(For an understanding of the concept behind Robert Castle's 'Worst Movies I've Never Seen,' read his thesis laid out here.)
Best-Picture-winner Braveheart (1995) wears its nationalism as Forrest Gump (1994) does history and A Beautiful Mind (2001) does genius. I needed only one preview. Even less than a preview. A single image: Mel Gibson’s blue face. The visual equivalent of Gump’s voice.
My problem is with the Scottish nationalism in the film being trumpeted for the ages against big bad England (before it was Great Britain, let alone the British Empire). William Wallace becomes the arch-annihilator of British pretensions of superiority. British hegemony will not stand.
Braveheart goes every other empire-bashing attempt one better by (chronologically speaking) kicking the bloody Albion Lion before it’s a cub. Why should the Scots feel any more special than the Irish, Welsh, or many other nationalities that were subjected to Britain’s obnoxious colonialism?
Yet I easily forgot about Braveheart for several years. Then, around the turn of the millennium, seemingly every day I switched to a movie channel—first HBO, then TBS and TNT—I came upon the blue face scene.
Worse, in a video store (Remember those places? They rented videos and DVDs and charged outrageous late fees?), I saw the entire blue-face speech and battle. What little of the speech I recall had stalwart words about freedom and never being oppressed.
Oliver Stone’s Alexander the Great (2004) had similar anachronistic pretensions, as did Kubrick's Spartacus (1960). I even had the misfortune to view at the same store (WOW Video) the British torturing Wallace, and Wallace saying that he would never give in. There probably wasn’t a dry eye in the Glasgow and Edinburgh movie houses during the latter scene.
The speech made through the blue face exemplifies the very values the British (against the will of their ruling classes) would eventually bestow upon the world, via John Locke. Not that I blame Wallace. He was saddled with an actor who has made a career out of revenge movies.
Mad Max and Lethal Weapon, Hamlet (1990; the quintessential revenge drama), Payback (1999; the title explains it all), Ransom (1996; with Mel rampaging against Gary Sinese rather than paying the ransom), and The Patriot (2000; one critic called it “Lethal Musket,” but its dalliance with history was more lethal). Now, Gibson/Wallace must motivate himself by revenging the killing of Mrs. Wallace.
A Beautiful Mind wanted to have its victim and genius too: the genius with his flaws would win out. Braveheart’s heroic victim, William Wallace/Scotland wins out by not having to succumb, in spirit, to British rule. Likewise, Forrest Gump triumphs over its hero’s ignorance, especially his ignorance of the history against which he constantly brushes and affects.
One’s estimate of how good or bad films might be often depends on who likes and dislikes them. One of the more reprehensible human beings I have known (with whom I worked for five years) rhapsodized one evening at a bar about the superlative qualities of Braveheart.
This fellow was born and raised in one of Philadelphia’s ferociously white parochial neighborhoods. He had served some jail time for assault with a deadly weapon and not surprisingly had a violent temper beneath his relatively good-natured (when sober) disposition. His body was amply tattooed, prompting our work staff to call him “Sideshow,” after a character in The Simpsons.
Often loud and belligerent, Sideshow tried to live, act, and socialize normally. Trouble usually found him, however, as happened the first week I knew him. He had arrived at work one evening and said that the police (seashore rent-a-cops) arrested him at a 7-11 and took him to the station for suspicion of rape.
Why? He looked suspicious, with his orange beard and long hair and the tattoos; that is, looked like a guy who could have raped a woman! He was released, but the police wouldn’t drive him to his apartment, and he had to walk three miles at two-thirty a.m.
He also had a propensity to invite himself to parties and pass out drunk on the living room floor or in the backyard. Again, nobody would volunteer to drive Sideshow home. He needed rides everywhere because his driver’s license had been suspended the last seven years. Tales of his borrowing money and not repaying reached legendary proportions, though the fact that he could get people to lend him money or have the boss advance him half a paycheck testified to some agreeable qualities about his personality.
Sideshow was pleasant when things went his way, which made him a royal pain to those who depended on him at the restaurant where the pressure and tension on the cooking line finally made him crack and become nasty.
Lastly, to abbreviate this litany of degradation, during a reunion with his father after ten years, the two men got drunk in a motel room and Sideshow knocked his Dad unconscious in a fistfight.
Why did Sideshow love Braveheart? What qualities gave him a feeling of worth and pride? He did not take long to tell me. The movie played directly to his heritage. Beneath his provincial white city neighborhood mentality lurked a bonnie Scotsman.
