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Mel Gibson’s William Wallace is famous for giving a stirring speech. Before the battle of Stirling Bridge, he gives this somewhat famous speech in which he tells his troops that they are fighting for freedom, although he never explains what freedom means, except that it can’t be taken away.

In reality, we don’t actually know what he said before the battle of Stirling Bridge. Since he wasn’t the main commander, he probably didn’t make any sort of address to the troops as a whole, but he might have said something to his own men. So the speech we get in the film is entirely the product of screenwriter Randall Wallace’ imagination. It’s his idea of what Wallace would have said if he were talking to a bunch of late-20th century Americans watching a movie about medieval Scotland.

So Gibson’s Wallace is famous for a speech the real Wallace didn’t make. As it happens, the real Wallace is famous for a battle speech that he reportedly gave before the battle of Falkirk. An English source, the Flores Historiarum (“The Flowers of History”), has the following to say about Wallace at Falkirk:

“when [Wallace] had collected an army of Scots in the battle of Falkirk against the King of England, and had seen that he could not resist the powerful army of the king, [he] said to the Scots, “Behold I have brought you into a ring, now carol and dance as well as you can,” and so fled himself from the battle, leaving his people to be slain by the sword…”

It’s hard to know how historically accurate this quote is. The author of this portion of the Flores is unknown, but he was almost certainly an English monk at Westminster, writing in the early 14th century. So it’s possible that the source of this quote was someone present at Falkirk, most likely on the English side. But it could also just be derisive gossip among the English. The author is pretty clearly hostile to the Scots; he also refers to Wallace as a “son of Belial” and mentions the various atrocities Wallace committed during his campaign against the English.So our source for this quote is not exactly an impartial commentator. On the other hand, the colloquial comparison of a battle to a party with singing and dancing rings true.

Nevertheless, this quote reputedly by Wallace is quite famous in Britain. It circulates in many forms

“I have brought you to the ring, now dance if you can.”

“I have brought you to the ring, now dance the best you can.”

“I have brought you to the ring, hop if you can.”

“I have brought you to the revel, now see if you can dance.”

“I have brocht ye to the ring, now see gif ye can dance.”

What all of these variations are expressing is the idea, which seems true, that Wallace did not want to fight at Falkirk, but his men insisted on a confrontation with the English.  The quotes capture a sense of weary resignation and Wallace’ awareness that his forces were not strong enough to defeat the English.

It’s pretty obvious why Braveheart leaves out this famous quote. It’s not exactly the sort of rousing speech we would expect to hear a general give his troops. In fact, it’s rather demotivating and raises the possibility that Wallace lost at Falkirk because he wasn’t a very inspiring general. Furthermore, as I said, it clearly expresses the idea that Wallace didn’t want to fight, which is not the way the film wants to depict Wallace. Gibson’s Wallace is eager for battle, makes a suicidal charge at Edward, and has to be dragged off the field, when in reality, Wallace fled the field when his men were clearly losing. That was the smart, tactical choice to make in that situation, but to modern audiences it smacks strongly of cowardice.

So rather than choosing to show audiences the complexity of the situation Wallace was dealing with at Falkirk or show him struggling with an all-too-human sense of despair, the film falls back on a standard Hollywood trope of Heroic Individuality, in which the hero fights to the bitter end, even when doing so is foolish and pointless.

This, to me, is a good example of what I find so frustrating about Hollywood historical films. Randall Wallace and Mel Gibson had a chance to depict the complicated choices and emotions that the real William Wallace was dealing with. They had an opportunity to explore a real man dealing with real problems and trying to make the best of a bad situation. In other words, they had a chance to show this historical figure as a real human being. Instead, they went for a simplistic cliché that offers no nuance and no real life lesson for the audience and simply relies on empty sentiment and a caricature of  masculinity as being about nothing but brute force and raw determination.

On the other hand, I can see why Scottish nationalists prefer Wallace’ made up speech to the one widely attributed to him. It’s definitely the more inspiring speech, and it’s one that certainly can be applied to the modern debate on Scottish independence. Both the Yes and No sides have made Braveheart an issue, with claims that the film’s macho attitude is part of the reason that more Scottish men than women favor independence. Others have disputed these claims. But if there’s any truth behind the claims, I find it unfortunate that some Scots might make a major political choice based on a Hollywood fantasy of a Scottish hero rather than on the actual man.

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