Given a choice between romantic piffle and actual history…

… most of us prefer piffle, especially patriotic piffle or piffle serving some political agenda, be that left or right.

We may get a serving of piffle tonight on SBS on the subject of Eureka, which has attracted much well-intentioned piffling and some not so well-intentioned – a bit like Ned Kelly.  Tonight’s SBS offering (Dirty Business) won’t all be piffle, of course, if one is to judge from last week, some of which was most interesting. But it will be very scrappy and rather too obviously thesis-driven, as certainly was last week. It is not nearly as good, in my view, as The First Australians, currently being repeated on NITV.

The Victorians (the royal era, not the Aussie state) were excellent at patriotic piffling, inventing whole rafts of tradition. The Irish and Scots have been excellent pifflers – take for example the oeuvre of Sir Walter Scott – and of late – well almost twenty years ago – we had Braveheart. Last night ABC2 offered The True Story: Braveheart. I was impressed.

BraveheartMel Gibson’s Oscar winning box office smash of 1995 tells the story of real life Scottish rebel and freedom fighter William Wallace. With savage battle scenes, a cast of thousands and a tragic love story at its heart, it is a sweeping historical epic brought to the screen with stunning photography set amongst the highlands of Scotland.

But ever since it was first shown historians have asked questions about the accuracy of the movie. No one doubts that William Wallace was a real historical character – as was Edward 1st, Robert the Bruce, and many others who feature in the film. But was he really the “ordinary joe” made good portrayed by Mel Gibson, and did his life unfold in the way Braveheart depicts?

Interviewing script-writer Randall Wallace we discover that the inspiration for the movie was the stories generated by an ancient Scottish poem about the life of Wallace. But an analysis by modern historian’s show that this poem, as much as any movie, was designed to create a legend rather than explain history

On the poem see Blind Harry’s Wallace: Introduction and Index.

…There are many episodes in Harry’s poem which will never be possible to prove as having occurred. However, there are passages that have been proven false. One example comes from the opening stanza, in which Harry states that Wallace was the son of Malcolm Wallace, yet the letter Wallace wrote to the Hanseatic League after the Scots’ victory at the Battle of Stirling carried Wallace’s seal, which clearly states that he was "Wilelmus Filius Alani Walais" – William, son of Alan Wallace. Harry’s recounting of the Battle of Falkirk, July 1298, provides another example: it is documented that this battle was won by the English side, yet Harry’s version maintains that the Scots had the advantage, and concludes with King Edward fleeing in fear for his life.

Regardless of whether Harry had sources beyond oral tradition upon which to base his poem, and the fact that the poem reads as a biography of William Wallace, it should be considered historical fiction – a long-lived ballad that expresses profound pride in a nation’s patriot hero.

braveheart-3

Blue face Mel – nice idea, but around a thousand years out of place for William Wallace

See also BraveHeart – The 10 historical inaccuracies you need to know before watching the movie

So Braveheart is, one could say, piffle.  Very convincing piffle for some. Compare How accurate was "Braveheart"?

In brief, the history in "Braveheart" is absolute garbage.

William Wallace did indeed lead a rebellion against English occupation in 1296. He won a surprising victory at Stirling Bridge and lost at Falkirk. After his capture, he was tried and executed as depicted. That’s about all that matches history. The rest of the film was inaccurate, grossly distorted, or absolutely made up. I can’t cover it all (and I should have done this when my memory of th film was fresher) but here are some, er, "highlights".

Wallace was portrayed as a poor man who was secretly married right before he got in trouble with the English. Actually, he was a landed commoner with a good education, and in peaceful times he might have been a scholar. All landed men were required to sign the Ragman Roll, which bound signatories in loyalty to England’s King Edward I. Those who refused, like Wallace, were outlawed. In response, Wallace and Andrew Moray organized other outlawed men into an army. Moray was killed at Stirling Bridge and mostly forgotten, and was not mentioned in the film. Wallace was invovled in a romantic relationship, but he was unable to settle down due to spending his entire adult life at war or in hiding. He was with her when the English discovered his hiding place. When they discovered she had stalled them to give Walalce time to escape, she and the rest of the household were killed.

