Group Offences: Braveheart and the future of prejudiced pictures

BraveheartThe worst thing I ever heard at the movies was laughter.

This oft-merry sound reached me, to my dismay, at a Manhattan showing of Mel Gibson’s historical epic Braveheart (1995) nearly 20 years ago. I was watching it in the theatre, surrounded by other New Yorkers, when a scene came up in which King Edward I (played by Patrick McGoohan) confronts his son, who is with his gay lover in their castle. Shockingly, Edward pushes his heir’s partner out the tower window, and the man falls to his death.

Laughter ensued.

That’s right, loud laughter – in the audience. Why?

It would be dangerous to assume this scene was played for laughs, yet I couldn’t help but think it was. And that’s disturbing. Whose fault, then, was it: the audience’s or the director’s?

In this case, it’s hard to say. It depends on whether one trusts the audience, as well as the filmmaker. And it has nothing to do with the supposed sophistication of the venue; this was in New York, mind you, and prejudice has never been relegated to any particular class.

But I’m going to blame director Gibson for this, anyway, and I’ll tell you why.

Movies are powerful tools. They are so ingrained in our culture that when we watch them, if they’re good enough, it’s hard for us to extricate ourselves from the proceedings, to tell ourselves that we’re not living the lives onscreen but our own. We become absorbed by the pictures; we cry, we grin. And we take lessons from these films, as we would any work of literature or art.

This is the lesson the audience took from that scene in Braveheart: Killing gay people is funny.

Patrick McGoohan Braveheart

Patrick McGoohan

I wondered at the time why people would laugh at so criminal an act. How it was portrayed onscreen was essential to understanding this, and it was clear that the scene was not only geared to shock viewers, but also to make them guffaw. The takeaway was that the prince’s gay lover was a jerk, an aberration of nature – and therefore deserving of death. Watching him die was like watching Wile E. Coyote fall from the tip of a canyon to the ground below in a Looney Tunes cartoon. In other words, it was a joke. And the king’s outrageous behavior deserved a big laugh.

This type of filmmaking is scarier than any horror movie.

Gibson is no stranger to offensive material, and his offscreen adventures have been well documented. But we can’t just remind ourselves that “it’s just a movie” when viewing such nonsense. We have to realise that it can affect people’s thinking, promote homophobic philosophies. Yes, I’m arguing that filmmakers must be accountable in this regard. If they make movies, they need to realise the effects they may have on their audience.

I believe Gibson does, but not in a positive way. Other films of his, including The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006), had their own battles with perceived prejudice – the former in allegations that Gibson didn’t remove from the text controversial statements about groups of Jews taking responsibility for Jesus’ death, and the latter in the scene at the end of the movie showing the arrival of Spanish Christian ships … ships containing Europeans bent on converting the natives to Christianity. These issues bring up important questions about the validity of these pictures’ perspectives, but my problems with them are more aesthetic than philosophical; I just find the direction tedious and the scripts lacking. I feel that way with Braveheart, too, but the outlook may be even more frightening in that flick, owing to the suggestion that gay people are expendable. That’s like a call to action, and the way it resounded in the Manhattan theatre where I watched it could not be ignored.

By the way: I’ve seen and heard good things from audiences, too. I was present at a showing of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) during which a fellow sitting in front of me pumped his fist, shouting, during the climax of the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech. I heard people shriek with fear at an on-campus film society viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) during the scene in which murderer Lars Thorwald (played by the inimitable Raymond Burr) breaks the fourth wall to look into the camera accusingly as he notices Jimmy Stewart’s photographer spying on him. Audiences change in composition and quality. You can do all the marketing you want, but it’s impossible to determine without fail that a film will fly in certain regions and not in others. There’s no magic recipe, because everyone’s different. People can’t be categorised in lumps, like hot cereal.

Mel Gibson braveheart

Mel Gibson

Yet they can move like one entity when spurred to do so, and this is what happened at the Braveheart showing I attended. I won’t believe humans are innately evil, that they don’t recognise, as a rule, the villainy of murder. Groups move en masse when sparked to do something by individuals, governments or phenomena. Such collective actions can result in good or bad – which means there has to be accountability on the inciter’s end.

