em>Braveheart is arguably one of the most beloved movies of modern times. The film tells the story of William Wallace, a Scottish warrior who helped to fight the invading English in the 13th century. But while Wallace was indeed a real-life figure, the movie inspired by his story is apparently full of inaccuracies.
The concept of artistic license is nothing new. For centuries, in fact, artists and other creatives have been taking liberties with the truth in order to create more pleasing outcomes for their work. Alternatively, they simply do not have the time or means to thoroughly research the various specificities of the event that they are trying to portray.
One of the most notorious examples of the use of artistic license has got to be Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The painting depicts Jesus eating a Passover meal with his apostles. According to the Bible, it was during said feast that Jesus informed his friends that one of them would betray him – an event that would ultimately lead to his death.
Since Da Vinci completed his mural of the Last Supper in the 15th century, it has become one of the most recognized pieces of art in the Western world. In fact, it is no doubt the image that many people bring to mind when thinking of the famous biblical scene. And yet the depiction contains a host of historical inaccuracies.
For instance, according to experts, the table used in the painting is not of the right style for the period. The material of the walls is also, apparently, inaccurate. And even the cups that Jesus and his apostles are using do not fit the setting. The fact that the diners are sitting – rather than reclining – doesn’t match the customs of the Middle East at that time, either, and the facial features, skin tones and outfits of the people portrayed also seem out of place.
Yet nevertheless, the reported inaccuracies in The Last Supper don’t take away from the painting’s enduring impact. If anything, in fact, the use of artistic license perhaps makes the scene more relatable and therefore more emotive for its originally intended Western audience. But in any case, the Da Vinci mural remains an important text in art history.
In today’s world, however, the most common examples of artistic license can perhaps be found in the mediums of film and television. After all, filmmakers sometimes distort facts with the aim of simplifying their storylines. In other cases, meanwhile, creative liberties may be taken to create more compelling narrative arcs, to introduce romantic storylines or simply to make certain moments in history that bit more dramatic.
And of course, movies that rely on artistic license the most are those that are inspired by true stories, such as biographical features and historical epics. While both genres are often popular with audiences, they have from time to time been criticized by historians, who point out the narratives’ failures to stick to the facts.
One such film that has been subject to the scrutiny of experts is Gladiator. The historical drama, starring Russell Crowe, picked up the Best Picture Oscar back in 2000. It tells the story of Maximus Decimus Meridius, a made-up character who falls from grace as a Roman general to become a slave and gladiator
When production on Gladiator began, several historical experts were on hand to advise the filmmakers about how to make the story authentic. However, one of the historians reportedly quit during filming as a result of script changes. And the final cut of the movie sees a number of errors regarding the real-life historical figures who appear in the narrative alongside Maximus.
For instance, Gladiator’s villain, Roman emperor Commodus, is portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix as downright dastardly. In reality, though, he was apparently popular among his people. What’s more, Commodus is responsible for the death of his father in the film. And yet the history books confirm that chickenpox caused Marcus Aurelius’ demise.
Another film seemingly awash with inaccuracies is World War II drama Pearl Harbor. The 2001 movie is set during a 1941 Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base of the same name in Hawaii. But while the bombardment of the military property did of course take place in real life, the story outlined in the drama wavers rather far from the truth.
Pearl Harbor stars Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett as fictional captains and friends Danny Walker and Rafe McCawley, who are at Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack. And amid the chaos, they decide to take on the enemy, boarding a fighter plane and shooting down antagonizing pilots.
In the movie, it appears that the Americans manage to shoot down over 20 Japanese fighters. But during the actual attack, only a few enemy planes were ever destroyed. At the end of the movie, meanwhile, McCawley and Walker are instructed to bomb Japan, which would not have been the case in real life.
However, one of the most glaring oversights occurs when McCawley reveals himself to be a practitioner of Japanese origami. Which seems distinctly unlikely, given that the ancient art only became known to foreign troops after the end of the war. But the ultimate improbability comes when President Roosevelt – played by Jon Voight – is seen pulling himself to his feet from his wheelchair to deliver an impassioned speech following the attack.
It seems that even children’s movies aren’t immune from falling victim to artistic license. Take, for example, the 1995 Disney animation Pocahontas. Set in the 17th century, the film tells the tale of real-life English soldier John Smith, who falls in love with Pocahontas – the daughter of an Algonquin chief.
While both characters are adults in the film, the real Pocahontas would have been just ten years of age when Smith arrived in her settlement. What’s more, historians doubt that the child actually saved the Englishman’s life as the film suggests. What they do know, however, is that the actual Pocahontas tied the knot with another man and became a Christian before dying at the tender age of 22.
With all that said, though, arguably one of the most historically inaccurate movies of all time is Braveheart. The 1995 epic, which was directed by and starred Mel Gibson, follows the story of Sir William Wallace. Wallace was a real-life Scottish warrior, who lived in the 13th and 14th centuries.
As Braveheart recounts, Wallace is famous for sparking a revolt against King Edward I of England. In the movie – as in real life – he leads the Scots to victory against the English army at the 1297 Battle of Stirling Bridge. And as a result, he is hailed by many Scottish people as somewhat of a national hero.
But the similarities between Braveheart’s plot and the real-life events on which it’s based pretty much end there. In fact, the rest of the film’s narrative is factually flimsy, to say the very least. And one of the most obvious historical blunders lies in the movie’s timeline.
