Braveheart, the violent yet redemptive story of William Wallace, hit screens a quarter century ago. The film went on to win five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director for the film’s star Mel Gibson. The screenplay was by penned by Randall Wallace (no relation), inspired in part by the exploration of his family’s Scottish heritage. Following that success, Randall went on to write and direct 1998’s The Man In the Iron Mask, based on the Three Musketeers story, and the Gibson-starring war drama We We Soldiers. He also wrote the script for Michael Bay’s hit Pearl Harbor, and is set to re-team with Gibson on The Resurrection of the Christ, a sequel to 2004’s enormously successful Passion project.
ThatShelf spoke to Wallace by phone from his home in Los Angeles—discussing not only his most celebrated film but also the thematic elements that run through much of his work, and the personal ideology that helps focus him on potential projects. While it became clear we do not share the same political views, our conversation showed—as he indicates towards the close—a capacity to find common ground despite stark differences in belief.
The following has been edited for clarity and concision.
I’d like to talk about some thematic elements that run through your films. Your films are often about redemption, along with a strong sense that even if one loses the battle, it doesn’t mean that one has lost the war. I’m wondering how conscious you are when you are creating your projects of following these thematic leads or are these coincidental with the projects you’ve been working on?
What a great thing to consider. Yes, I am conscious of that. Starting with Braveheart, both as a writer and as a human being, I had made a commitment to write not simply what I thought the market wanted to buy, but to write what I wanted to see. I come from a whole Christian tradition, and there is a lot of talk about life after death. For me, I wanted to find life after birth, about what makes life worth living. I believe you don’t find that until you find what you would die for. What is more important than your life? That is certainly what I discovered in Braveheart.
Is there anything specific in the film that illustrates that?
Take the scene when William Wallace is in prison and he’s offered the chance to pledge and confess to treason and submit to the King’s will. He says if he does that, then everything in him is dead already. I never imagined the words “every man dies, not every man really lives”, but that’s where that line came from. I love most of what Jordan Peterson says, and it’s striking to me that he talks about these same sorts of issues now. He claims that only through sacrifice and finding a goal that’s greater than yourself do you find meaning in life.
That’s a very challenging perspective for us up here in Canada, and you and I no doubt have different views on his politics. But to bring it back to your ethos, even in the themes explored in The Man In The Iron Mask, notions about fraternity and how the battle is only won if we all sort of win together, it feels all part of a whole. You even managed by adding the Doolittle raid to Pearl Harbor to make that defeat feel like the beginning of a victory. So, once again, is this a conscious ideological statement, or simply the stories that you are drawn to?
I try not to work from a dogma or from a formula. A movie is an experience for me, and it’s an experience that I like to share with many other people. When I’m writing, I’m not trying to follow the script. I don’t really work from an outline. I was the kid in school who, when the teacher would say give us your outline and then write the paper from it, I would write the paper and then make the outline. Outlines work for us when they’re something we’ve already seen before that works. But to create a new experience, you have to feel you’re there with something alive. The way I do that is to plunge into the story. I’m not trying to follow a given set of beliefs or the way I understand life. I’m trying to follow the story, and over and over the story that I ultimately get to is exactly the one you describe. There’s a common thread where we have horrible defeats, horrible surprises. Pearl Harbor is a great example of just suddenly, out of the clear blue sky, comes a catastrophe, and we feel we didn’t ask for it, we didn’t deserve it. But there might be some truth to the idea that maybe we needed to get our asses kicked. In any case, we can respond to this in different ways, and one way is to understand that victory might be there, but we’re going to have to do something to achieve that victory.
That seems to be a key aspect of American myth-making, or the stories it tells itself. One can go back to something like the Alamo, whereby the temporary loss fosters the win in the end, and that whatever you do to us, we’re still going to be resurrected and come back stronger, for lack of a better allusion.
Yes, but I think we can go further with that to say there’s always something we must do to achieve that success. We haven’t achieved victory until the people we’re opposing understand that we deserve a victory and we deserve that too, so in a way we owe something to our enemies. This is like boxers who fight tooth and nail but afterwards embrace because they’ve given each other something.
There are people that will take against your personal ideologies and your personal proclivities and probably distance themselves from your films because they don’t share your opinions. In the same way, there are many people who may share your opinions who may distance themselves from other works that may be challenging to their own beliefs or structures. Do you, as both a lover of cinema and as a screenwriter, go out of your way to find things that might not fit with let’s say your religious or political views, but nonetheless illuminate you on an aesthetic level?
Yes. I think it’s a gift as artists and as human beings to find what is challenging to us. We must find in what we disagree with some common ground. There’s a great writer, John Wexley, who said “let’s not argue—if our heads are together, if our hearts are together, let’s join hands”. I’m always looking for what my heart truly is, no matter what my beliefs are or what my assumptions are. I’m seeking to find if there is a way I can refine my assumptions and rise from a disagreement or a defeat to a victory and growth.
Can you think of one specific instance of a film that is completely against your political ethos but that you love nonetheless?
I don’t have a great example of that. In my experience that comes more from comedy. When something makes me laugh, it’s often because I feel I’ve been caught in a certain kind of a contradiction or even hypocrisy. There are certain comedians that I disagree with completely in terms of their politics or their worldview who still make me laugh. I wouldn’t want to give specific examples, but that’s where I find it happening.
A limited edition 4K Blu-ray Steelbook of Braveheart is available on June 16, 2020 to celebrate its 25th anniversary.