Home / History / Filming lies and apologia – Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Apocalypto

Filming lies and apologia – Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and Apocalypto

We already saw the historical liberties Mel Gibson took when he wrote and directed The Passion of the Christ, but it was neither the first time Gibson distorted history for the sake of the box office nor the last. A few years before the Passion, he had directed and starred in Braveheart. The movie referred to the rebellion of the Scottish against the British in the 13th century. A main cause for the rebellion, in the movie, was the “right of the first night” (“Droit du seigneur”, “right of the lord”, “jus primae noctis”), where an Englishman could “inaugurate” the wedding of one of his subjects by sleeping with the bride on the first night of marriage, with the aim of extinguishing the bloodline of the subjugated people. However, there is no evidence to support that this right was ever held by any lord in any country ever, apart from some urban legends born after the Middle Ages.

So, the poor but honorable William Wallace marries his loved one in secret, until the British soldiers attack her and kill her. This forces the hero in rebellion and to the leadership of the revolution against the British King. In reality, Wallace was a land owner who, to turn into a rebel, had to have his land appropriated by the British rule, and not his wife killed. His rebellion started one year after the invasion of the British in Scotland, which means that the first part of the film where Wallace is seen to be born in slavery (“which lasts 100 years”) and where the British kill his father, is a complete fabrication of the screenwriter’s imagination. In the film, one of his most important allies was Robert the Bruce who betrays him in a battle; which leads him to the gallows. In reality, Robert never betrayed him; to the contrary, he stood beside him. The most peculiar alteration in the script is that it was not Wallace who was called “Braveheart” but Robert the Bruce! In fact, after Robert’s death, his embalmed heart was carried on the way to Jerusalem during one of the crusades.

“Braveheart” is not the one on the left
“Braveheart” is not the one on the left

Even the film’s choices in attire are utterly unhistorical, as the Scottish did not wear the Great Kilt until 4 centuries after the events depicted in the movie, and did not paint their faces as shown but only to scare the Romans in battle, 800 years before. It’s like depicting the soldiers of the American Revolution wearing tunics…

All these inaccuracies led the Scottish people to protest against the movie for offending the memory of their national hero (Robert the Bruce), shown to be a coward and a traitor, and for their history being reduced to a picturesque story of the Hollywood variety. On the other hand, some Anglophobia accusations were also directed towards Gibson, and fostering anti-British hatred by the Scottish which (ignoring the blatant inaccuracies) gave full rein to xenophobia and prejudice when the movie came out.

Wong millennium… (photo)
Wong millennium… (photo)

In his last directing feet, Apocalypto, he describes the last days of the Mayan civilization up to the arrival of the European explorers (sort of). Extreme scenes of violence are not absent from this film as well, which, using the same ploy as The Passion did -the use of a dead language- to pretend realism and objectivity, gives the impression to the viewers that what they are witnessing is representative of an entire people. The horror scenes are difficult to describe to someone who hasne’t seen the movie, which is filled with rapes, kidnappings, human sacrifices, sadism, occultism, treating humans as animals and other human passions we would rather have abandoned in our collective memory. But the sacrificing of humans that Gibson depicts was not even a Mayan practice, but an Aztec one. Gibson, who was also involved in the writing of the script, conflates the two peoples according to what he finds interesting to depict for maximum pleasure.

It is not fair to history to depict the Mayans strictly in this tone, as they were a people with a rich cultural tradition and huge achievements in the sciences and the arts, in spirituality and the architectural structure of cities. But the viewer is left with the impression that the Mayans were a people of savages, which led several Guatemalan activists (descendants of Mayans) to accuse Gibson of a racist depiction of their people. Gibson was also accused of plagiarism by a Mexican director who filmed the movie Return to Aztlan with a similar subject matter.

One of the most extreme scenes (photo)
One of the most extreme scenes (photo)

At the end of Apocalypto, after the protagonist has taken revenge from the main antagonist and as his last remaining enemies are hunting him down in a scene in which it seems like the hero’s death is imminent, the Spanish colonialists show up like deus ex machina to save the day. In the protagonist’s case at least. For the rest of the natives, as most know, it didn’t turn out so well: the ones who did not die of illnesses introduced to them by the Europeans became slaves or were killed brutally in a genocide difficult to compare with any other. However, Gibson shows them as saviors, having opened his movie with this quote: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within”. The phrase belongs to William Durant, historian and philosopher, who used it to describe the fall of the Roman Empire being the result of class struggle, decline in commerce, bureaucratic despotism, stifling taxation and the destructive wars it was involved in. I couldn’t say to which degree Durant’s text allows the generalization of this little gem of his, but when Gibson uses it in the context of the story he presents, and given the ending he provides in the movie, he clearly takes the role of a colonialism apologist, blaming its victims for any crime they experienced. It’s like saying that the Mayans had it coming, that they deserved their slaughter, that it “serves them well”; that they needed the good Christians to save them, having condemned themselves by performing the obscurantist ceremonies he has just shown us. This of course was the excuse that was used for 500 years by Europeans as they were exterminating or enslaving the Mayans. Not to mention that the explorers arrived at the continent 6 centuries after the actual collapse of the classic period of the Mayans, which is “depicted” in the film.

Thank god for the Christians coming to save the savages… (photo)
Thank god for the Christians coming to save the savages… (photo)


History Buffs: Braveheart

History Buffs: Apocalypto

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One comment

  1. Speaking of misrepresentations, saying that the Spanish “introduced” illness as if on purpose is quite the wrong statement. Same with saying that they subjected everyone to slavery. The Spanish did the opposite of what you accuse them of. What they did was vaccinate the entire continent in the world’s very first immunization campaign (https://academic.oup.com/cid/article/41/9/1285/278013Furthermore, https://www.jstor.org/stable/44448715?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents) and they actually abolished and forbade making the natives as slaves and they actually held for the first time ever (again), the first debate discussing the rights and treatment of conquered peoples by the conquerors (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laws_of_the_Indies). Conquistadores like Pizarro and Cortes married native women. Sure, the times were still cruel and harsh and many atrocities did happen (how could they not?) but you are falling prey to the historical phenomenon known as the “Spanish Black Legend” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Legend#The_Spanish_Black_Legend).

    If you’re looking for genocide you won’t find it in the Spanish Empire. Look at the Dutch or British instead.

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