Keith Rankin, 18 October 2002
I have written in the past - for both Scoop and the Herald - about the parallels between the Braveheart story and the terrorist exploits of Osama bin Laden. The Herald even published a letter last week, from a Scottish-American, in response to an article published on 3 January.
Last weekend witnessed the biggest terrorist atrocity in which westerners were victims, since 11 September 2001. And last weekend featured another repeat telecast of Mel Gibson's Braveheart, a staple for TV3.
So it's worth noting how easily, through films like Braveheart, that the public - especially the American public - can be manipulated into supporting terrorism. If a movie script can have that effect, its hardly surprising that clever propagandists in the real world can also win hearts and minds for their causes.
The movie gives its agenda away in its first line, an introduction that notes that the English accounts of Scottish folk-hero William Wallace presented him as a terrorist. The movie therefore set out to paint the opposite picture; to give the Americanised version of the most pro-Wallace Scottish version.
In the process, as Hollywood directors and scriptwriters are wont to do, the film's makers could nor resist manipulating their audience.
The worst example of audience abuse - to win the audience over to sympathise with Braveheart Wallace - was to present the allegedly wicked English king as introducing the practice of prima nocte, first rights. Thus we were led to believe that the Scots were so downtrodden by King Edward that Scottish women were forced to lose their virginity to their English landlords rather than to their bridegrooms. Thus prima nocte an intentional falsification of the historical record became the central reason and justification for Wallace's anti-English terrorism.
In the Scottish Wars of Independence (fought c.700 years ago), all sorts of atrocities were committed by all sides. So even an historically accurate movie could have been written in a way that would appear to justify the violent acts of any of the protagonists. Yet Braveheart's scriptwriter (Randall Wallace) preferred to rewrite history in order to justify more dramatically the behaviour of his namesake; of a man who had the same effect on his Scottish supporters and English protagonists as Osama bin Laden has today on his Muslim supporters and American protagonists.
Americans fall for this stuff. Apparently, much as European and American people who saw The Piano like to visit Karekare Beach, a number of American tourists visit the English city of York (England's second city in the 13th century) which Braveheart was supposed to have sacked. Now, the sacking of York on 1297 must have been as traumatic for the townspeople of York as the sacking of New York in 2001 was for the burghers of New York.
The only problem with this analogy is that the sacking of York never happened. It's a glorious atrocity that emerged not from the record but from the mind of Braveheart's creators. After all, their mission was to convert an historical terrorist into an heroic freedom fighter. And American audiences fell for it.
A couple of other ridiculous excesses in Braveheart might be mentioned. The movie suggests to its audience that William Wallace may in fact have been the real father of the future King of England, Edward III. Yet the liaison suggested between Wallace and the first Princess of Wales could never have happened. Most ridiculous was the way Braveheart's death was presented as being analogous to the death of Jesus.
The real William Wallace actually become a marginal figure in Scotland a year or two after the events that made his reputation. Irrelevant to Scotland's continuing struggle for political independence, it was another five years before he was captured, and executed in London.
Braveheart may have been the most dangerous film ever made. Unlike Natural Born Killers, which merely presented mindless crime, Braveheart validated the infliction of terror by one nation or would-be nation (sold as goodies) over another nation (presented as unrelentingly bad).
That's why the likes of George Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld scare me. I am sure that they as well as many Osama bin Laden supporters were inspired by Braveheart to justify the violent schemes which they peddle. Each has their own very one-sided version of the truth.
Now it may be that the atrocities of bin Laden - and Saddam Hussein - are worse (in some objective sense) than those committed by America's leaders. Nevertheless, what is scary is that Bush et.al. openly propose to fight terror with terror; to "finish what the terrorists have started". In doing so they confirm to Saddam's and Osama's followers that Saddam and Osama's propaganda stories (many of which are almost certainly as silly as Randall Wallace's anti-English fantasies) are truthful, or at least credible.
Now that pursuit of 'an eye for an eye' is one very effective way to make the whole world a very unsafe place. When two parties terrorise each other, the terror rarely stops.
I sometimes wonder if George Bush has a hotline to Saddam Hussein and another to Osama bin Laden. It's as if they have global agendas analogous to the regional agendas of the Israeli and Palestinian hawks, namely to replicate in the whole world the same kinds of manufactured hatred that make peace impossible in Jerusalem. But if they all see the same dangerously manipulative movies, then they hardly need to conspire. Each will feel that they have the moral impunity to wage terror on the other.