History’s Finest: The Legacy of William Wallace

Few men throughout history conjure such an image of pride and courage as William Wallace. The brave Scot played an essential part in his country’s historic victory at the Battle of Sterling Bridge. Furthermore, his lasting legacy has been the inspiration of many movements of nationalism and pride in country – far beyond the borders of his homeland.

To celebrate the release of Mel Gibson’s classic, Braveheart for the first time in 4K, I spoke to Deakin University historian Dr Ben Wilkie about the legacy of the real-life William Wallace, as well as some of the parts the movie gets right. And the many elements it gets wrong.

The Life Of William Wallace

William Wallace was born in 1270. Contrary to the film’s insistence, Wallace was far from a simple man:

‘In reality, he was born into the lower nobility of Scotland. He was the younger son of a Scottish gentry – well educated, well connected.’

As we see in the film, William Wallace is around just in time for the initial uprisings against the English.

‘The film gets this right – he pops into the scene with the uprisings against the English at the end of the 13th century.’

The English are often the placeholders of the villain title in medieval times as they attempted to expand their borders. But William Wallace had another motive for getting involved in the fighting.

‘A sheriff kills his wife when he’s about 27. That lit a flame beneath him.’

This flame is a fire in Braveheart, as one of the local lords claims primae noctis with Wallace’s fellow countrymen. Dr Wilkie’s research has lead him to believe that although it’s a good antagonist, the practice most likely didn’t happen.

‘Sounds pretty awful but probably didn’t happen. It’s probably an urban myth.’

The act involves local lords having the right to the ‘first night’ with their peasant’s newlywed wives. Obviously, this is a recipe for revolution.

Another inaccuracy of the film is Wallace’s natural fighting ability. Though it is relatively undisputed that William Wallace was a fair warrior, this was due to his education as a knight from an early age. Battle for the Scot was an essential skill. Dr Wilkie agrees:

‘He would have been well-versed in battle as part of his education.’

As a knight, William Wallace would have looked the part: swords, armour, helmet and shields to boot. Although Braveheart depicts the Scot and the Englishman as different in every way, the cultural divide didn’t extend into the fashion of the time; the trend at the time for peasants being anything they can get their hands on.

‘The Scottish and English aristocrats – to look at them, they dressed the same.
For the leaders of some of the armies that are depicted in the film, they might have worn the classic shining armour. Their men would have mainly worn what they were wearing. There was no standardised military uniform at that point. That’s one reason you can point to as to why the film dresses the Scots up in kilts and dressed the English up in their shining armour.’

The visual difference between the Scottish and English were essentially made so the audience could clearly distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys.

‘You look at the Scots. They’re kind of covered in dirt and they’ve got these messy haircuts. They’re wearing their kilts. Whereas the English in the film look a bit more clean-cut; a bit more upper-class.’

This enhances the underdog story: a rough and tough guerrilla militia unifies under one of their own in William Wallace to take down an aristocratic ruling class, hellbent on raping their women and taking their land.

Work

As William Wallace lived before modern history, the events of his life aren’t set in solid stone. This, according to Dr. Wilkie, gives filmmakers and myth-makers alike an opportunity to craft a story that fits their ideal narrative.

‘Because there’s only a sketch of his life, that’s meant there’s a lot of room for myth-making. Over the centuries since the wars of independence, Wallace has become the man for every occasion. For some in the 19th century, he was a nationalist champion – a patriot. That’s the sort of vision we get right down through Braveheart.’

‘Some others have looked at Wallace and said it’s because Wallace defended the kingdom of Scotland that we’ve got the United Kingdom today. In this way, he’s kind of seen as a Unionist hero.’

As recent as 2014, Scotland attempted to become independent of the United Kingdom and rule their own democracy. Of course, William Wallace’s name rang throughout the isles at this time. But Wallace today is synonymous with every movement that has ‘freedom’ as one of it’s unifying banners. This has caused politicians and rulers throughout the last seven centuries to claim his name for their cause.

Braveheart portrays William Wallace as an excellent fighter and diplomat but perhaps most of all, the film displays a man capable of rallying a nation. Braveheart’s freedom speech is probably the most pivotal scene in the whole movie. But did these great, thought-out monologues happen in the real world?

‘There’s a small element of truth to this; a sort of pep talk. For some armies in the medieval era, the soldiers were there because if they weren’t there, they were going to be hanged by their masters. So they’re forced into it. That long inspirational speech is there to explain what the filmmakers or whoever wants you to know about William Wallace.’

This is a common trope utilised by many filmmakers to voice the inner thoughts and character of their protagonist.

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Legacy

But what makes the man is his motivations. Although Braveheart shows a nobleman fighting a hopeless cause in the name of honour, it was often the case during these times that most warriors just loved to fight. While Dr Wilkie agrees that this plays an element, he also believes the real-life Wallace had more than his fair share of motivators:

‘You’ve got the personal motivation to avenge his wife. Even though he was not necessarily a person of the common people, he was still fighting to defend the kingdom of Scotland and was part of a wave of uprisings against occupying English armies. He’s someone who made a mark in history. If you look at his brutal execution, obviously he rubbed the English the wrong way.’

No-one would rub the English in such a way until 500 years later when Napoleon Bonaparte became the leading player on the Continent. But unlike Napoleon I’s raw, bombastic hunger for power it’s clear that William Wallace had all the ingredients necessary for serious military solutions against the English.

‘Personally, I think William Wallace meant well. He was a charismatic leader and he’s left a really big legacy.’

It’s undoubtedly true that William Wallace has left an incredible legacy across time and across the world. Although Braveheart isn’t necessarily true to the facts, the spirit of William Wallace is alive and well in this film.

Braveheart in 4K is available at JB Hi-Fi and Sanity on the 14th of November.

Pictures courtesy of 2018 Fox and its related entities. All rights reserved.