08 April 2014

Explaining Mel Gibson’s Pained Face at the End of the Movie Braveheart


Those of you who have seen the 1995 Hollywood historical fiction blockbuster ‘Braveheart,’ starring Mel Gibson as the legendary Scottish patriot William Wallace, will remember all too well Gibson’s pained contorted face while he was receiving punishment for high treason as the movie drew to a close.

Because what was shown in this scene was Gibson waist upwards with his chest exposed, it was left pretty much to the viewing audience to interpret what was actually being done to the character Wallace.

Gibson, who himself also directed the film, probably opted for caution in not being more explicit. Gibson’s facial contortions probably did not even do justice to the pain that the patriot Wallace was being dealt, as indeed this part of the punishment was perhaps too graphic to project onto a movie screen.

At this point, let us segue to the idiomatic expression ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’ which can be traced back to the Middle Ages. In the modern sense, the expression is loosely used to sound as a threat for severe punishment.


All these were done while the traitor was still conscious. Thus, Gibson’s facial expressions were, in most likelihood, meant to portray disembowelment; although being the audience we are all at liberty to throw in emasculation as well.
In the Middle Ages, the expression was, in a literal sense, the severe punishment imposed upon those who were found guilty of high treason. Simplified, treason was disloyalty to the king or the crown, which the king represented

It was among the highest crimes during the age of monarchies because loyalty was the foundation of the monarchical state. Therefore, disloyalty or treason was among the most severely punished of citizens’ crimes.

Back to the film, remember that Wallace waged war to prevent the English king from extending his sovereignty north of the border into Scotland; but was subsequently captured.

Now remember that Gibson as Wallace was first hanged; but was released before he asphyxiated. Death supposedly occurs roughly four minutes after oxygen is denied from the body. Imagine being on the throes of death but then being yanked back to full consciousness.

This was the ‘hanged’ part.

With Wallace back to his wits, the executioner then gave the order to ‘rack him.’ His arms were tied to a pulley, the other end of the rope of which was being pulled by a horse to stretch his limbs in what must have been excruciatingly painful punishment.

The ‘drawn’ part of the idiom is under debate by historians. There are those who say that traitor is drawn by a horse to the place of execution. If this is the case, or so the argument goes, then should the expression not be ‘drawn, hanged and quartered’?

No, some say. The ‘drawn’ part is actually when the traitor is disembowelled and/or emasculated. Disembowelling is having one’s internal organs removed and, thus, ‘drawn’ out of the body; while emasculation is the removal of the penis and/or testicles.

All these were done while the traitor was still conscious. Thus, Gibson’s facial expressions were, in most likelihood, meant to portray disembowelment; although being the audience we are all at liberty to throw in emasculation as well.

The ‘rack him’ part was probably the Hollywood interpretation of ‘drawn.’

To put the traitor out of his misery, he was then beheaded and his body chopped into four parts. Hence, the ‘quartered’ part of the idiomatic expression.

The ‘quarters’ were then publicly displayed on pikes all over the country; but most likely in parts where there were threats of unrest or uprisings against the king. As a sort of warning, in other words, something that said ‘try at your own risk’ or ‘this is what you will get.’


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