So far, there’s been no reason to believe Mel Gibson’s camp will come through with that.

Should we avoid his films, then? Given the quality of his recent movies, I’m all for such an idea from a cinematic perspective, but the only way we can continue to be aware of hatred is if its mechanisms keep coming to light. Gibson has been oft-criticised in the media – and rightly so – for many of his philosophical beliefs, but I often feel that the homophobic sentiments of Braveheart are ignored. We are entering a brave new world in which, thankfully, people who are gay are receiving more respect and acceptance than they have in any other era. I believe we must also scrutinise our movies and other creations to ensure irresponsible philosophies aren’t perpetuated. I’m not saying we should ban them; rather, we should see that they are more frequently viewed so people can understand how hateful they are. And let’s not relegate this practice solely to Gibson’s films – let’s also put the spot on venerated pictures such as Gone With the Wind (1939), which is still televised widely despite its anti-black prejudice, as well as on little-seen flicks such as the notoriously anti-Semitic Jud Süss (1940). We need understanding of these movies to be out in the open, obvious. We need more people to reject them.

Otherwise, we’ll have more and more reactions like the one I encountered during that viewing of Braveheart two decades ago. And I want no part of that happy few.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website: http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn189827. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

22 thoughts on “Group Offences: Braveheart and the future of prejudiced pictures

  1. Larry Gelbart, a comedy writer from television in the fifties and famous screen writer, said of director, actor M geebsunne, “now he’s shown his true colors,’ after that incident where mel ranted in Malibu, California, drunk, making statements about certain groups of human beings about ten years ago. But!!!! that doesn’t mean director Mel Geebshumme, is not capable of making a fairly interesting movie about medieval history in England. Whatever faults of the movie, I felt it was too corny, making hims a martyr, at the end they mentioned the horrible king put ole Mel Geebshumme’s body scattered across the United Kingdom

  2. An interesting article and a very valid main point. I do feel, however, that the scene chosen is not necessarily the best example to highlight the homophobic tone of Braveheart. Longshanks pushing the Prince’s lover out of the window felt more like a device to illustrate the King’s ruthless brutality rather than an attempt at comedy at the expense of a gay character.

    The real problem with the film is that the Prince is portrayed as weak-willed and lacking in any competence to reign as king and that these attributes are in some way linked to his sexuality. This is perhaps best symbolised in the scene in which the Prince is noticeably disgruntled during his marriage to Isabella. Marriage is the cornerstone of monarchistic dynasty and power and the the unnecessary subplot of the unhappy union, apparently spoiled by the Prince’s sexuality, brings to the fore the film’s feeling that homosexuality is a negative thing.

    • Jamie, what you describe here as the real problem is not confined to Braveheart. It is the central theme of Christopher Marlowe’s play, Edward ll.
      What is missing from the equation is the fact that homosexuality was only a part of Edward’s preference for erotic dalliance in lieu of military fortitude. He was murdered, not for being gay, but for his general orgiastic lifestyle, which was not suitable for a King in times of conflict. Ludwig, the King of Bavaria, was assassinated for the same reason. And perhaps part of John f kennedy’s assassination had something to do with his refusal to supply the military with the machines it requested for the Cuban invasion, and Kennedy was also a well-known philanderer, although a heterosexual one. The real issue ( i wouldnt say problem) is that princes and kinfs are expected to take an interest in matters of state, not spend their days and nights in orgiastic pleasures. Also, just for the record, the person who was thrown out of the window in Braveheart was, as a matter of historical record, Edward’s military advisor, not his lover, and was never thrown out of a window or murdered by any other means. So the whole scene is irrelevant on account of its historical innaccuracy. As for this whole issue of homophobia, tell it to Shakespeare, who never let his own bisexuality get in the way of having a little fun at the expense of a homosexual. Just check out Hamlet and Horatio’s merciless teasing of poor Osric.

  3. I’ve never seen Braveheart, but I have watched Gone With The Wind.
    GWTW is a movie that takes place during the civil war, in the south no less, you can’t sugar coat events in a movie just because you don’t agree with them. While there are racist parts to that movie, to remove them would be akin to making a movie about war and leaving out all references to violence, it can be done, but it doesn’t shed any light on to something most people will never experience.
    Isn’t it better to see these things on a screen instead of risking repeating them in real life if we were to forget and grow complacent?

