By Steve Vivona
Paramount, $29.95, Widescreen
When big-name stars get enough clout to direct their own "dream projects," it's usually a cause for concern. For every "Dances With Wolves," there's a "Postman." The problem is the stars have so much clout that people who should be advising them and giving them constructive criticism are afraid to, or they just pander to their egos.
When I heard Mel Gibson was directing a three-hour opus based on the life of Scottish hero William Wallace I cringed a little. His first directorial effort, "The Man Without a Face," was a solid little film. And while he acquitted himself well I didn't think he had a project of this scope in him.
However like the best actor-directors (especially Clint Eastwood) Gibson spent his down time on the "Mad Max" films or the "Lethal Weapon" series asking questions, probing the minds of great directors like George Miller, Peter Weir and Richard Donner. As he says in his audio commentary, "They were my film school."
We all know how "Bravheart" turned out. The film won the 1995 Best Picture Oscar and Gibson took home the Best Director prize. The film is a rousing story of one man who, after losing what is most precious to him, decides to do something to throw off the shackles of slavery.
As a boy William Wallace sees his father murdered by the English. As a man he loses his bride to their barbarism. He takes matters into his own hands and begins attacking their garrisons, rousing men to follow him. Before long he has thrown the English out of Scotland and is prepared to invade England.
King Edward the Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan) realizes Wallace cannot be stopped so he resorts to political machinations to engineer his downfall, pitting noblemen against commoners. Wallace's one English ally is the Princess of Wales (Sophie Marceau). Married to Longshanks' weak-willed son she is taken by Wallace's bravery and devotion to freedom and she aides him as best she can. Before long he is captured and his fate is sealed.
"Braveheart" succeeds thanks to Gibson's honest portrayal of an ordinary man forced into extraordinary circumstances. All Wallace wants is a home and a family. To do that he must throw off the yoke of English oppression and become a leader in the process. Gibson is utterly believable in a role that expects much of him as an actor. What's more impressive is he pulled off this performance in the midst of directing this monumental project.
Thankfully Paramount has finally gotten the hint with regard to special edition DVD's. Mel Gibson delivers an informative audio commentary and, although there are gaps, he manages to discuss the film for the duration of its nearly three-hour running time. There is also a 28-minute making-of documentary obviously produced at the time of the film's release, but welcome nonetheless. Two theatrical trailers round out the supplements.
The transfer for the DVD is stunning. Whatever lighting situation or weather condition is present the DVD presents a clear, crisp image. Colors are vivid and true. Much of the film contains earthtones but the picture never degenerates into a sea of mud. The Dolby Digital sound brings the battle scenes right into your living room and really makes the film a visceral experience. Highest possible recommendation!