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On September 18, 2014, voters in Scotland will take part in a referendum that will determine the fate of the United Kingdom. The question being asked is “Should Scotland be an independent country?” and if the Yes side wins, it will lead to a breakup between Scotland and England, a union that was created in 1707.
Twenty years ago support for Scottish independence was confined to a small minority – but the release of the film Braveheart in the spring of 1995 changed their fortunes. The movie, starring Mel Gibson, tells the story of William Wallace, a Scottish leader who fights against English domination at the end of the 13th century. Braveheart was a massive success, generating over $200 million in box office sales and winning five Oscars at the 68th Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
The movie’s effect in Scotland was even more profound, and spawned a new nationalism movement. Lin Anderson, author of Braveheart: From Hollywood to Holyrood, explained in an interview “It has become part of the fabric of Scotland. There was anger that people didn’t know who William Wallace was, and had been cheated of their history. But whether it is myth or reality, it created an aspirational national hero at a time when we needed heroes.”
Braveheart is also notoriously historically inaccurate, even for Hollywood standards: the Scots wearing kilts when that clothing wasn’t invented for another 300 years; the idea of Jus Primae Noctis; Wallace having an affair with Isabella of France, implying he was the father of Edward III. Moreover, the film demonizes the English and places the Scots as victims of their tyranny. Scottish historian Allan Massie was among those who criticized the movie: “Bad history is potentially dangerous. In this case, Braveheart can scarcely fail to feed the growing Anglophobia which is, to many Scotsmen, a pernicious feature of our country today. If it does so, it will be not only a bad film but a deplorable and damaging one.”
Historical inaccuracies did not stop supporters of Scottish nationalism from using the film to promote their cause. Members of the Scottish National Party would stand outside theatres, handing out pamphlets to movie-goers, while Alex Salmond, the party’s leader commented, “William Wallace was a campaigner for Scottish independence. I would have been on his side at the battle of Stirling Bridge.” He is now the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Yes side in the referendum.
In the lead-up to this year’s vote the politicians leading the Yes side have stayed away from making use of the film for their campaign, or from highlighting what they see as medieval English injustice towards Scotland. However, the film remains a constant topic in media and social media. Earlier this summer a 20th-anniversary of the DVD was released, and several actors from the film announced they were supporters of Scottish independence.
Here is just a sample of some of the hundreds of tweets that go out on Twitter that refer to the movie:
If someone references Braveheart in a discussion of #indyref they are steeped in Scotland's culture and probably correct.
— Iyam F'real (@ogfreel) August 20, 2014
Scotland wants its independence from the UK, but we have to ask: What’s the problem, Scotland? http://t.co/uGsLumd6MG pic.twitter.com/4otIxnzdPN
— Reuters Opinion (@ReutersOpinion) August 19, 2014
@BBCScotlandNews a guy who reads up on Scotland is voting yes on Scotland what a shock, hopefully someone tells him that braveheart is fake
— Andrew Mooney (@AMooney_93) August 17, 2014
I'm an emotional wreck watching Braveheart at this time of night!! #Scotland
— Emma Rooney (@emmarooney18) August 15, 2014
With about a month ago, it remains to be seen if the movie, starring an Australian actor and largely filmed in Ireland, will have an effect on voters in Scotland.