Reel Talk: Braveheart “Uncivil Virtue”
By Ubaydullah Evans on October 4, 2017
I often find that the extent to which I can enjoy or be inspired by a film depends on my ability to work through any cynicism I might feel toward its producers. Braveheart, the 1995 epic war thriller starring—then less embattled—actor Mel Gibson is quite possibly one of the most historically inaccurate films ever made. The kind of exaggeration that paints real-life Scottish war hero Sir William Wallace as a kind of primus inter pares, nationalist guerilla that seduces English queen consort Isabella while fighting for his country’s independence would be laughable if it weren’t so over-used. A historically revised European hero whose exploits are overblown; hmm, where have we seen this before? Nonetheless, be the lack of historicity and exaggerated claims of heroism what they may, midway through Braveheart there is an unforgettable scene:
Isabella is the newly minted Princess of Wales. As a result of her husband, the Prince of Wales’, incapacity she is going to liaise with warrior William Wallace on behalf of the King of England. As she prevails upon him our attention is instantly drawn to their attire. The contrast is striking. She appears a princess: stately, prim, and regal while Wallace is a peasant. However, there is no disparity in their dignity. She introduces herself as the Princess of Wales and asks if he will, “speak to a woman?” As he obliges and they step into a pavilion that has been erected for the purpose of their meeting it becomes clear that she is not alone. She is accompanied by knights dressed in chainmail—an indication of their preparedness to fight if necessary. Negotiations ensue and she mentions that Wallace has recently had the rank of knight conferred upon him by the Scottish Kingdom–who is now fully accepting of English rule. After Wallace attributes his achievement to God, saying, “God makes men what they are,” she retorts sharply, “Did God make you the sacker of peaceful cities, the executioner of the King’s nephew, my husband’s own cousin?” When William responds by informing her that her ‘royal cousin’ had committed atrocities in war, even hanging Scottish women and children from the city walls, Isabella looks incredulously at one of her men. Sensing that this is new information for Isabella, William continues, “Longshanks (King Edward I) did far worse the last time he took a Scottish city…” When the leader among the knights notices that these revelations could potentially taint Isabella’s perception of King Edward (her father-in-law) and her role in the war, he interjects abruptly. Attempting to conceal his remark from William by speaking Latin, which was reserved for the clergy, aristocracy and gentry of the day, he says, “he is a bloody murdering savage. And he’s telling lies.” The scene crescendos when, to their surprise, William responds in Latin, “I never lie! But I am a savage!”
I love this scene. William approaches the negotiations as an unapologetic warrior on behalf of his people. His lack of self-consciousness about his appearance suggests a high-mindedness that is concerned with aims higher than upholding the oppressor’s standard of what is proper. It actually reminds me of Malcolm X. Malcolm (may God have mercy upon him) is unquestionably one of the greatest orators in American history. He had it all: multi-contextual range, style, diction, word choice, etc. However, one of the most consistent targets in his social commentary was “ultra-proper talking negroes.” This wasn’t a broadside about black people that expressed themselves in Standard English with great facility. Indeed, Malcolm expressed himself in Standard English with great facility. His criticism was directed at civil rights leaders who took more pride in their ability to adhere to the punctilios of grammar than their ability to communicate something meaningful on behalf of the people they represented.
When the leader of the knights calls William a “bloody murdering savage” this provokes no response. However, when he appends that statement with “and he’s telling lies,” the warrior responds with passion. His delayed reaction and comment suggest: that while I have no interest in your standards of civility or decency, lying contradicts my standard of decency and I must declare my innocence.
When American Muslims are attacked as being backwards, unsuited for the modern age, not progressive enough in our values et cetera, we often respond by trying to demonstrate the compatibility between our values and those of our detractors. Can you imagine how different the scene would’ve been if after being called a savage William spent the remainder of the movie trying to explain why he wasn’t a savage? “Well actually, in spite of my appearance I’m a really cultured fellow. I can speak Latin and French and I’ve done a bit of traveling. I want exactly what you want. I’m a really a nice guy if you get to know me.” If these accusations against Muslims are being made with actual malice I think we display more dignity and self-respect in owning them rather than trying to dispel them.
However, we also see in Wallace a lack of hesitation to set the record straight when accused of something that violates his own code of ethics. If my adherence to my faith makes me backwards in your regard, I guess that’s something I’ll have to learn to live with. Nonetheless, I will not allow you to get away with saying I want to harm my neighbors, or that I condone domestic violence, or that I’m in taqiyyah (dissimulation) and secretly engaged in a plot to destroy America. None of that is true. But I am a follower of Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace).
“O ye who believe! if any from among you turn back from his Faith, soon will Allah produce a people whom He will love as they will love Him,- lowly with the believers, mighty against the rejecters, striving in the way of God, and never afraid of the reproaches of such as find fault…” [5:54]