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Forrest Gump (Best Picture, 1994)

Does anyone else find Forrest Gump just a teensy bit annoying? I know, this is one of those movies we’re all supposed to love and find wildly inspirational and moving and stuff, but really.  I know he can’t help being “slow,” and Tom Hanks’ portrayal of someone who’s not all that bright is pretty darn good.  But I still find the character’s relentless cheerfulness kind of irritating.

For all that, though, the fantasy of the film is rather entertaining.  It’s fun to try and catch all the references to great moments in American culture of the last fifty years.  It’s also amusing to watch the special effects as Forrest is edited into historical newscasts and photographs.

It’s an odd little movie, and I don’t really like it much.  For me the best part is it’s full of actors I like.  Tom Hanks is hard to dislike, as his success as a rom-com star proves.  The troubled and damaged Jenny, played as an adult by Robin Wright (Buttercup in THE PRINCESS BRIDE), is fragile and strong all at once.  And in spite of his politics, I kind of like Gary Sinise.

One of the other fun things about the film is the music.  It’s full of inside jokes as well – when Forrest goes to Kennedy’s White House with the All-American team, the background music is the Camelot theme from the Lerner and Loewe musical of the same name.  Kennedy’s administration, of course, is sometimes referred to as “Camelot.”

Other than the fact that I now have a massive craving for 60s and 70s rock music, I really don’t have anything else to say about FORREST GUMP.

Moving on, then.

Braveheart (Best Picture, 1995)

First thing about this is that of the entire Best Picture lineup, this is the first film I remember from the year it was released.  I’ve actually never seen it before, it was just one of those Things that took over.  Suddenly there was plaid everywhere and my summer camp insisted on having Braveheart games (which were really standard camp games, just with blue face paint and swathes of plaid fabric everywhere).

This is a difficult movie for an English history buff.  It’s widely acknowledged that BRAVEHEART takes wild historical liberties* – just go to the Wikipedia page and enjoy the list – and personally, it’s a little hard to take Mel Gibson seriously in, well, anything.

On the other hand, Edward I, commonly referred to as Edward Longshanks or The Hammer of the Scots, is one of those English kings revered by history.  He’s considered one of the greatest medieval kings of Europe, not just of England, and by the standards of the time, that assessment is not so far off.

By all accounts, he was unusually tall for his day, hence the epithet “Longshanks.”  He was handsome, temperamental, and warrior-minded.  To judge him for his and his subordinates’ violent actions would be to place our own 21st-century morals on 13th-century men.  I do not mean to be an apologist or ask for forgiveness on Edward’s behalf.  I just think it’s important to place historical figures in their proper context.  Other than being endlessly at war, Edward is credited with the establishment of Parliament as a permanent institution and thus a permanent source of taxation revenue, the restoration of royal authority after the turmoil of Henry III’s reign, and many legal reforms.  On the other hand, he also left the kingdom in great financial trouble and in the care of the weak, pleasure-loving, very possibly homosexual Edward II, married to Isabella of France (later known as the “She-Wolf of France” – not exactly complimentary).  He also expelled the English Jewish population in 1290, mostly to take advantage of being able to seize their financial assets.

A lot of my history friends take great issue with BRAVEHEART, and I can see why.  The rampant historical inaccuracy, the almost cartoonishly sociopathic king Edward, the slavering romanticization of the Highlands… BUT.  I think it’s important to tell the story from this side, to show how Edward I, the paragon of medieval kingship, might be seen as a tyrant and bully.

Perhaps BRAVEHEART can be seen as an ex post facto political cartoon.  The hero and villain are oddly distorted to push them even farther apart on the scale of right and wrong.

Another way to look at it is in the light of national mythology, a subject I’ve written about a few times previously.  William Wallace is one of those figures who can be proved to have existed, but are mythologized almost beyond recognition even in their own time.  He’s like George Washington.  It’s practically a cardinal sin to speak ill of either of them.

For those interested in a bit more information on Scottish history, I recommend the BBC documentary series narrated by archaeologist and historian Neil Oliver, “A History of Scotland.”  He romanticizes a bit, but given it’s the BBC and hosted by a Scottish scholar, I think it’s probably pretty trustworthy.  I’ve found the entire thing on youtube:

*For instance, William Wallace was actually a member of the Scottish nobility, well-educated, would likely have had his own retinue, and his father lived until Wallace was 18.  Also, Isabella of France was three years old at the time this film takes place, and she wasn’t married to Edward II until after he became king.

Next Up: The English Patient (Best Picture, 1996) and Titanic (Best Picture, 1997)