I love absolutely everything about Scotland – but Braveheart doesn’t do it for me… for very personal reasons.
‘Land o’ the high endeavour
Land o’ the shining river
land o’ my heart forever
Scotland the brave.’
The other day, www.journal.ie carried a feature which remembered the making of Braveheart in Ireland in 1994. In the article ‘Here’s what it was like to be part of Braveheart’s epic army’, Lar Joye recalled his experience of being an extra on the set of Mr Mel’s blue-faced blockbuster. Lar and several hundred FCA troops – now known as the Defence Forces Reserve – provided a readymade, flexible, interchangeable army of extras who were happy to turn their coats at the whim of the shooting schedule. They fought alongside Wallace with Scottish heart and enthusiasm, but were equally adept at portraying the forces of the Crown. They didn’t much care, I suspect. They were young, it was summertime, and they were getting paid. In the iconic scene where Wallace’s army showed their contempt for their foe, the ‘Scottish’ army, en masse, mooned the English. Irish FCA bums were bared with gleeful, mischievous abandon.
And those bare bums are now 20 years older – a fact that rocked the Journal’s interviewee. Tempus fugit, folks. In those intervening 20 years, many in the business would say that the making of Braveheart on the Curragh plains did a lot for the Irish film industry. We got an opportunity to showcase Ireland as a location; Irish actors got work; local economy benefited… yadda yadda yadda.
In 2008, The Irish Film and Television Awards (IFTA) honoured Mel Gibson with their first ever Outstanding Contribution to World Cinema Award. In their lengthy pre-awards press statement at that time, they eulogised and gushed and said how wonderful Mr Gibson was. They made much of his Irish roots and praised him up, down and sideways for the making of Braveheart. Mr Mel choosing Ireland as a location for the epic tale of William Wallace seemed to have elevated him to deity status in the eyes of IFTA.
Are you sensing that I have a bit of a hump here? Well, you’d be right. You see, like Lar, the FCA extra, I was also in the Curragh 20 years ago – except in a different capacity. And my memories are not coloured as happy as Lar’s. I seriously fell out of love with Mel Gibson that summer, and he’ll never win me back.
As a family, we moved to the Curragh from Donegal in July 1994. When I say the Curragh, I mean the real Curragh – the actual military camp. In those days, the other half wore a green suit and was transferred from Donegal which was, at the time, a heart-breaking move and one that took a good deal of coming to terms with. As is always the case in these matters, our biggest concern was the children. They were an almost-teen and a very young teen at the time and we worried about them settling. They were excited about it all but also full of trepidation about being in a new place with new people, new friends, new schools and all to that.
When I heard that Braveheart was being made on the Curragh with the camp as its base, I was charmed. This, I thought, will be great. This will ease the pain for the kids. It’ll be exciting. There’ll be a buzz about the place. Sure we’ll be tripping over the half of Hollywood. We’ll be down in Centra getting our sliced pan and we’ll be rubbing shoulders with the great and good. And who knows? Mr Mel might even call in for a drop of tea. His mother’s people are from Donegal and his second name is Colmcille. Sure we’re practically related. The kettle will be on the boil at all times and he’s more than welcome to drop in for a cut of soda farl and cup in his hand.
Well, maybe that was hoping for a bit too much, but surely there’d be a bit of associated craic to be had? The reality was somewhat different. Yes, there was a buzz about the place but it sort of lost its shine after a while. At first, it was hilarious to see burly, thirteenth-century Scottish warriors roaming around the place sucking on choc ices and with packets of 10 Major sticking out of their tartan costumes. Sometimes, you’d see scene dressers with squeezy plastic bottles squirting blood and topping up the warriors’ war wounds every so often. There were many funny moments like that that definitely raised a laugh. But, after a while, it was less funny when a dozen or so of these bloody warriors were in front of you in the queue in the shop and couldn’t make their minds up as to whether they wanted a Supersplit or a Tangle Twister.
And the diversions and closed roads became a nuisance. The actual film set was well guarded and nobody ‘ordinary’ could get within an ass’s roar of it. There were surly security people on duty in several locations to make sure the plebs were diverted round the world for sport lest they intrude on the newly sanctified patch of the Curragh. It meant that an ordinary resident of the camp wishing to go from A to B had sometimes to detour via all the other letters of the alphabet to get to where they wanted to go. It was all quite a nuisance. But we sucked it up in the interest of the greater good and still felt a sense of loyalty and hospitality to the whole process.
