Cymru Culture

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The Braveheart effect and the lost stories of Wales

(December 01, 2013)

The Braveheart effect and the lost stories of Wales

 

  "My wife and I were in Edinburgh and we walked into the castle and saw the statue of William Wallace and I thought, this is a Wallace, a famous Wallace and I’d never heard of him. So I asked one of the guards who he was and he said he was Scotland’s greatest hero and I began to read about him but the actual facts of William Wallace's life as established by historians were miniscule. Luckily there is also a lot of legend that surrounds the character."  
 

Screenwriter Randall Wallace at the Braveheart Convention, Stirling, September 1997

(Anderson, 2005, p 28)

 
  Cover art of Braveheart  

Randall Wallace has claimed that (until a relative of his returned from a vacation to Edinburgh when he was a small boy) he had never been told about the origins of his surname and had just assumed it was American. Randall had been researching his namesake for years by the time he found a 200 year-old reprint of Blind Harry's 15th century poem, Acts and Deeds of the Illustrious and Valiant Champion Sir William Wallace, in a Los Angeles library. This (epic) poem became the basis for multi Oscar-winning movie script, Braveheart. Released by Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox in 1995, Braveheart paved the way for the historical and pre-historical epics that followed it, such as Gladiator and The Lord of The Rings, and even the commercial success of critical disappointments, such as King Arthur, Kingdom of Heaven and Troy could be traced back to its door.

In her book Braveheart: From Hollywood to Holyrood, Lyn Anderson goes further than this. Like the film itself, her writing may irk some historians, for it seems to openly celebrate Braveheart's disregard for recorded history. Of course for some, the very idea of realistically depicting events of over seven hundred years ago is, at the very least, slightly unrealistic. Anderson credits Braveheart not just with intangible notions, such as the shift in Scotland's national morale and increase of self worth, but in having a direct influence on the positive vote at the Scottish devolution referendum of 1997 and helping put the country on the path to political independence. Does it really matter if a story is not historically accurate? And, could historical films embracing a modern paradigm give a small country like Wales a more confident self image?

Mel Gibson as BraveheartStatue depicting Mel Gibson as William Wallace in Braveheart,
placed in the car park of the Wallace Monument, near Stirling, Scotland
Tom Church, sandstone, 1997

 

 

"Since Braveheart, interest in Wallace has grown and there are now many books available on Wallace, the Wars of Independence and Scottish history. However, this is not about an historical Wallace. Rather it’s about the impact of the Wallace story on those who came to hear it seven centuries later through Braveheart. The great empty well that has been the average Scot’s knowledge of their own history was demanding to be filled. It has been responsible for saving Scotland from its own ignorance, not in telling us the truth about Wallace, but by telling us how little we know of our own history."

 
  (Anderson, 2005, pp 17 & 19)  

Lyn Anderson makes the important point that, post Braveheart, much more accessible media has been exploring this period of Scottish history - and that this must surely be a positive development. The film's apparently fictionalized version of events will have almost certainly made it more resonant to viewers and has, therefore, resulted in more people seeing it - in some cases, being made aware of William Wallace's life for the first time. The contentious inclusions in the film's plot, and the debates arising from them, meant that more public scrutiny and debate was thrust on the real events and the real history - as far as they are known - bringing the general public deeper into the story of their own country in a way that is immediate and inclusive.

Llywelyn ap Gruffydd FychanStatue of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan (c. 1341 – 1401)
in Llanymyddyfri (Llandovery)
Toby and Gideon Petersen (2000)

With this in mind, perhaps Wales could learn a few tricks from Braveheart. The book, Tourism in Scotland claims that, of all the visitors to the Stirling area in 1997, 39% said the film influenced their decision to visit and 19% said the film was one of the main reasons for their visit (McLellan, 1998, p 230). The book, Scotland: Global Cinema Genres, Modes & Identities claims that Braveheart was worth between £7 million and £15 million in tourist revenue to the country in 1997 alone (Martin-Jones, 2009, p 14). Does Wales want a piece of that action? Does Wales want to find a more direct and populist way of drawing attention to its history?

 Owain Glyndŵr by A.C. Michael, c 1918Owain Glyndŵr by A.C. Michael, c 1918

The only stories I know about Wales I have had to find for myself, in my own free time, as an adult. As many others of my generation experienced, I received not one minute of Welsh history in five years, leading up to GCSE level in that subject - this is wrong and self-defeating on almost every conceivable level. I was, however, lucky enough to view a VHS copy of Colin Thomas' The Dragon Has Two Tongues around ten years ago from Cardiff University library. How typical of us as a nation that this ground-breaking and highly informative series is not commercially available anywhere for the public to consume? How can the modern bards emerge from the fog of post-industrial Wales when our children are not taught any of their country's history in our schools and, furthermore, our adults have no accessible media to explore it for themselves?

Hopefully the tide is starting to turn. The recent BBC series The Story of Wales was criticised by the occasional academic for, among other things, the choice of the popular Huw Edwards as its anchor. Personally, I found it absolutely refreshing to see the stories of those such as Hywel Dda, Iolo Morganwg, the Laws in Wales Acts and the formation of Plaid Cymru being shown to our public in a manner that was so accessible, and yes, entertaining. One of the many positives to be taken from this series is that it has contributed to the momentum behind the very recent Cwricwlwm Cymreig report, chaired by Dr Elin Jones and submitted to the Welsh Government for consideration into teaching more subjects in a Welsh and worldwide context. The other, of course, is that the series has been sold nationally in the UK and will be shown on Australian television and sold on DVD in the United States. For a country with a dramatic but frustratingly invisible history such as ours, how could this representation of history ever be a bad thing?