    • Thanks for your comment, Colin. Although I understand that GWTW is widely regarded in many circles, I find it tedious, as well as inherently racist. The issue, for me, is that the racism goes beyond any accurate portrayal of the times and setting; instead, it shows black people inaccurately as generally slow and simple-minded. It’s interesting; there are definitely ways to show the racism of the times in context on film, but I don’t think GWTW succeeds in doing that.

  4. I never saw that scene as humor. That the audience did is perplexing. The only thing cartoonish in the movie was the character of Longshanks and the gullibilty of the Scots.

  5. Pingback: Reblog: Group Offences: Braveheart and the future of prejudiced pictures. | www.seanmunger.com

  6. Gibson rightly deserves the personal criticism he attracts, but I liked Braveheart and have no problem with the homosexual component of the film. The authoritarian monarch Longshanks is the clear villain in the story. His son’s homosexual relationship is primarily a foil for Edward’s brutality. The vile reaction by the audience in New York says more about them than it does about the movie – in my opinion.

    Furthermore, I saw that aspect of Braveheart as somewhat beneficial since it – perhaps unintentionally – portrayed homosexuality as evident in medieval society. Christian fundamentalists would rather have us believe that the LGBT community is a more modern phenomenon (created by an unholy leftist and secular conspiracy, I presume).

    I also don’t understand the bizarre libertarian fascination with Braveheart as some sort of Randian anti-government crucible. Those self-described Tea Party “patriots” don’t seem to realize that the U.S. government they despise so much was ironically born from a revolution against the very aristocratic lineage depicted in the film.

    Aside from Braveheart’s historical inaccuracies (the Battle of Sterling Bridge, the blue body paint, etc.), I thought the movie was quite intriguing and captured the spirit of Scottish independence very well.

    • You raise some interesting points, Robert–I had the same problem when questioning the audience’s reaction versus the filmmaker’s perspective. Although I do believe it was an abhorrent reaction, I blame director Gibson more, as his perspective in that scene spurred it. It’s interesting to review the scene once more on this site; it becomes more and more apparent to me that homophobia is the primary impetus for the king’s crime in the film, rather than mere villainy (which he’s portrayed with lots of, anyway). But this is how I view it. I wish I could feel more positively about it being a portrayal of homosexuality in medieval times; instead, I feel bothered by it.

  7. I’ll leave the specific debate about Braveheart to those better educated about it. I saw it once, which was enough for me, and do not recall the scene in question. As for the broader point addressed toward the end, I think the manner in which we deal with material contrary to our own beliefs is one of the central characteristics of any society, and always worthy of discussion. Michael Kinsley, a leading liberal pundit in the States, wrote yesterday about the recent McCutcheon decision which restricts the government’s authority to limit campaign contributions. Contrary to liberal orthodoxy, Kinsley argued that the decision need not corrupt the political process. It should instead motivate more discussion from all sides. This is by no means a universally held belief, but I agree wholeheartedly with what you say toward the end, Simon. Rarely is banning speech a good approach. Pointed criticism is better. Arguing your own case is better. I remember hearing a gentleman who had experienced plenty of racism say that he rarely feared someone engaging in overtly racist speech. He feared those whispers that he didn’t hear. That’s where hatred and prejudice fester and spread.

    • Thanks, Jon–I completely agree with you on this. It’s interesting–I do lament the relatively frequent showings of Gone With the Wind on TV, yet I wonder if those are uncritical showings … that they’re merely of the “what a classic movie this is” kind rather than “see what a racist picture this is” variety. Braveheart, strangely, seems to be on frequently as well, as are some of Gibson’s other pictures, so I hope this will leave the discussion open, as well as that more people will see them to understand how problematic they are.

  8. My biggest issue with Braveheart, was the sheer scale of historical inaccuracy that was allowed to be shown as fact. I won’t dwell on every point, but it is just wrong in so many areas. The woad-painted hordes, the dalliance with the Prince’s wife, and the impossible meeting with The Bruce, it all drove me crazy, and still does.

