When Mel Gibsons Braveheart won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director in 1996, longtime Oscar historians registered the victories as easily explained and largely insignificant. They were partly the product of an organized and depressingly reactionary fan campaign, and partly due to Hollywoods tendency to reward both expensive epics and actors who step behind the camera. In the two decades since, Gibson has suffered through personal scandals, and highly publicized controversies over his subsequent directorial efforts The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto. Given all that, and given that 1996 was also the year of Toy Story, Before Sunrise, Exotica, 12 Monkeys, Apollo 13, Sense And Sensibility, Seven, Safe, Heat, Casino, Crumb, and Babe, the Braveheart triumph today looks all the more hollow.
Or does it? Compared to the more cutting-edge and culturally significant films released in the mid-90s, Braveheart does seem like a fluky anomaly: an entertaining throwback that was inexplicably elevated to Greatest Of All Time status. But the film is also fascinating in the context of the directorial career of Mel Gibsona movie star whos done some of his best work behind the camera, on films that have yet to get their critical due.
Lets clarify one thing up front: Of the four movies Gibsons directed, three are deeply flawed, and only one is a masterpiece. But because 2006s brilliant Apocalypto is the most recent, it casts a long shadow back over a lot of what came before. In retrospect, its as though Gibson had been going through a process of trial and error, working his way toward making a classic.
It was never a straight road. Gibsons 1993 directorial debut, The Man Without a Face, is a more typical actor-turned-director project: a clumsily earnest melodrama with minimal commercial appeal, which Gibson was allowed to helm only if he agreed to double as the star. He plays a small-town recluse with a charred face and body, who becomes the reluctant mentor to an awkward adolescent (played by Nick Stahl), and then gets accused by the community of being a pedophile. The storybased on an Isabelle Holland novelis a simple outsider versus the small-minded morality play, with the added wrinkle that its set in 1968, and the villains are mostly hippie aesthetes and academics. The loner hero, meanwhile, favors discipline and old-fashioned values. (In the book, its suggested that he also may actually have had sex with his student, but Gibson and screenwriter Malcolm MacRury dont take it that far.)
The Man Without a Face is mostly notable for introducing a motif that would dominate the directors next three films: the image of an exceptional man suffering the abuse of angry mobs and cowardly elites. Thats certainly one of the big reasons for Bravehearts enduring popularity. Reduced to its essence, Gibsons Oscar-winning historical epic is just a combination war picture and underdog sports drama, in which an unconventional leaderreal-life 13th century Scottish warrior William Wallacetrains an outmanned, overpowered squad to fight against a juggernaut. To that, Gibson adds the idea of Wallace as a Christ-like martyr, who gets betrayed by his own people and tortured by the English, suffering so nobly that he rallies others to his cause. The large-scale battle scenes are meant to be more than just thrilling; theyre pinned to the greater cause of freedom.
Bravehearts subtext lies so close to the surface that at times its all that the viewer can see. Nevertheless, Gibson took an even blunter approach with 2004s The Passion of the Christ, which offers a gruelingly brutal depiction of Jesus arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion, lightened only slightly by occasional flashbacks to his life and ministry. Back in 1988, Martin Scorsese enraged some evangelical Christians with an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis novel The Last Temptation Of Christ that even one of Scorseses spiritual advisors referred to as too much Good Friday, not enough Easter Sunday. Gibsons gory Passion Play, though, won the favor of fundamentalists, who pushed their congregations to see The Passion and helped drive its global box office take to a staggering $600 millionnearly triple that of Braveheart, with half the budget.
Gibsons reputation as a filmmaker has been both boosted and hampered by the ferventness of his supporters. Entering awards season at the end of 1995, Braveheart was seen as a long-shot for anything but technical trophies, but a loud contingent of Braveheart-lovers took to the internet and to radio talk shows to argue that only in depraved, liberal Hollywood would an achievement as remarkable and populist as this film go unrecognized. So when the movie did win its Oscars, the victories were somewhat tainted by the perception that the industry had been bullied into proving its fair-mindednesseven though the more likely explanation was that the towns old guard loved the pictures classicism and emotional swells. The huge box office for The Passion was another case where what shouldve been a triumphant narrative had to compete with an alternate story: the one where right-wing Christians rallied around a difficult film in order to play their part in the culture wars.
Neither Braveheart nor The Passion Of The Christ is as accomplished as its devotees contend, or as mediocre as its detractors insist. At nearly three hours, Braveheart is needlessly long, extended by many sequences of the heroes riding and fighting in slow-motion. Passion is an hour shorter but feels longer, because Gibson uses slo-mo even more, and because theres much, much less plot. Both films are far from subtle in their depiction of villainy, with Braveheart making its bad guys either thuggish or mincing (or both), and Passion emphasizing the ornate clothing and cynical attitudes of its Jewish leaders. When both films were released, Gibson was accused of being homophobic and antisemitic; and whatever his intent, what he put on the screen allows for the worst possible interpretation. Gibsons history of making appalling statements about gays, Jews, and womenoften while under the influence of alcoholhasnt made skeptics any more inclined to be forgiving, even now.
Still, theres a clarity to Gibsons storytelling thats incredibly appealing. The Passion Of The Christ is gruelingand even boring at timesbut theres nothing muddled about it. The frequent shots of oppressive crowds and the close-ups of Romans casually manhandling their physically anguished prisoner keeps the audience focused on the suffering and public humiliation. Even when Jesus is locking eyes with strange demon-babies, theres never any confusion about whats happening and why. And while it doesnt happen often enough, in the flashback sequences Gibson and his star Jim Caviezel do a fine job of making Jesus seem warm, generous, and good-humored.