Worse, he gave me the details of his two-week trip to Scotland with his mother and sister three years before. This movie appealed to him as Going My Way (1944) and Knute Rockne: All-American (1940) did to Irish Catholics; Mel Gibson was to nationalism what Bing Crosby and Pat O’Brien were to religion and football. The genius of movies and characterizations like these is that the representations (the transformation of the characters into legends) become the reality for an eager public.
Braveheart tapped into the smallest capillary of Sideshow’s nationalism and captivated him with a bravura one also sees Sleeping With the Enemy (1991) and First Wives Club (1996) doing for women of narrow feminist awareness. Plunge the needle and transform synthetic power into the mystical empowerment of identifying with the victim, be it Scotland or an abused wife.
Of course, what transpired in Sideshow after seeing Braveheart happens in a thousand other ways for people at the movies who think this is what Art is supposed to do to them: Inspire. Provide self-esteem.
Our contemporary society has recently assigned itself the impossible mission of heightening the expectations of all individuals for some form of achievement. In practice, this cannot happen unless you want to cheapen legitimate achievements.
Neither can nationalist movements bring the promised satisfactions of national esteem, for the very reason that makes Braveheart appealing. So much effort is made downgrading the extant powers that attaining such power makes you just like the enemy.
This does not stop Education Utopians, Multiculturalists, and other Standard-Bearers from institutionalizing an unrealistic classroom expectation until they are blue in the face. More than parents who expect their kids to get grades commensurate with tuition, the educational elite believe the inner student is just below the surface, waiting to break out. In other words, all children, given the right approach, can learn something. Whether the approach can actually be effected in a real classroom is another question.
A stimulus for this recent educational notion is the idea of a creative teacher who makes the learning process a joyously happy occasion the student cannot fail to join in and welcome. Because: teaching can create amusement for the children. Administrators who themselves cannot come close to doing anything but lecture, lecture, lecture seriously want their faculty to believe that teachers “in this day and age” must entertain the students.
And we have the perfect movie to fit this educational climate.
Each of these expectations Dead Poets Society (1989) engenders with a vengeance. Robin Williams stands on a table in a classroom reading Poetry and becomes the educational version of William Wallace’s blue face.
Worse, teachers are expected to be inspired by the movie and convey the same spirit in their lessons. Either that or they must watch the sad spectacle of teachers admiring Dead Poets as they once had reveled in the Nick Nolte movie Teachers (1984) or Sidney Poitier’s To Sir, With Love (1967).
Classroom reality or fantasy amounts to the same, perhaps, but Dead Poets perpetrates the post-1960s version of the creative classroom whence the teacher— á la Richard Mulligan’s portrayal in Teachers—dresses the historical or literary parts. Performance enhances learning because it makes the lesson memorable. Performance also mollifies the tougher, sharper edges of learning. The kids will take pleasure from the class. Discussion and role-playing dominate.
A teacher can bring imagination to the classroom. One necessarily performs because the class day and classroom structure demand it. I would not want to bore my students but I also don't expect to reach everyone; complete student satisfaction would be a kiss of death. Dead Poets Society manipulates popular truth about what is an effective teacher and who is an insensitive parent. In fact, the movie’s greatest distortion, from the scraps I have seen, issue from the student-parent relationship.
The Big Lie in Education is the desire for parental involvement. Nobody really wants it. The students. Teachers, especially. The administrators more than the teachers. The parents, for their part, are simply befuddled and do what they think they have to do. The high cost of education has de facto put them first in everyone’s mind to appease.
Here the rhetoric of involvement starts. You may think that the evil father of Dead Poets is more than involved. He has his son’s life mapped out for him and does not want it screwed up by the kid getting too involved in the Arts, especially poetry. The movie has a vested interest in this conceit. Teaching as performance is one thing, but the student wanting to be an actor closes the circle.
Performance elides truth and reality under the guise of acting out truth and reality. Students and most teachers cannot tell the difference. The “involved” parent desired by the Education Establishment is a passively involved thing keeping tabs on its kid’s studies, regulating home life without being too psychotic, and paying the tuition on time. Hence, most parents whom the teachers see have one thing in mind: how to improve the kid’s grade, and thus we dovetail back to the protective dementia.
The evil Dad of Dead Poets distorts parental involvement similarly to the way Robin Williams’ energetic teacher distorts teaching. As Braveheart distorts the fight for liberty; A Beautiful Mind, genius. Forrest Gump, history. The immense popularity of these movies testifies to the public’s need to believe thoroughly in the worlds these movies show.
Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. He is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.
Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.