Let’s talk backstories! I’m not going to make a TOP 10 BACKSTORIES out of principle just because I have wasted so many hours falling for clickbait that I never agree with. Instead, I’m just going to share my favorites (in no particular order)! But before I get to the first one I wanted to write about, let’s talk about the idea of backstories and the role they play in movies.
When creative direction takes this step of “we need a backstory,” it makes an attempt to tell the audience exactly what they need to know about a character’s past in hope to link the audience to the role it will play in that character’s future (but this can also be done with governments, countries, rebellions and any number of things).
While this step is necessary, there is definitely an art to making a backstory serve its purpose. Because every minute you spend on a backstory - can rob the audience of the actual story you came to tell. And with movies, there is definitely a time crunch to keep the run time a certain length. But there are many films that strike this balance perfectly and this is one of my favorites!
“I shall tell you of William Wallace.... Historians from England will say I am a liar, but history is written by those to have hanged heroes…”
To start, this opening line does more than just say who this story is about, but also justifies the need for a backstory: to correct the history we think we know (which is brilliant)!
From this moment, we get to see a young William Wallace who is less interested in farm chores than he is in following his father and more importantly, wanting to fight. But his father says something profound which is a recurring theme throughout the movie, “I know you can fight, but it is our wits that make us men.”
It is this wisdom that contradicts the nobles desire to fight for position amongst each other (which is the greatest barrier between the Scots and their freedom). And for few nobles who would not settle for less than freedom, were lured by Longshanks “under a flag of truce to a barn, where he had them hanged.” And at a young age, William saw what happened to these nobles and more importantly learned that Longshanks was more interested in making slaves than making peace.
When William’s father died, there is a stunning scene that shows William searching for his father and not finding him in the group of rebels returning home. Instead of facing that truth, he turns away from it (to his chores) in hope to spare him the grief even if only for a little while. But after the news is given to him… his first step is not to avenge his father’s death but rather to mourn. And after his Father’s funeral, and after a young Maren gives him the flower (beautiful), he meets his uncle Argyle.
Uncle Argyle serves as the guide that we don’t really see very much of, but plays an important role nonetheless. He is the man that takes a young William who is in mourning and helps him rise from the ashes and become who he was born to be. As William picks up a sword, his uncle takes it away and says, “First, Learn to use This (Head) and then I will teach you to use this (Sword)...”
And as William rides away with his uncle to “remedy” himself, he looks back at his home and his childhood that now behind him.
What this backstory does so beautifully is explain:
- the loss that William has already experienced in his life and the hesitation to fight so that he doesn’t lose more.
- the knowledge of “Longshanks’ notion of peace,” and lies and tricks he used to keep a country on it's knees.
- the attachment to his childhood home even with the heartbreak and why he decides to return.
- the skills and wisdom fostered by his father and uncle which in turn equip him to not only fight for what he loves but the wits to outsmart anyone who tries to take them from him.
And throughout this entire backstory, it is complimented by the oscar winning cinematography of John Toll and we get to see these long expansive Scottish landscapes that William Wallace will journey through. And they accompanying all of that is the incredible work of James Horner who did the score. And while he may be most famous for his score of Titanic, his work in this film for me is right up there!
All in all, with all the ground this film had to cover, Mel Gibson perfectly captured the major themes of William's past that will echo in this character's future. And while the movie itself is long, this backstory was very concise and crucial in setting up the true story that Mel Gibson wanted to bring to the big screen.
- Joey Almars