How Braveheart and Dead Poets Society tell the same story

They couldn’t be more different if they tried, right? Pikes and kilts and killing the English who invade their land, what could that have that’s similar to sitting around a posh boarding school and wanting to be in a play? And yet, when we get down to it, they tell essentially the same story. Rather remarkable if you ask me.

Here’s your first clue. Why is Braveheart called Braveheart? Is Mel Gibson just a badass and wanted a title that made his character look cool? That may be what it ended up meaning to most people but there’s actually a deeper reason to it. Now if we had no historical record of the term “brave heart” then we could be forgiven for thinking they made it up, but there is a record of someone from the time period being called that. It’s not William Wallace, it’s actually Robert de Bruce. Which is ironic when some historians complain about this grumpily because they, like everyone else, think the story is about William Wallace and they bemoan calling him Braveheart instead. But it’s not. Braveheart is the movie’s biggest clue it’s ultimately not about Wallace at all. Shame few people realise that.

Even if I grant you that the name may historically refer to Robert de Bruce (once I’ve done a quick google to make sure you’re not pulling my leg), that still doesn’t prove anything. Don’t worry, we’ll get there. Here’s one way to tell the story: a spectre is haunting Scotland, the English and their mean king. Only one man has the guts to stand up to them and he does, and as he does, more Scots stand up as well and they start winning battles against the English. But then the bad English king gets the Scottish nobles to swap sides and dear Wallace is betrayed and life, we learn, is incredibly unfair and most people suck. The end.

In the same vein, let’s consider the plot of Dead Poets Society very briefly. Again, here’s one way to tell it: there’s this cool guy, Neil, who’s the brightest, most courageous, most full of life of anyone at their stuffy boarding school. As the place is overly strict, once Neil and his mates get a new teacher who encourages them to embrace life, Neil takes it onboard and convinces them to resurrect the Dead Poets Society and they all start transforming their lives and having brave adventures. Neil for his own great adventure decides to star in a local play and he does really well at it, that is, right up until his father finds out and tells him he’s going to send him to a new school so he makes sure he focuses on becoming a doctor and gives up on all this acting nonsense. Poor Neil doesn’t cope too well with this and actually takes his own life. The school finds a way to blame the encouraging teacher and all the boys sign off on a statement blaming the teacher and, again, we learn life is incredibly unfair and most people suck. The end.

Of course, if you’ve actually seen either of those films, you know that’s not how either of them end. Braveheart ends with Robert de Bruce putting the interests of Scotland over his own selfish ones and eventually leading the Scottish to victory at Bannockburn. Dead Poets Society ends with all the boys who learned something throughout the film standing on their chairs in symbolic protest, chanting “O captain, my captain” at the encouraging teacher as a sign they’ve learned his lesson of seeking to truly live life. Cool endings, both of them, and they touch most of us deeply when we watch them. But how can such powerful films be 90% about one character who dies then the last 10% be some hasty mishmash of trying to tie everything else together? I’d argue neither film feels like a tragedy with a nice ending for good measure. They both feel like incredibly powerful victories, and here’s why.

Both films follow this pattern: there’s a hero character who’s not sure of himself and so he’s never the centre of attention. Everyone’s focus (including the film’s itself) is on this other guy who is confident, brave and willing to risk taking on the world. This other guy befriends the hero and keeps trying to get him to do likewise, and the hero occasionally does so but, overall, is still weak and cowardly. Eventually the other guy leaves the scene (in both these cases, actually dies) and the hero is left with deciding whether or not to be, in himself, what the other guy represented. After a bit more cowardice, he finally acts bravely himself and saves the day. It’s about the internal journey of the hero to integrate the values represented by their alter ego, not about the alter ego themselves.

Let’s look at them again in more detail. There are a lot of powerful lines in Braveheart but I think one of the most powerful is after Stirling Bridge when Wallace tells de Bruce, “If you would just lead them to freedom, they’d follow you.” It’s a direct call from the alter ego to the true main character of the story to be what they are meant to be. We get the same thing in Dead Poets Society with a discussion between the actual hero, Todd and the alter ego, Neil, “Listen, Neil, … I’m not like you, alright?”… “Don’t you think you could be?” And see, we do get a sliver of the heroism in both of them around this time. De Bruce sides with Wallace for a while but in Dead Poets Society it’s actually even more profound. When Todd is forced to create a poem on the spot because he didn’t write one like he was supposed to, he actually comes up with something better than anything the others could come up with. For the first time in the film, we get a hint of his true value and that he’s the one it’s ultimately about.

Let’s look back at the endings but before we do there’s something else to throw into this. Both films are fundamentally about overcoming a dark father. Both the powerful, devious king and de Bruce’s own sell-out father are representations of the dark father in Braveheart. In Dead Poets Society everyone from most of the teachers to the fathers of the children themselves have this role. A slight difference would be that the light/good father has a stronger representation in Dead Poets Society through Robin Williams’ character of the encouraging teacher, John Keating, than the odd light father figure in Braveheart. Regardless, both films are essentially constant battles where the hero or his alter egos must try to confront the darkness, culminating in dark father figures, but the alter egos all fail in some way eventually. It’s only once the hero himself stands up to the dark father, personified in de Bruce’s case by his own father, and in Todd’s case by Keating’s replacement teacher, that they demonstrate they have finally integrated the bravery, strength and wisdom the alter ego represented but even he wasn’t able to fully grasp. It’s only then that the darkness can be banished and the other characters can fully rally behind the hero and help save the day. If you don’t believe me, watch the “O captain, my captain” ending again and you’ll realise it’s Todd who starts off the chain reaction.

This is the victory. Both stories are about an overlooked person with immense potential who ends up reaching their potential and making the world better as a result. The fact that both stories focus on the alter ego rather than the hero himself for the majority of the film are why most people don’t realise what they’re actually about. And yet, that ultimately doesn’t matter. You can think Braveheart is about William Wallace and Dead Poets Society is about Neil and still get the archetypal kick by wanting to be more like Wallace or Neil, just like de Bruce and Todd. And you can feel the power of de Bruce and Todd becoming like them, without realising that that itself is what the whole film is about. That’s the power of archetypally successful stories, they’ll resonate with you even if you don’t fully realise how or why. As I said at the beginning, rather remarkable if you ask me.

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