scotland’s freedom. Hamish dismisses William’s motivation to Steven, saying, “He does it for Murron; he does it because he thinks she sees him.”
“I know she sees me—just as I know your father sees you,” William responds (at which Hamish punches him).
Hamish’s loss of his father, Campbell, earlier in the film was no less than William’s loss of Murron; these were different relationships to be sure, but neither was less full or significant than the other. Both embodied a type of unabashed and relentless love that was somewhat unfamiliar to many of us, yet we longed to know the freedom to love so wholly. Men who are finding their way into adulthood need to see other men loving people with abandon; Braveheart shows that, and in the most masculine of characters.
2. Manhood & Nobility
Which leads us into another strong impression that the movie has shaped in me.
“Nobles—what does that mean, to be noble?” Wallace asks of Robert the Bruce at one point.
Is there a more important question for young men to ask, of themselves and others? Many of our experiences in early adulthood had left us confused and at sea when it came to definitions of manhood; Braveheart gave us insightful counsel about how to see our manhood and wisdom about true nobility.
Real Men Don’t Always Fight
An early scene sets the stage for lessons in manhood, with young William sitting atop his father’s horse. Malcolm Wallace and William’s brother John are off to join in the fight after the treacherous acts of England’s Edward the Longshanks, and William (who must be around 8 years old) wants to go with them. His father tells him he must stay. “But I can fight!” William protests.
Malcolm’s reassuring response is perfectly fatherly: “I know you can fight! I know you can—but it’s our wits that make us men.”
After the death of Malcolm and John, William’s Uncle Argyle gives him a similar admonition. As William’s gaze falls upon Argyle’s sword, his uncle taps him gently on the forehead, saying, “First we’ll teach you to use this; then, I’ll teach you,” and he raises the sword, “to use this.”
Years later, when William has returned to the town of Lanark, he turns down an invitation to discuss more fighting, because his interest is in “raising crops and, God willing, a family.” While his fighting skill becomes evident later, he does so only because he is provoked by the extreme injustices of the English occupation. When I consider my friends with me that night, I remember a group of young men with anger swelling within us, living in a culture obsessed with rage and violence. William’s learned reluctance to fight, and his desire to stop fighting (affirmed even very late in the movie), gave my friends and me a strongly needed sense of balance.
One of the foundational tensions within the plot is that between the stated, recognized “nobility” in the landowners and overlords—who themselves behave in a selfish and petty way—and the commoners whose actions are both heroic and truly noble.
The titled nobles of Braveheart’s Scotland are anything but: They are introduced as bickering, greedy men who, as Hamish says, “Can’t agree on the color of shite,” quibbling over who had the true right to the throne of Scotland. Their portrayal only gets worse as the film progresses, as they are shown to be easily turned to betray their own countrymen for the sake of promised land, titles, and money. The worst of these is Robert the Elder, the leprous father of Robert the Bruce—the lead among the contention for the throne. Robert the Elder schemes and connives for his son’s advance, even at the protest of the Bruce; ultimately, these schemes lead to the capture and martyrdom of William Wallace. Not, however, before several other “nobles” are turned against him, including Robert the Bruce himself.Convictions are not always of our choosing, but if Braveheart is a model of anything at all, it is that convictions wed to passion can accomplish much.
In contrast, the most noble among the Scots are the common men, most obviously those in William’s band of rebels. They are selfless, given to love of country and of freedom, and motivated by a longing for something they have never had. They are willing to die for their cause and for each other. Even when their true nobility is recognized (as when William and two others are knighted), the recognition is virtually meaningless to them; what matters is not whether they are honored for the fight, but that they are fighting for something worthy. These men are looked on by most as savage cretins, yet they stand against that judgment with honorable words and actions.
This characteristic—true nobility, acting in selfless and honorably-motivated ways, and on the behalf of others who cannot stand up for themselves—is not the whole of Christian character, but it is certainly part of it. Being free of care for the recognition from others, but instead doing what is right and needed. Not seeking to use advantage for unrighteous or undeserved gain. Valuing truth, and not spin or half-truth that puts things in a more palatable light. What models did young men in the 90s have for this kind of nobility? We found one in William, Hamish, Steven, and the others, and we were honed by these examples.
3. Family & Friendship
That kind of manhood, nobility, and character sets the stage for relationships that can be true and real, with a raw honesty that sets aside pretense. This, too, is demonstrated in Braveheart.
The Platonic Love of a Fellow Man
With William, we find fertile ground for earnest friendship. From the lifelong companion of Hamish, to the brotherhood forged in shared goals with Steven, to the closeness brought on by mutual respect in Robert the Bruce, the film is enriched by the bonds of men, one to another.
Evidence of this abounds, but an outstanding example is in the devastation to both men by the betrayal of William by Robert the Bruce. Once discovered, William is prepared to forfeit entirely and sits waiting to be taken by English soldiers; Robert immediately recognizes the wrong in it too and acts to save William from the approaching troops. Then he goes to his father, who had orchestrated the betrayal, and curses him for it, avowing that he “will never be on the wrong side again.”
What is striking is that Robert’s betrayal does not lead William to distrust him later. Instead, their friendship endures—though at a distance—and when Robert later reaches out to William in a gesture of cooperation, William readily and unquestioningly accepts.