    As for the casual killing of the gay lover, I have to side with Drew on this. I have always seen it as a lesson being taught to the Prince, of how anyone expendable is of no consequence, even someone so important to him. The King deals with his own Irish soldiers in the same way, ordering them to their deaths, as they are ‘cheaper than arrows’.

    It is not a good film, by any standards, and to give some of its themes the importance of intelligent debate is probably unnecessary. Your article is obviously heartfelt though Simon, and well-expressed as always. I was not in the cinema when they laughed, so cannot comment from the same experience. Best wishes as always, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete. I totally agree with you on the problems with the film, though my frustrations with it were more based on issues with the script, direction and cinematography. (The battle scenes, I though, were particularly poorly executed, focusing more on gore than on composition.) But as with Drew, I have to respectfully disagree with the idea of how this scene was meant to be interpreted; I definitely see extreme homophobic intent, and the question of whether his son’s gay lover in the film is fit to the task seems to me merely a cover-up for anti-gay sentiment. That’s how I took it, and the reaction of the crowd in the theater corroborated, unfortunately, my perspective. It was really a shame.

      • I don’t actually know much at all about Mel Gibson, other than occasionally surprising friends with the fact that he is an American, and not Australian, as most here believe. I know he has been the subject of much controversy, and if he is actually anti-gay and homophobic, then I am surprised that there was not more protest at the time the film was released.
        It interests me personally, as a lifelong film-watcher, and something of a film bore, that it never occurred to me when I watched it that this may have been his intention with that scene.
        Best wishes from England, Pete.

  9. I always felt that, the way Edward was portrayed in-film, he killed his son’s lover because he was both gay AND not up to Edward’s standards of competence– in short, in Edward’s eyes, the boy had absolutely zero redeeming qualities that Edward could make advantageous use of; he disrupted Edward’s strategic marriage-alliance with France, and he “couldn’t even have the decency to be a capable military advisor”. Edward in the film is portrayed as a man who views everyone and everything in a utilitarian standpoint: you are either of use to him, or dead weight. Killing his son’s lover was a utilitarian decision. He offered no value in any way, and so, he was going to die. I imagine his sexuality was indeed a factor as well, but rewatching the film, it doesn’t seem like it was the killing blow (pun not intended).

    Playing it for laughs was wrong though.

    Yes, Mel Gibson’s films include a lot of horrid misrepresentation, homophobia, racism, revisionist history, etc, but the particular example you lean so heavily on wasn’t the best one I think you might have chosen.

    • Thanks for your comment, Drew. Unfortunately, I can’t agree with the idea that standards of competence were among the reasons why Edward, in the film, treated his sons gay lover so violently. Despite his attitudes in the film toward other people he considers lower in class/stature/worth, he reserves the action of throwing someone spontaneously out a window to a man who is gay. The scene, as I remember, leaves little doubt as well before he commits this act that Edward is disgusted with his son’s lifestyle … and even though he’s portrayed as the villain in this film, his sentiments aren’t criticized; instead, I believe viewers are meant to regard his son’s lover as some kind of aberration whose life doesn’t matter. Standards of competence, despite the King asking about them in the film, are immaterial compared to the violent hatred of gay men that I believe, sadly, we’re supposed to laugh at in this scene.

  10. Interesting perspective on an important issue. The normalising of prejudice through such small acts is in some ways harder to counter than big, bold statements because of its insidious nature, and the ‘it’s just a joke’ defence.

    Edward II, or Prince Edward as he is during Braveheart, was a fascinating, complex and deeply flawed character. The rumours and prejudice around his personal life occurred during his lifetime and after, and it’s rather disturbing to find a modern film maker taking the same attitude, implicitly attacking homosexual love in order to create a cartoonishly weak image of a single person. Gibson’s dangerously over-simplified approach to history was on display from the start of his work making historical films, and shows no signs of changing.

    • Agreed, Andrew. Gibson definitely takes a simplistic–and oft-revisionist–approach to history in his films, to the extent that credibility, even in the context of the movies, is strained. I find his films rather blah from a quality perspective, anyway, but you’re right: a small scene such as this can do worse than any grandiose statement, simply because it presents a disturbing point of view in a manipulative picture. And Gibson is no stranger to that as a director.

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