Braveheart’s story begins in 1276. In the movie, it is implied that Scotland has been under English rule for many years and certainly for most of his life. In one scene, for instance, Wallace tells Angus McFadyen’s character, Robert the Bruce, “[W]e’ll have what none of us have ever had before: a country of our own.”
In reality, however, Wallace grew up in a free Scotland. We know that King Alexander III ruled over the nation until his death in 1286. Alexander left no surviving heirs and subsequent attempts to find a successor for the Scottish throne failed. And as a result, the country was left in a state of uncertainty, which was exploited by the invading English in 1296.
Another area in which Braveheart’s creators appear to have used considerable artistic license is in reference to Wallace’s background. In the movie, you see, he is portrayed as a simple Highland farmer who feels just as marginalized as any of Scotland’s common peasants. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
While historians know little about Wallace’s early life, and large portions of his background have no reliable accounts, most experts agree that he was in fact born into the Scottish gentry. And he is therefore likely to have enjoyed a privileged upbringing – far from what the movie suggests.
Another falsehood in the film is that Wallace’s father died when the patriot was still a child. In real life, though, he didn’t pass away until Wallace was 18 years old. What’s more, in the scene depicting the funeral, the future fighter’s fictional uncle points out that the playing of bagpipes is currently banned – and yet no such restriction applied in the 13th century.
Wallace is involved in two on-screen romances in Braveheart, the first of which being with his wife, Murron – whose name is actually thought to have been Marion. And while she is believed to have been murdered by the English as the film indeed acknowledges, the exact details surrounding her death are unknown.
Some historians believe that it was after the death of Marion that Wallace intensified his pursuit of the English. In May 1297 Wallace stormed the town of Lanark, doing away with its English sheriff in the process, which led to an all-out rebellion across the nation. And as a result, many Scotsmen decided to join Wallace’s forces as he advanced towards Fife and Perthshire.
Just four months after Wallace’s victory in Lanark, his forces defeated a much greater English contingent in the Battle of Stirling Bridge. This was a seminal moment in Scotland’s fight for independence and was consequently included in Braveheart. However, historians have pointed out that the film’s battle setting is awkwardly lacking a bridge.
The Scottish victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge and successive military gains served to weaken the English. Taking advantage of this, Wallace embarked on raids on the English side of the Scottish border. And at some point between 1297 and 1298, he was elevated to “guardian of the kingdom” for John Balliol, the dethroned Scottish king.
Wallace finally met his downfall at the Battle of Falkirk in July 1298. In Braveheart, it is around the time of the conflict that the character meets Isabella of France and has an affair with her. Which is somewhat improbable, since at the time of the battle the real-life Isabella would still have been living in her native France. More importantly, though, she would have been just five years old.
And so, when the Battle of Falkirk occurred, Isabella was yet to marry Edward II – let alone conceive his child. In the film, however, Isabella becomes pregnant soon after her affair with Wallace, and it’s suggested that the Scot fathered Edward III, the future king of England. But Edward III wasn’t born until 1312 – seven years after Wallace’s death.
Another inaccuracy in Braveheart’s depiction of the Battle of Falkirk is the presence of Irish troops taking part in the conflict. But as it happens, the Scots and the Irish didn’t team up against the English on this occasion. Interestingly, though, the English army did include many Welshmen in real life.
Another peculiar blunder lies in the title of the movie itself. While “Braveheart” appears to refer to Wallace in the film, the nickname is actually more commonly given to his successor as the Guardian of Scotland, Robert the Bruce. What’s more, Bruce is depicted as a traitor in the film. But although the real man did swap sides between the Scots and English at certain points, he probably didn’t fight against Wallace at the Battle of Falkirk.
The portrayal of Edward II in the film is also a point of contention. Some critics of Braveheart complained that the character’s effeminate depiction was in fact homophobic. It also seems unlikely that the king would have been repulsed by his wife, given the fact he fathered four children with her – as well as an illegitimate child with another woman.
Edward II was, however, rumoured to have had liaisons with men in real life. One prominent theory suggests he may have been romantically involved with Piers Gaveston – on whom his lover in Braveheart, Phillip, is based. In the film, Phillip meets his demise after being hurled from a window by Edward I. But Gaveston actually outlived his supposed lover’s father by five years.
On that note, while all accounts do suggest that Edward I was a ruthless leader, some argue that his meanness was exaggerated in the film. At the very least, he is believed to have been a loving partner to his wife of 36 years, Eleanor of Castile. He was also a man of faith and donated to charity.
Braveheart also features multiple mistakes when it comes to characters’ appearances. First of all, the English would not have worn matching uniforms – let alone ones that bore their flag’s red and white colors. Instead, they would have sported whatever tunics were available to them at the time over armor of chain mail.
Furthermore, Highlanders in Wallace’s time would not have donned blue face paint when going into battle, although they may have done so in the fourth and fifth centuries. Nor would the Scots have been seen in kilts. That’s because the item of clothing didn’t become popular until the 1600s.
Towards the end of Braveheart, Wallace is executed under the charge of high treason. And even when given the option of a less painful death if he submits to the king, Wallace is unwavering. Instead, he is hanged and disemboweled while still breathing. And it’s then that he utters his last words: one final cry of “FREEDOM!”
But in reality, it’s unlikely that Wallace would have been offered a more merciful death. His execution was supposed to be horrendous, serving as an example to others who dared to cross the king. And yet despite that oversight – and the other historical discrepancies in the film – Braveheart remains for many a classic of modern cinema.