Bravehearts even better at making an outsized heroic saga seem down-to-earth. In the DVD commentary track, Gibson talks about how he was drawn to Randall Wallaces script because even during the battle scenes, there are moments of comic relief. He also describes how he could picture the movie as he was reading the screenplay, which is how he knew he should direct it. Taking his cues from his Australian friends and mentors George Miller and Peter Weir, Gibson took pains to make the action sequences kinetic, inventive, varied, andabove alleasy to follow. Whatever Bravehearts weaknesses as history (which Gibson himself admits has been heavily fudged to make a better story) and as drama, its a master class in how to work on a large scale. Even with thousands of extras and hundreds of horses, the frame is never too cluttered to know where to look. The directoralong with cinematographer John Toll and editor Steven Rosenblumguide the eye to the ever-changing, cool-looking handmade weapons and traps that the heroes use.
It shouldnt be overlooked how daring, distinctive, and clearly personal Gibsons films have been. Braveheart may have seemed like a safe choice for the Academy by the time it won Best Picture, but at the time it was made, it was hardly a good bet to spend $70 million on a movie with the scope of Spartacus and the rawness of an early 80s Ozploitation picture. There were also much easier choices that Gibson couldve made with The Passion Of The Christ besides having it be so slow-paced and bloody (and in a foreign language, no less). Gibson has crowd-pleasing instincts, but cant seem to stop himself from lingering over pain and sacrifice until his audience starts to squirm.
Which brings us back to Apocalypto, the film where Gibson has made the best use of everything hes learned. Much as The Passion Of The Christ is meant to feel intimate and immediate, Apocalypto aims to plunge the viewer into an intense scenario, in an exotic locale. Gibson and his co-screenwriter Farhad Safinia have said the film was inspired by two ideas theyd batted around together: to make a movie that was essentially one long foot-chase, and to tell a story in the ancient world where the real enemy is something that the chasers and the chased alike never see coming.
Apocalypto actually doesnt get to its chase for almost an hourwhich is the films one real flaw, that it dawdles in the early going. In the well-crafted opening, Gibson introduces a 16th century Meso-American tribesman named Jaguar Paw (played by Rudy Youngblood), and gives a little taste of the satisfyingly primal life of a hunter-gatherer and his family. Once again, Gibson interjects humor and playfulness, while establishing the dangers and parameters of the rainforest. Then Jaguar Paws village is raided, and his people enslavedin a sequence thats excessively violent and overlong, in Gibsons usual wayleading to a long march in chains to a Mayan city. Gradually, the film picks up momentum as the new slaves work their way through swift shoulder-deep rivers, and past falling trees and pockets of pestilence.
When Jaguar Paw and his tribe arrive at a tall pyramid with steep stairs (an enormous practical set, built for the movie), they witness a spectacle of dance and human sacrifice thats supposed to end in some of their deaths. But through a series of chance occurrences, the hero gets one last opportunity to run for his lifeall while his pregnant wife and son are trying to figure out how to escape from a slowly flooding cave. Once Jaguar Paw gets deep enough into the wilderness, he uses his knowledge of the land and its many natural horrors to fight off the dozens of men coming after him.
Theres almost no dialogue in Apocalyptoand not much in the way of exposition, either. Heres what the movie does have: a jungle cat eating a mans face off; tumblers doing a choreographed dance that ends with them catching severed heads in a basket; a hail of arrows that impales one target through the back of his head and mouth; live ants being used to suture an open wound; a jump off a waterfall that ends with one jumper smashing his head against the rocks below; a beehive used as a makeshift bomb; an attacking monkey fended off with a stalactite; and more.
Gibson and Safinia load up on both the extreme gore and pageantry of The Passion of the Christ and the clever guerrilla warfare of Braveheart, in ways that they admit on the commentary track arent always historically accurate. Their intent was to dazzle, disgust, shock, and captivate, creating a visceral experience. Apocalypyto isnt devoid of Gibsons recurring one savvy warrior against the mediocre masses theme, but this film is more about pure visual dynamism: logistically tricky crane shots and dramatic low angles, for their own sake. When Jaguar Paw tumbles down a mountain of human corpses, its like something out of Jodorowsky or Pasolini film, but popped into the middle of a Mad Max pre-pre-prequel.
Post-Apocalypto, Gibson has reduced his workload significantly both in front of and behind the camera, in large part because 2006 was the year when some of his most embarrassing personal scandals flared up (and, arguably, kept his best movie from getting properly hailed). Hes acted in a half-dozen movies in the past 12 years, and hes currently working on his next film as a director: the World War II picture Hacksaw Ridge, with a script partially written by Bravehearts Wallace.
When Hacksaw Ridge comes out later this year, its highly likely that a lot of the old debates about Gibson will resurface. Does his messy personal life matter when it comes to assessing his work? Do his films shamelessly stoke the bloodlust and martyr complexes of some of his most steadfast defenders? Or is he a skilled craftsman with keen commercial instincts, whose critical reputation has been affected by bias and bad timing?
In the years since Apocalypto, more film buffs have been coming around to the latter view, so dont be surprised if Gibson starts to experience a Clint Eastwood-like turnaround from cinephiles who are squeamish about the directors politics but cant deny his gifts. Time and perspective have a way of smoothing out the rockier patches of an artists biographyas anyone whos ever read about the drunken debauchery of their favorite long-dead filmmaker or writer or musician can attest. The balance also shifts every time that artist creates something new. Its hard to do much with a single piece of work, in isolation. Add to it though, and film by film, a body takes shapestrong enough to withstand any punishment.