Pointing the Finger At Fanciful Fiction in Films

You can't believe everything you see in print. Or on celluloid, for that matter. I mean, take ''Braveheart.'' Near the start of this Hollywood epic, there occurs a sudden thistle. Apparently plucked from a group of thistles that happens to be growing thereabouts, this thistle is proffered by a five-year-old Scottish girl, Murron MacClannough, to the boy William Wallace at his father's graveside. It is there in the book. It is there in the film. But it never happened.

''Braveheart'' is still playing popularly here in Scotland. We just went to see the film, at last. I think I may have been deterred until now by my Scottish wife's Scottish cousin telling her that ''Braveheart'' is ''really good. But if you take Christopher to see it, make sure he doesn't speak a word. He'll get lynched!'' The thing is, you see, I have an English accent.

Come to think of it, I am not very clear whether the book is the book of the film, or the film is the film of the book. Randall Wallace is the writer in both cases. Mr. Wallace (Randall) was born in Tennessee, and now lives in California. The other Wallace (Sir William) lived a year or two earlier, being born round about 1270 and having his days cut short somewhat abruptly by the English King in 1305.

He was, in case you haven't heard of him, a great Scottish patriotic hero, who did his best to eject the English from his native land. He set alight a Scottish sense of nationhood that has not yet gone out. The Scots call him ''the Wallace'' (there is also ''the Bruce''), rather in the same way as the English call their Royals ''the king'' or ''the queen.''

To return to the thistle. The thistle is the emblem of the Scots. There is more than one fanciful theory as to how this plant came to represent Scotland. In Bamber Gascoigne's ''Encyclopedia of Britain'' we read: ''The thistle, for Scotland, is supposed to have helped the Scots ... in battle, when an enemy soldier in a surprise attack trod on such a plant and gave the game away with his yell.''

Geoffrey Grigson in ''The Englishman's Flora'' explains the yell by quoting the earlier herbalist John Gerard: '' 'The speare Thistle hath an upright stalke, garnished with a skinnie membrane, full of most sharp prickles: whereon do grow very long leaves, divided into divers parts, with sharp prickles: the point of the leaves are as the point of a speare, where of it took his name.' ''

Then Grigson adds: ''The Kings of Scotland chose a thistle, not a particular thistle, for the prickliness and the gallant colour. They were not botanists.''

Neither, it seems, is actor/director Mel Gibson. He had his little Murron-actress present a ''thistle,'' which anyone could see was artificial, to the lad who would later, briefly, be her husband. You can tell this easily from its clothy, hand-manufactured appearance. But more to the point (excuse the pun) is that its ouch-factor is missing. It is totally prickle-less.

One understands the predicament. This flower is meant (presumably) to be both a love-token and a symbol of nationalism. To hand to the object of your affection something as spiky as this uncomfortable plant does not exactly betoken tender regard. I suppose the director may also have felt that for little Murron to press a thistle into the fingers of little Wallace and in the process make each of them shriek might detract from the tender moment.

What is truly odd about this unconvincing, nice-to-touch thistle, however, is that it constitutes one of the few episodes in the film in which blood is avoided. At least one critic has pointed out that there is so much brutality in ''Braveheart'' that the audience grows numb. They were violent times, no doubt. The argument of accuracy might well be brought in to justify the ubiquitous carnage. But if it were, then why is it almost impossible to find in this extravagant film a lone attempt to stick to one reasonably certain historical fact?

It is true that very little is known about the man behind the ever-changing myth of the Wallace. It asks for invention, for poetic license let loose. But why disregard the few facts there are?

For instance: Wallace never had a wife called Murron MacClannough; he never met the French wife of the heir to the English throne - it was the King himself who had a French wife - let alone fathered her baby; the famous Battle of Stirling Bridge did, at the very least, involve the English crossing the River Forth by a bridge - yet in the film there is no observable river and no bridge; and the demise of the English king was not simultaneous with Wallace's execution, but occurred two years later, on his way north to have yet another go at the prickly Scots.

The author of ''Braveheart'' writes in his ''Prologue'': ''There were times when I tried myself to be a fair historian, but life is not all about balance, it's about passion.... In my heart, this is exactly how it happened.'' On the back cover of his book it says: ''Braveheart is a true story of Scottish hero William Wallace....''

Well, however compelling ''Braveheart'' is, the one thing it certainly is not, is ''true.'' It is unabashed fiction, as inauthentic as that poor imitation of a thistle. (Though I must admit the English deserved everything they had coming in the end.)

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