The Love of Father & Son
The bond between Hamish and his father, Campbell, is another relationship worth noting. Though clearly close throughout the first half of the movie as they banter and joke with one another, their relationship is shown in full at the moment when Campbell, wounded from battle, is preparing himself and Hamish for his own death. He speaks of having lived “long enough”—to see Hamish become the man that he has. Hamish weeps openly before Campbell, William, and the others, and his tears are unfettered by concern for whether they suggest weakness.
That relationship is not the only familial tie that is portrayed in Braveheart, but not all are so heart-warming. The hostility between Edward the Longshanks and his son, the prince, is a perfect counter-example to Campbell and Hamish—as is the growing animosity between Robert the Elder and Robert the Bruce. But in each of these, the division and eventual hatred that exists are exposed: They are neither healthy nor are they the way that such relationships are intended. Brokenness exists in all relationships, but the attachment of a father to a son is meant to be a context for healing as well.
For my friends and me, Campbell’s death and Hamish’s mourning would be a scene that buried itself deep into our hearts. My father died when I was 17, and most of my college friends’ parents were divorced, their fathers at least partly estranged from them. What we saw on screen was a different kind of fatherhood than we had known—a powerful adult father/son fellowship that we longed for and would henceforth hope to offer our own sons some day.
There are times when, having been betrayed by those I have called friends, I have struggled to embody the grace and forgiveness that I learned, in part, from Braveheart. There are times when I have wept in the presence of other men—and in each case, it has only been possible by a trust and vulnerability that is modeled in these men. I have been blessed throughout my life with close male friends, but that’s not so for every man, or even most. One challenge that this film offers to all of us is to embrace friendships that are earnest, not merely based on playful banter or a few shared experiences, but real commitment to one another relationally.
4. Fighting with Passion & Conviction
Men don’t always fight, but there are times when they must. William’s reluctance to take up arms finally gave way after a cruel English lord murdered Murron—yet, it wasn’t revenge that William fought for.
A Cause Worth Taking Up
For anyone who has seen the movie, it’s easy to remember what William’s cause was: from his rousing speech to his fellow “sons of Scotland” before the battle at Stirling to his final cry under the duress of torture, the word FREEDOM crosses William’s lips often. So much, in fact, that it may be easy to take for granted.
William never did, though. Throughout, he is consistently pressing—fighting when necessary, but also employing the weapon of the tongue as artfully as the sword. He strikes against all that stands in the way of freedom, until in death he cannot strike any longer. At that point, invoking the memory and honor of William’s efforts is what eventually empowers Robert the Bruce to lead his fellow Scots in victory for their freedom, fighting like “warrior poets” in 1312 at Bannockburn.
“What the heck is a ‘warrior-poet’?” I asked my friend Greg a few days after we watched the film. Neither of us was sure—but we wanted to find out. Not because we were enlisting or had visions of wielding swords, but because there are true fights in the world, and ones worth joining into. We wanted to enter our causes, and join our fights, with drive and persistence and in the honorable manner that the sons of Scotland took onto the field at Bannockburn.
When Convictions Reign
The war and fighting in Braveheart are what philosophers call the “material” aspects of the motivation and cause for Wallace’s rebellion. That is, they are not the source or “formal” element, but the resulting shape that emerges from the form. The true source that gives shape to all the rest—the formal part—is the conviction that William and the others evince in their quest for true freedom.
In the last scene of dialogue between William and his closest friends, the conviction that has driven them all—especially Wallace—throughout the film comes into the clearest view. After seven years of going into hiding and waging guerrilla warfare against England, William, Hamish, and Steven are considering the invitation from Robert the Bruce and the other nobles to unite and fight together. Hamish is skeptical that it’s a trap and a waste of time, but William insists: “We’ve got to try. We can’t do this alone—joining the nobles is the only hope for our people. You know what will happen if we don’t take that chance?”
Hamish shoots back defensively, “What?”
He goes on to say that he doesn’t wish to be a martyr and how much he wants to live, to have a home, even to raise a family—but concludes, “It’s all for nothing if you don’t have your freedom.”
William’s conviction—that freedom was what Scotland needed the most—constantly drove him, and it created a passion within him that both fueled his drive and inspired others. When I saw the movie with the woman I would eventually marry, this stood out to her the most; she asked, “Where do men get such deep convictions?” It was a question my friends and I had been asking ourselves, as well.
Convictions are not always of our choosing, but if Braveheart is a model of anything at all, it is that convictions wed to passion can accomplish much.
A Lifelong Search for a Brave Heart
I could not have guessed, stepping into that theater more than 20 years ago, that what I was about to witness would change my life as it did. Upon emerging from it, however, I did have an inkling that everything might be different for me then, if only I could get my head around the many and complex concepts that Braveheart addressed.
I’ve sought to do that through the years, and I suspect that many of my friends—and many others, as well—have done similarly. As with William, Hamish, Steven, and the others, these are lessons learned and won in the battlefield of life, facing not just enemies in a fight but the temptations and struggles within ourselves. They are truths to aspire to always, regardless of how little or how fully we achieve our aspirations.
Braveheart still stands strong as a film in its own right and bears watching and re-watching. But those who are willing to acknowledge how culture shapes us, and who seek cultural artifacts to engage in for the sake of the shaping, will find it to be more than just a great story well-told. They may find themselves in it; or at least, they will find the nascent hope of the man (or woman) that they would long to become.
This article is dedicated to Greg Thompson, one of my oldest friends and my fellow sojourner on the journey toward real manhood and personhood. —J. E. Eubanks, Jr.