Freedom: A Catholic Analysis of the Trials and Triumphs of William Wallace in “Braveheart”
“The secret of happiness is freedom; the secret of freedom, courage.”
When I watched the movie Braveheart, I found myself uplifted in an experience of what it truly means to be human. What separates us from all of the other beasts is the fact that we have the freedom to respond to the world we live in, according to or against the objective value of each situation. For the modern world, freedom usually means the “ability to do what I want.” But true freedom does not consist in having many options, rather it is the capacity to choose that which is good. Through freedom, man is able to recognize goodness, truth and beauty in the world around him, respond to these values, and then act according to his judgment. The trials and triumphs of William Wallace in the movie Braveheart portray the human struggle to attain true freedom.
We prove whether or not we are truly free when we have to make decisions about good and evil. When we experience an injustice, we usually respond in one of two ways. Either we ignore the wrong, detach ourselves from it, and refuse to face it as an objective evil, or we allow the unpleasant experience to define us, and hatred and rage for our persecutors governs our actions thereafter. However, neither of these responses are those of a free human being. Rather, the truly free person will respond with fortitude, measuring the objective evil of the circumstance, acting according to what justice demands, and clinging to the good that has been stripped from him even after he has acted. It sounds simple enough, but honestly, who possesses the virtue of fortitude? Not most human beings. And this is why I say that Braveheart portrays what it means to be human, because the character William Wallace illustrates the human struggle to live with fortitude.
In the very beginning scene, after the funeral of his father and brother, young William has a choice to make on how he will respond to the injustices he has just experienced. He is full of sorrow and completely uncertain of his future. Then, he has a dream in which his father speaks to him these words: “Your heart is free, have the courage to follow it.” Now to the modern world, this might mean “Do what you feel like,” but for someone with an idea of what it means to be courageous, this is a call to follow the natural desire for justice.
At first, Wallace refuses to follow this desire because he knows the costs. He has seen what has happened to those who oppose the enemy, and so he tries to avoid getting into trouble. But he soon discovers that it is impossible to stay silent when injustice is running rampant. His beloved wife Murron is murdered, and he responds with an unleashing of wrath upon the unjust. Although a horribly gory scene, during which I closed my eyes many times, it is important because it is the first time Wallace commits to standing up against injustice. However, he acted on the basis of emotion, so even though he did act to fulfill justice, his actions were not truly free. On the surface, this battle marks the beginning of Wallace leading his country in a war for freedom. But really, it is the beginning of his inner struggle for true freedom.
I’ll skip through the bloody battles, the politics of the English and Scottish nobles, and the unnecessary romance between Wallace and the princess. There are some good scenes throughout which portray William’s struggle for freedom, such as his motivational speech to his countrymen on the battlefield, his conversations with Robert the Bruce, and how he deals with the betrayal of the nobles. However, not all of his actions are virtuous. In fact, the movie promotes some behaviors which are quite corrupt. However, there is still an uplifting message that appeals to all of humanity. The climax of Wallace’s struggle for freedom occurs when he decides to place his trust in Robert the Bruce, knowing very well that there may be a trap for him set up by the other nobles. Confident that it is the right thing to do regardless of the outcome, William goes to Robert, and is betrayed.
This is the point at which the tables turn for William Wallace in his struggle for freedom. The words of Thucydides really are true, for it is the courage of Wallace that gives him the key to true freedom.
Even when he is tempted by the princess to dull the pain, he refuses so that he can embrace the suffering and torture for the sake of his country. He is not without fear, but offers that fear before God, and prays for the strength to die well. The torture scene is the final testing point, when we are finally convicted that there is something which lies so deep in man not even the worst pain can take it away. This is freedom, the capacity to cling to that which is good even in the midst of injustice. Wallace clings to the good of his faith, his love for his wife, and loyalty to his country, completing his struggle with that virtue which is most essentially human, hope.
William Wallace’s passionate cry for freedom is the most beautiful portrayal of what it means to be human, for this is the cry of every human being. We all long for this freedom, but search for it in all the wrong places. We believe having many choices and opportunities means that we are more free, but Wallace shows that true freedom exists precisely when all external choices have been taken away. As the ancient Greek historian Thucydides said: “The secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom, courage.” By following his desire for justice, and living with fortitude through faith and hope, Wallace was able to take up the cry for freedom!
As Catholics, what can we learn from the movie Braveheart? First of all we can learn the frailty of human nature. The experience of suffering with Wallace, feeling the inner conflict, the rage, and the struggle to fulfill justice leaves us all the more dependent upon grace. As Wallace recognized, true fortitude is not possible without divine assistance. He prayed to God to give him strength, and his courage withstood the test of torture because of his faith and hope. We are people of faith and hope, striving to live out our freedom through charity. Let us remember that fortitude is the virtue that holds onto the good precisely when it is most difficult. It is the readiness to die for the sake of the Kingdom of God, and only by a true act of freedom can death be embraced. What do we do with this experience? We turn to God at each and every moment to ask for the grace to suffer well, no matter how big or small the sacrifice may be. I’ll end with some words from Dietrich von Hildebrand on true freedom:
“To sum up — true inner freedom means that we have relinquished our natural standpoint and live through Him, with Him, and in Him. This implies an unequivocal renunciation of the basis that had formerly provided us with a sense of natural security. Egocentric biases, complexes of fear, psychic cramp as well as laxity and self-indulgence of every kind — in a word, all illegitimate preoccupations, all that is not rooted in the call of God or in the appeal of true values — must be dislodged and stripped of their empire over us.
“To all legitimate interests and obligations, on the other hand, we must remain and become fully alive, Hence, true freedom is not the equivalent but the opposite of those stoic ideals of apathy and ataraxy which require us to become insensitive to all goods, so that we derive a sense of mastery from being subject to no obligations. True freedom does not make us insensitive to either the sufferings imposed on us or the blessing lavished upon us by God; on the contrary, because we are free from all irrelevant and illegitimate ties, everything that bears on true values has a far deeper and stronger impact on our hearts.
“And, because (under the law of true freedom) we seek before all else “the kingdom of God and His justice,” all natural values present themselves to our eyes against the background of the supernatural; therefore, no natural good as such can attract or bewitch us to the point of enslaving us. Its power over us does not extend beyond the limit of its relevancy as viewed in the light of the supernatural. The comparative reserve we impose on ourselves in regard to all genuine goods of the natural order has no meaning but to make us completely free for integral allegiance to the highest good. Once more, the aim is not, as with the stoic, to get rid of all attachments, but to realize one’s unconditional and unhampered attachment to God.
“With our entire life informed by the consciousness of the “one thing necessary,” all legitimate ties will assume their proper place as assigned to them by the will of God. True freedom means that, free from all illegitimate ties, we take account of the true hierarchy of values visualized in a supernatural light, and adjust all our attachments to it.
“He who is truly free “abides in the truth.” He lives in God, before God, and on a basis derived from God. He is no longer enchained to his nature, being able to say with St. Paul the Apostle, “And I live, now not I: but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20). The free, wide, universal air of the Liturgy breathes through his life.
“Freedom means ultimate truth. He who has achieved true freedom is animated by that holy courage, steeped in humility, which says — “I can do all, in Him who is my strength.” Nothing can confound him, for he knows the meaning of St. Paul’s words: “If God be for us, who is against us? He that spared not even His own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how hath he not also, with him, given us all things?” (Rom. 8:31-32). [Transformation in Christ, 296-298]
By Teresa Benedicta