From watching "Braveheart", one would think that Wallace invented the use of spears against cavalry in a moment of improvisation. Everyone in the Clann knows that this tactic is literally ancient. From the film, a viewer would think that these Scottish peasants could find swords and axe heads, but somehow couldn’t manage spearpoints. Also, they didn’t stand in one big mob, but in circular formations called schiltrons, the predecessors of our pike blocks, and a formation Wallace might have invented but certainly perfected. At least they looked impressive with their painted faces, which was indeed a Celtic practice—during Roman times, over a thousand years before.

During the battle of Falkirk, Wallace was shown going into battle against the wishes of the other Scottish commanders. The accounts I’ve seen indicate the opposite, that he opposed fighting then on the grounds that the field did not offer the advantages of Stirling Bridge. It was a neat scene when the Irish troops with the English switched sides as they were supposed to charge into battle, but I never heard of this incident. We also saw the Scottish nobles desert Wallace and ruin his plans right as the battle started, but I haven’t heard of this happening either. The cavalry did withdraw without orders, but the circumstances are unclear, though he might have won with them available. It’s true his hold over the Scottish lords and chiefs was weak. He wasn’t knighted until after Stirling Bridge (quite possibly by Robert Bruce) at which time he was made Guardian, which gave him the power of a king. However, having no land or vassals, his leadership depended wholly upon success in battle. When he lost his luster he was replaced.

In the aftermath of Falkirk came the scene that almost made me yell at the screen. When Wallace goes riding after King Edward, one of the knights accompanying Edward turns to stop Wallace and knocks him off his horse. When his face is uncovered, this knight turns out to be—-Robert Bruce. A great dramatic twist, but why don’t the histories mention Bruce at Falkirk? Most likely he wasn’t there, or else he fought with Wallace but did nothing significant. "Braveheart" portrayed Bruce so villainously that the English chroniclers who demonized him would have been envious. When, at the end of the film, Bruce asks the soldiers at Bannockburn if they will fight for him, he wouldn’t have reason to doubt: they had been following him for years already. I’ll admit having Bruce as narrator was a great idea, but that doesn’t alter my opinion of his portrayal.

Hollywood thinks movies have to have romance, but Wallace and Princess Isabella? I’ve never heard of a princess being used as an envoy, and with such an important mission to boot. I don’t even know that she had gone to England and married Edward II during Wallace’s lifetime. It’s difficult to believe she ever met Wallace or that she was this delicate flower who was ashamed of English cruelty toward the Scots. On the contrary, she had her husband imprisoned and murdered when he refused to abdicate in favor of their son, and she then launched her own invasion of Scotland….

Mel later went on to make The Passion of the Christ, of course…

Another documentary on William Wallace:

Now for something completely different.

Lately I keep encountering in novels and newspapers the idiom “bored of” – which strikes my ear with a very loud cacophonous clang!  When did this happen, I ask?

So I did ask Oxford.

Which of these expressions should you use: is one of them less acceptable than the others?

  • Do you ever get bored with eating out all the time?
  • Delegates were bored by the lectures.
  • He grew bored of his day job.

The first two constructions, bored with and bored by, are the standard ones. The third, bored of, is more recent than the other two and it’s become extremely common. In fact, the Oxford English Corpus contains almost twice as many instances of bored of than bored by. It represents a perfectly logical development of the language, and was probably formed on the pattern of expressions such as tired of or weary of. Nevertheless, some people dislike it and it’s not fully accepted in standard English. It’s best to avoid using it in formal writing.

I trust you are not so bored with this as not to want any more…  Let’s resist it, albeit in vain. BORED WITH! Understand? WITH!

See also Daily Writing Tips.

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