Epic Redemption -- `Braveheart' Battles Its Way To The Top

Dubious glances greeted the news last spring that the Seattle International Film Festival had selected as its opening-night attraction the premiere of Mel Gibson's "Braveheart," which is being re-released at several theaters today.

The movie's trailers, which made it look corny and overblown, had been playing in theaters for weeks. Once a festival favorite for his Australian art-house hits, Gibson had become identified with the junky "Lethal Weapon" action series. And following the soporific "Rob Roy," the prospect of an even longer Scottish epic wasn't exactly enticing.

Then the news began to leak out that "Braveheart" might not be so bad. Those who had actually seen the picture were unusually enthusiastic, even passionate about Gibson's dynamic handling of the battle scenes and his ability to tell an inspiring story that seemed to require three hours to tell.

When he visited Seattle to talk about it, Gibson seemed obsessed with the story of the 13th-century Scottish rebel, William Wallace, who died a martyr in his fight against what Gibson called the "ethnic cleansing" policies of the British king, Edward.

One of those polices was to rid Scotland of Scottish blood by encouraging British soldiers to impregnate newlywed Scottish brides. Almost a passive character at first, Wallace becomes a rebel leader when his own wife is attacked.

"It's a story that's begging to be put on celluloid," said Gibson. At first he thought Randall Wallace's script seemed "a bit over the top, but everything that seemed like a script device turned out to have a basis in history."

By the time Gibson walked on stage to present "Braveheart" last May at the 5th Avenue Theatre, he had won over many skeptics. The movie went on to become one of the more durable summer releases, earning $67 million and considerably more overseas. It was especially popular in Seattle, where it wound up as No. 11 among the year's top grossers.

A come-from-behind victory

Yet history almost repeated itself this week, as shock greeted the announcement Tuesday morning that "Braveheart" had earned 10 Academy Award nominations - the most of any film this year - including best picture, screenplay and a director nod for Gibson. An Oscar race that had seemed to be a tie between "Apollo 13" and "Sense and Sensibility" suddenly revealed a strong new player.

Faring far better at the Oscars than Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus" and Anthony Mann's "El Cid," the early-1960s epics that served as models for Wallace's script, "Braveheart" appears to have taken the lead in most of the categories in which it was nominated.

The only glaring omission is in the acting categories. It received no nominations, although Gibson does his most vital work in years as the hero, and Patrick McGoohan, as King Edward, makes a lively villain. (Edward's vicious treatment of his homosexual son - the central character in Christopher Marlowe's "Edward II" - drew protests last spring from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which claimed that the king's casual murder of his son's lover amounted to gay-bashing. But as McGoohan plays him, Edward is an equal-opportunity sadist; he's mean to everyone.)

The movie's moment in the sun could, of course, be brief. Reflecting Paramount's lack of faith in its Oscar potential, "Braveheart" is scheduled to be released on videotape March 12, 13 days before the Oscars are presented. That could kill the theatrical reissue, although it won't hurt video sales.

And just because "Braveheart" has more nominations than any other film doesn't mean it's a shoo-in for anything. In years past, "The Color Purple" and "The Turning Point" received 11 nominations apiece, yet they won nothing.

"Braveheart" versus "Babe"?

Ironically, "Braveheart's" chief competition at the Oscars could come from Chris Noonan and George Miller's Australian barnyard fantasy, "Babe," which is the only English-language film nominated in all four key categories: picture, director, script and actor (James Cromwell in a supporting role).

During his Seattle festival visit, Gibson admitted that he owed a considerable debt to Miller, who showed him how to do action scenes in the three "Mad Max" movies they made together.

"Messing with camera speeds is my thing," said Gibson. "I learned about that from George Miller."

"Braveheart" isn't the only Oscar-nominated movie that was first seen here at last spring's festival.

"The Postman," also nominated for best picture, script and director, had its premiere there. So did Algeria's powerful foreign-film nominee, "Dust of Life," and Bryan Singer's "The Usual Suspects," which won Golden Space Needle awards for best director (Singer) and actor (Kevin Spacey, who has been nominated for an Oscar in the supporting category).

For all their popularity at the festival, "Braveheart" and "The Postman" won none of these audience-voted festival awards. Indeed, they lost the top Golden Space Needle to a five-hour Danish film called "The Kingdom."