And I had a plan. The word on the grapevine was that Mr Mel and his entourage were using the girls’ school as a venue for viewing the rushes in the evenings. On the evening of July 29, my eldest daughter’s birthday, we walked up to the school to see what we could see. We were just over three weeks in the Curragh by then and I was exhausted. I was worn out from trying to be upbeat about the move; trying to tell my girls that everything would work out fine; trying to reassure them their Donegal friends wouldn’t forget them; trying to make the first birthday celebration in the Curragh something special; trying to fill the days with positive thoughts and positive things. This was going to be it. We were going to meet Mel Gibson. Afterwards, my girls would probably spend at least a few hours on the phone to their Donegal mates squealing and yakking about their close encounter with Hollywood. I was going to get at least two hours to myself to unpack yet another box and have a good, uninterrupted cry.
There were about 20 ‘ordinary’ people at the school. Not a horde by any manner or means. Civilian residents of the camp. And not a paparazzo in sight. We were confined to outside the railings. Lots of filmy types floated about with clipboards and things looking awfully important, and there were a few burly chaps with the mandatory wraparound shades.
After a while, Mr Mel emerged from the school. We gave a spontaneous cheer and a round of applause. He completely ignored us as he strode towards the waiting car in his those-heels-are-a-little-higher-than-normal cowboy boots. Realising that this was a make or break moment, I shouted out: “Mel! Come and say hello to Claire. It’s her birthday.”
He never broke stride. He never even looked in our direction as he half-shouted, half-grunted a dismissive ‘Happy Birthday’. Yes, he uttered the two words, but the tone and attitude implied that he meant two entirely different words – the second of which would be probably have been ‘…off’. He got into the car and disappeared. We were gutted.
As we stood there eating his dust, the woman beside me said it all. ‘What a shit,’ she uttered, as the car disappeared down the road. I agreed. I jollied the girls along as we made our way back to the house that we still couldn’t quite in our hearts call home. Our Braveheart experience wasn’t proving to be quite as positive or useful as I’d hoped for. And I fell seriously out of love with Mr Mel.
By the time Braveheart hit the big screen in 1995, we were well settled in the Curragh and the misery and loneliness of those first few weeks were largely forgotten. We went to see the film and we enjoyed it. We laughed out loud when we saw the warriors in battle as we remembered them rambling around the camp with their ice lollies and their fags.
It won five Academy Awards and it did, I’m sure, advance the cause of the Irish film industry. Great. But remember, it advanced Mr Mel’s cause too. He got value for money. He literally had the Army at work for him, running it all with military precision. And he also had a local population who grinned and bore the disruption with general good humour when their day-to-day living was discommoded. A little reciprocal good humour would have been welcome. Thirty seconds out of the schedule to say hello to the or’nary folk would have done the trick.
Twenty years on, I remember and I haven’t forgiven. I’ve actually reminisced about it a good deal this year as the film’s been on the telly several times. I suspect that the Scottish independence referendum, just around the corner on September 18, is responsible for the renewed popularity. Mr Mel with his blue warpaint and atrocious accent. When the film premiered in Scotland in 1995, it was something of a rallying cry for the SNP. It stirred the nationalistic blood and quickened the heartbeat of every true Scot. If the referendum had been held the day after that premiere, we would likely have had an independent Scotland before nightfall.
Now, 19 years on, it seems the Yes side of the referendum debate are a little less in love with Mr Gibson’s historically inaccurate epic – described by the Times as one of ‘the 10 most historically inaccurate movies’ of all time. They’re distancing themselves from it somewhat lest the seriousness and sanctity of their cause be trivialised by the whole Hollywood ballyhoo. They want to win – but they don’t want that win to be on the back of ill-informed tribalism or a screenwriter’s romanticised notion of history. The Yes people, it seems, feel now that the association of the movie with their cause has led to their campaign being dismissed as lacking substance. As one Yes campaigner in Glasgow put it, the unionists dismiss the Yes side as being ‘all Braveheart and bagpipes’. Now that Hollywood fairytale time is over and they’re engaged in the grown-up business of deciding their future, Scotland, it seems, is a little less in love with Braveheart than it once was. They want their electorate to vote with their own brave hearts and not to be rabble-roused and influenced by Mr Mel and Hollywood’s inaccuracies. For much the same reason, the No side aren’t fans either at the moment – they’re afraid it will stir the blood and bring the Wallace wannabes out in force. So yeah, Mr Mel. Now see what you’ve done.
But I’ll give leave the last word to a commentator on the journal.ie website. Obviously, the commentator was another FCA extra back in the day. In the run-up to the referendum, his heartfelt comment reads:
‘twenty years ago I bared my balls for scottish freedom, they better vote yes!!’
Good luck, Scotland. But please – vote with what’s in your own heart. Your decision is about your future – not about an inaccurate portrayal of your past. Don’t let Hollywood and the grumpy Mr Mel take your true freedom. Send him homeward, tae think again.
Check the journal.ie website here
for the article on the making of Braveheart. It also contains a video of a documentary made by the Defence Forces giving behind the scenes action at the time of the filming.