Statue of Llywelyn Fawr at ConwyStatue of Llywelyn Fawr at Conwy 
designed by Grayson and Ould 1895–98, sculpted by E.O. Griffiths
 

 

"In many countries film is recognized as an important form of cultural expression capable of reaching a great many people. It is time that the people who can influence cultural policies in Wales recognized that fact and began to establish the framework that would allow such a film culture to develop."

 
 

Film director and lecturer Michelle Ryan

Wales: The Imagined Nation: studies in cultural and national identity, Tony Curtis,1986

 

I have found just two books dedicated to cinema in Wales. David Berry's invaluable study Wales & Cinema: The First Hundred Years and a collection of essays and journals entitled Wales on Screen, edited by Steve Blandford. Wales & Cinema functions as a formal and informative encyclopedia of Welsh film stories but the more personal Wales on Screen explores some of the frustrations experienced by scriptwriters and producers in trying to get Welsh stories onto the cinema screens. It often refers to a lack of critical mass of Welsh representations that weigh writers down with a specific type of burden that is impossible to carry - screenwriter Philip John describes how the Celtic Film Festival once turned down a script of his because "it wasn't Welsh enough". The contributors to Wales on Screen seem to object to this expectation, and it is understandable; the notion that for a movie to be set in Wales it must have to conform to the stereotype of the mythical Celtic twilight is slightly frustrating, but maybe this is something we need to embrace for the time being? Many patriots, who have spent time abroad, may well have experienced first-hand the lack of Welsh stereotypes that exist in the global arena. If we go back to Lyn Anderson and Braveheart, we can see that, even to our closest sympathisers in the British Isles, we can be just as invisible.

 

"Between 1861 and 1931 a total of 960,000 left Scotland. Many of these emigrant Scots passed on these Scotland-loving genes to their descendants. The Irish diaspora was popularized by Mary Robinson during her presidency. In her inauguration speech, she said she wished to represent those 70 million who claim Irish descent as well as the 3.5 million living in Ireland now. Scotland also lost its heart though countless emigrations of its people. Perhaps Scotland should remember, as Ireland has, just what we have lost."

 
  (Anderson, 2005, p 72)
 
  Mel Gibson as William Wallace wearing woad
Mel Gibson as William Wallace wearing woad
 

I wonder if Lyn Anderson ever thought of researching the etymology of the name 'Wallace'? If so, she would have found that it comes from the same roots as 'Wales' - representing the Britons of the old Welsh language spoken up and down our island. But, rather like the movie it champions, Braveheart: From Hollywood to Holyrood carries not one mention of Wales, yet seems very intent on cementing the Scots-Irish relations. Both of these once-marginalized countries have been unashamed and confident in selling their stories to the highest bidders in Hollywood and both have been successful in internationally mythologizing themselves in the process - good for them. It is easy to be snobby about Braveheart, but like it or not, in the eyes of the world, the image of William Wallace in the film is now synonymous with that of Mel Gibson, complete with (historically inaccurate) woad face-paint and tartan.

 

Owain Glyndŵr comes to Rhuthun, September 2000
Owain Glyndŵr comes to Rhuthun
September 2000
Statue of Owain Glyndŵr in Corwen
Owain Glyndŵr

by Colin Spofforth, bronze
Celebrating Owain Glyndŵr in Corwen 16/9/13
Celebrating Owain Glyndŵr
Corwen, 16 September 2013

Of course, when referring to Braveheart and its example to our nation, the elephant in the room is a certain Welsh nobleman who rose to prominence under a banner of independence, at the beginning of the 15th century. Given the choice of another fifty years of global invisibility or having, for example, Russell Crowe kitted up as Owain Glyndŵr, Wales should not be self-conscious about grabbing the chance and forever making its heroes as heroic and charismatic as we want them to be - on screen. I don't believe for one minute that the stories of our past cannot be adapted and made resonant for modern audiences. Nor do I believe it could possibly be any bad thing to exploit such stories for our own cultural, financial and spiritual advantage.

Rather like Randall Wallace's example, how many Morgans, Tudors and Bevans are out there in the world without any knowledge of their true roots? The Welsh diaspora are out there, whether they know it or not. They can help us, if we start finding ways of telling them and ourselves where they come from - and where we come from.

Nick Stradling, December 2013

 

References: 

Anderson, L (2005). Braveheart: From Hollywood to Holyrood, Luath Press Ltd., Edinburgh
Blandford, S (2000). Wales on Screen, Ebbw Vale,Seren
Maclellan, R; Smith, R (1998). Tourism in Scotland. Cengage Learning EMEA
Martin-Jones, D (2009) Scotland: Global Cinema - Genres, Modes and Identities, Edinburgh University Press

Further reading:

Wales and Cinema: The First Hundred Years, Berry, D (1994). Cardiff, University of Wales Press
Scotland: Global Cinema - Genres, Modes and Identities, Martin-Jones, D (2009) Edinburgh University Press
History on Film Film on History, Rosenstone, R (2006) Malaysia, Pearson

See also:

The Cwricwlwm Cymreig, History and the story of Wales: Final report
Special Relationship? America’s Still Itching to Bash us in The Snoot Hitchens, P (2010) The Mail on Sunday, 12th June 2010 
The Welsh Diaspora, Webber, R (2006) p 4 
Scotland’s Referendum on Independence, The Economist (2012)

 

Nick Stradling blogs on the "idea and reality of Welsh representation in the movie industry" at Wales in the Movies, including reviews of Welsh and Welsh-interest films.
Find him on Twitter at @MoviesWales and @doctorwobble

 

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