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Mel's expensive adventure

Outside the Paramount hotel suite in Chicago last weekend, there was a big poster of Mel Gibson starring in "Braveheart." Someone had added a mustache and goatee to Gibson's face, and drawn an arrow going through his head.

"He's gonna be p.o.'ed when he sees that," I said.

"He drew it himself," a press agent said.

There is a certain playful quality to Gibson, even when he is staring a $53 million bill straight in the eye. His epic of "Braveheart" cost at least that much, and opens May 24 amid curiosity about whether the public will be attracted to the saga of a Scots patriot named William Wallace, who lived approximately from 1270 to 1305 and led his countrymen in battle against England.

Inspired by a screenplay by Randy Wallace ("no relation, except spiritual") Gibson spent months on location in Scotland and Ireland, not only starring in "Braveheart" but also directing it--including its battle scenes, which are many, fearsome, and expert. Some scenes were so bloody that mechanical horses were used to take falls that might have injured real animals.

But--who was William Wallace?

He was, according to "Braveheart," a charismatic leader of his people, who led Scots troops to victory at Stirling and elsewhere, declaring Edward I of England ("Longshanks") his enemy, and taking "freedom!" as his rallying-cry. His innovations on the battlefield, ranging from new weapons to devious strategy, would rank him with Caesar, Grant and Rommel, if true.

He was, according to history, a man more celebrated in myth than fact (Robert Bruce, who followed Wallace as leader of the Scots, is better documented, because of a higher caste). The Wallace, an epic poem in 12,000 stanzas, was written about Wallace by Blind Harry the Minstrel, and was responsible for much of the legend, even though Blind Harry himself is of dubious provenance.

He was, according to Mel Gibson, someone he first encountered "when I was a youngster of 20-odd and I used to go out with my buddies and we'd have a few beers and play pool and tell lies. The place we used to frequent was called the William Wallace Hotel and it had a painting of a hairy guy over the bar. I thought he was just the dead former piano player. So that was what I knew of William Wallace before this."

Gibson cheerfully acknowledges that screenwriter Wallace made up most of the story of "Braveheart," and he made up the rest. Setting the story just before dawn of accurate history, he had a lot of license. "Tons," Gibson said. "I'll give you an example. You know the scene where they saturate the battlefield with flammable stuff and they lure the English onto it and set it on fire?" He grinned. "We didn't even know what that burning stuff was. Had they discovered petroleum then? We didn't know what to call it; it was just black gook. It was introduced into the picture when it was dumped on them by the enemy, and I guess they said, like, 'Hey, this is good stuff!' and took it with them.

"All those battles, we cooked them. We just made up strategies and went for it. One battle was known as the battle of Stirling Bridge, but I left out the bridge, because I wanted a horse charge. When it comes to facts about Wallace, he's a footnote. There are some facts known about him but there's a lot of empty spots and lot of these legends grew up about him. That he was 7 feet tall and all that. The screenplay pinched a lot of the story from Blind Harry and made up the rest."

Yet the movie, at more than three hours, has a stirring epic tone, as Wallace refuses to compromise even though he is offered bribes of lands, gold and a title by Longshanks. And there are romantic sequences, too, including a youthful marriage to a childhood sweetheart, and, later in his life, an affair with no less than the Princess of Wales, a French woman played by Sophie Marceau, who traitorously informs him of the plans of her English husband and father-in-law "because...of the way you are looking at me now."

What will impress most audiences is the awesome energy of the battle scenes, which would distinguish a director much more experienced than Gibson. (This is his second directorial effort, after 1993's "The Man Without a Face.") Many medieval battle sequences need a traffic cop, and seem to consist of men and horses frantically milling. Gibson's battles are clearly choreographed, and involve not only strategy but surprises--including one especially devious trap laid for the British cavalry by the ingenious Scots.

That's one scene where real horses couldn't be used, for fear of injury. "We never did anything unsafe for the animals," Gibson said. "things like a tip-over; you can't do that. It's too hard on a horse. So that's why you bring the dummies in. We said, "Hey, we want some mechanical horses that look pretty good, that we can do tricks with." And they all scratched their heads and invented these things and they're pretty simple, really. It's just air cylinders and they have a steel skeleton and it's a life-sized horse. Except they only weigh 150 pounds, instead of a ton, so you can actually drop them on people.

"Using them, I was able to have battle scenes of incredible chaos going on. You'll see this guy in slow motion ducking, and you won't know why, but then a horse will go flying right over the top of his head. Stuff like that."

The battle scenes involved thousands of Irish soldiers ("much better trained than extras") and, of course, a lot of real horses, too. "They've got push-button ponies that sit down and roll over and talk almost," Gibson said. "They're so well-trained that they just walk up and then you say, 'Okay.' And the horses go, 'Did he say okay? I'd better fall over now.' And they fall over, and you give them a candy bar. It looks awful but it's nothing for the horse."

People are going to be saying there's a lot of violence in this movie, I said. And this kind of violence is incredibly immediate because it's two guys standing there, hacking away at each other. It's personal, intimate violence, not just shooting somebody 100 yards away.

"I designed it so that it wasn't gratuitous," Gibson told me. "I wanted the audience to feel like they were in the middle of it and to experience the full hell, you know, the taste of hell. It was kind of a realism of battle that I wanted, that I hadn't seen before. I wanted to make it shocking, hard and brutal, and juxtapose that against what I think is, really, a romantic picture.

"When we first cut the picture, of course, it was worse. Not for me but for some guy who just came in to a test screening from eating an ice cream cone and he was, like, he couldn't believe it, because there were brains flying everywhere. It was too much. The object is to keep the audience in the theater, in the seats, so we had to kind of bring it down a level."

In advance coverage of the summer movie season, Gibson's "Braveheart" has taken some of the shrapnel that missed Kevin Costner's $200-million "Waterworld," with both movies described as multimillion dollar epics fueled by the ambitions of their stars. Gibson is at pains to emphasize that his film cost $53 million, not the $70 million sometimes reported. And, indeed, given today's prices, he did not overspend: What's on the screen is awesome--the medieval castles and fortresses, the authentic villages, the landscape, the weather, the costumes, and those battle scenes.

Gibson's strategy for getting the movie financed was the same one that has served Clint Eastwood so well: As a director, he is sure of getting a top star for his movie--himself. Gibson won the clout for a production like "Braveheart" with such box office hits as "The Road Warrior" and the three "Lethal Weapons" movies. Today, he says, he could collect a $20 million salary for making "Lethal Weapon 4." But he doesn't much want to.

"I know they've written a script," he said, "and it's sort of waiting on a desk someplace, but I just--I've done it already. I don't want to bore anyone. It might be so wonderful, but I don't see how; I really don't."

The payday isn't a factor?

"Money's never bothered me. When I had two cents I felt just as good as I do now. And I've never, for a minute, ever worried about it, so that happens to be one of my things where I was fortunate. I never gave a damn. I always had a dime. And as long as I had a dime, I was okay."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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