The 1995 Mel Gibson film, Braveheart, is not only an artistic masterpiece. The themes in this movie resonate with me and with other viewers, and I think it is worthwhile to take a moment to examine why that is. What do the movements of our heart while we watch this movie say to us about life and about God?
5. The measure of a man is not in his sword.
Despite being a movie with plenty of gory battle scenes, the main character, William Wallace, is a peace-loving man. He is a man of wit who thinks before he acts, and who wants nothing more than to settle down and have a family. He makes the decision to pick a fight with his oppressors only after his new bride is murdered, and he realizes he must give up his desires to protect his people. We need to know this of our character, because we want to see our hero as primarily good, as a lover, and as slow to anger. We also need to see him as someone who will fight unselfishly when the need arises. There are plenty of movies who portray violence for violence’s sake, but this is a man who was taught from an early age that who you are as a person is far more important than how hard you can hit.
4. Humility is the greatest crown.
“Stand up man, I’m not the pope,” Wallace explains simply to those who join his band of men. In a world where those around him are vying for land, power, and titles, William Wallace thinks nothing of these things, and prefers to share meals and spill blood with the common man. As his fame rises and myths are created about his power, he is quick to redirect attention towards the mission that must be accomplished. He knows, “I have been given nothing. God makes men what they are.”
3. Your role is to serve others, not yourself.
William Wallace would have made a great politician. He sums up the point of government pretty well: “You think the people of this country exist to provide you position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom. And I’m going to make sure they have it.” Great politics! Yet this quote can easily be applied to our own roles in daily life as well; whether we are teachers, or medical personnel, or student leaders, or family members. Our role is to provide others with freedom – to serve them in such a way that they can be all they can be. This takes on an especially profound meaning as Catholic Christians. You have been given a position in life profoundly blessed to know the Lord, and “I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom.”
2. Courage, not compromise, inspires people.
Throughout the movie, we follow the conflicted heart of Robert the Bruce, a Scottish leader trapped between the options of entertaining noble lords in order to maintain his rich position or fighting for what is right. Robert’s father advises him, “It is exactly the ability to compromise that makes a man noble.” Yet his father is dying of leprosy, symbolic of the death that corrodes our hearts when we compromise the truth. The noble lords are ridden with guilt and nightmares of doom when they accept bribes from the English. The people do not fight for them. Yet Wallace boldly stands up against corrupt armies even when he faces seemingly impossible odds, and his example becomes the impetus for a swell of courage throughout Scotland. “I don’t want to lose heart. I want to believe as he does,” Robert the Bruce decides, and he becomes a courageous king, himself.
1. The captive dies more free than his captor.
“Every man dies. But not every man truly lives.” And how does one truly live? By fighting with all one’s heart for a truth that is worth dying for. This is the central message of the movie – a movie which is filled with all sorts of deaths. Death by trusting what is untrustworthy. Death at an oppressor’s hand. Death by disease, of the body and of the heart. Pathetic, pointless death due to sin. Death in a raging battle. Wallace says, “We all end up dead, it is just a matter of how and why,” and the princess later repeats, “Death comes to us all.”
Why this theme? Because if you do not live well, you cannot die well. If you do not stand for something important in your life, and let your life burn with unwavering passion for that which is most important, your death does become pathetic and tragic. Wallace’s life was lived in such a way that even though he knew his execution would cause incredible pain, he wanted all his senses so he could live his life in passion for the truth up to the very last moment. Since the character of Wallace in this movie was made by a secular media, not all his choices were worthy of our Christian calling. But we can find real-life examples of this how this principle was better lived out in the saints. St. Teresa of Avila’s quote is relevant: “Remember that you have only one soul; that you have only one death to die; that you have only one life… If you do this, there will be many things about which you care nothing.” As Wallace prayed before his execution, “Give me the strength to die well.”
You have come to fight as free men. And free men you are. What will you do with that freedom? Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you’ll live. At least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell the enemy that they may take our lives but they will never take our freedom?!
What will you do with your freedom? With your life?