Tragedy in Braveheart, The Last Samurai, and Beowulf: The Relevance of
Aristotle’s Poetics in Contemporary Movie Analysis
Aristotle’s Poetics continues to be relevant in the discourse and analysis of drama and literature, especially those falling into the category of tragedy, which he defined as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in a language embellished with each kind of ornament, the several kinds being found in several parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative, through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.” (Aristotle, Chapter 6) Indeed, the Poetics has had such influence in the concepts of katharsis, peripeteia or reversal of fortune, and hamartia or tragic flaw that it has become a useful in the understanding literary works as contained in other media such as film. More importantly, Aristotlean poetics provides a framework for the evaluation of tragic literature based on its elements: the plot, character, thought or theme, diction or speech, and spectacle.
A perfect example of a tragedy according to Aristotlean poetics is the movie Braveheart (1995), directed and starred in by Mel Gibson, which tells the story of how Scotland was united to struggle against the British rule by the leadership and example of William Wallace (Mel Gibson). Gibson’s portrayal of William and the events that would lead to his unwilling (albeit at first) leadership of Scotland’s bid for independence is the movie’s mimesis which necessarily “imitate actions which excite pity and fear.” (Aristotle, Chapter 13) The plot unravels with the tumultuous years of 1280-1314 A.D. where the audience bears witness to William’s transformation from childhood, to the legendary warrior, and ultimately to his death, which, following poetics, corresponds to the proper division of the plot into the prologue, episode, and exode. Moreover, the twists and turns that make up Braveheart’s narrative reinforce the movie’s ultimately tragic ending and underscore the movie’s theme that freedom must be fought for and that a life without freedom is worse than death itself.
Its main character, William Wallace, fulfills the requirements of Aristotle’s tragic hero: a virtuous man victimized by unfortunate events and whose fortune goes from bad to worse despite his intent to live a quiet and simple life. Here, Wallace is a peasant whose simple dreams of a home, wife, and children are shattered by the British’ rulers’ brutality. Wallace’ misfortune is illustrated much earlier when his father and brother dies from fighting Edward I, the ruthless and merciless ruler of England. This is repeated with the death of his childhood sweetheart and wife after he rescues her from British soldiers attempting to rape her. These series of events compels him to lead his countrymen in rebellion after he and his co-villagers successfully stage a vengeful attack on the British barracks in their community. Wallace’ army, composed mainly of peasants, goes on to defeat the British Army and even captures the powerful city of York.
However, Wallace’ hamartia or tragic flaw is his assumption that the “noblemen” of Scotland desires freedom as much as he and his peasant army do, forgetting the selfish interest of the elite to protect and amass material wealth and status. The opportunity for anagnorisis or recognition comes when they are betrayed by the Scottish elite in the Battle of Falkirk where they taste defeat from their enemies but Wallace refuses to accept the compromising nature of the propertied class. Consequently, the peripeteia or reversal of fortune occurs when he falls for a trap set up by the conniving Scottish nobles, is captured, and turned over to the British. Wallace is consequently beheaded after being painfully tortured, his catharsis brought by his death in the gallows without betraying his principles and values.
As is observable in such movies, the speeches, music, and cinematography are eloquent and grand, thereby creating what Aristotle would call the perfect spectacle. Wallace, for instance, speaks poetically about freedom and the virtues of human beings to arouse the morale of his countrymen in preparation for battle and to justify the need for war against the British crown. Incidentally, the film’s ending where he gathers his remaining strength to shout “Freedom!” as a response to his executioner’s suggestion that he beg for mercy is an imitation of the spectacle itself, or what might be called a spectacle within a spectacle as the movie’s audience becomes a spectator of both Gibson’s imitation of Wallace’ execution and Wallace’ execution as it might have actually been done, down to the horrifying shrieks of excitement from the mob. The musical score of the movie is also derived from the traditional Scottish instruments, and the well-timed use of lonely music in many parts of the film contributes to the tragic atmosphere. In the end, the ability of the movie to move the audience to pity and fear especially in the spectacle, to empathize with Wallace’ fate, demonstrates the full power of Gibson’s Braveheart as a tragedy.
Another movie that contains similar elements of Aristotlean tragedy is Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai (2003), which also bears resemblance to Braveheart in terms of its treatment of the plot as inevitably leading to the peripeteia. This time the story is told from the perspective of American soldier Nathan Algreen (Tom Cruise) who, together with his former commanding officer, is commissioned by wealthy Japanese businessman Omura to train the Imperial Army in western-style fighting and war equipment use. In the succeeding turn of events, Algreen would be captured by the samurai rebels led by Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) after he reluctantly leads an ill-prepared army into crushing the samurai rebellion at Omura’s command.
Algreen has enough guilt and emotional conflict in him from his previous experiences and atrocities committed against the Native American Indians which justifies why he later joins the cause of the samurai rebels after he becomes respectful and appreciative of their austere life and self-discipline. The real tragic character, however, is samurai leader Katsumuto whose principles and way of life are drastically being thrown into obsolesence as Japan enters the age of modernity in the age of the Meiji restoration. With the entry of Western influence and the growth of Japan’s bourgoise as the feudal base of power declines, comes the waning of the imperial power and together with it the samurai’s place as highly esteemed protectors of the emperor. Katsumoto’s refusal to accept the changes that are rapidly sweeping his country and his adamant allegiance to the Bushido therefore precludes his tragic end in the hands of the newly-equipped Imperial army.
As in Braveheart, the audience is moved to tears with heart-rending pity for Katsumoto’s downfall as he is felled by bullets in the battlefield and is forced to commit suicide to preserve his honor. It is at this fleeting moment that Katsumoto recognizes the inevitability of his death as he and his warriors, skilled in close-combat and swordfight, are rendered helpless by the rain of cannons and bullets. Consequently, Katsumoto’s death also becomes the source of cathartic awakening for the Imperial soldiers and for the emperor, who are forced to acknowledge their huge loss at the samurai culture’s weakening.
Meanwhile, an example of a movie which fails to conform to Aristotle’s concept of the tragedy despite its seemingly tragic end is Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary’s adaptation of the classic epic Beowulf (2007), brought to life on the screen by director Robert Zemeckis. The plot, which revolves around monster-slaying hero Beowulf’s claim to the throne after he kills the monster Grendel and meets its mother, shows the downfall of Beowulf due to his all-too human weaknesses. In contrast to Aristotle’s requisite in a tragic character, Beowulf is depicted as a powerful man whose physical strength is proven useless by his own greed and lust. His death in the movie’s ending therefore fails to elicit pity, fear, and sympathy as it seems to be a just punishment for his arrogance and lack of virtue.
Aristolean poetics therefore outlines the necessary elements of a tragedy as demonstrated in the analysis of the movies Braveheart, The Last Samurai, and Beowulf. This analysis leads to the conclusion that the first two movies successfully comply with Aristotle’s notion of tragedy in terms of plot, characterization, theme, music, diction, and spectacle while the other significantly fails through the inherent flaws of its character. Extending this analysis also suggests that the narrative contained in Braveheart and The Last Samurai—the prelationship between its characters and their display of virtue in the midst or despite victimization by powerful events—elicit pity, sympathy, and powerful emotions from the audience who are able to identify with the emotional weight of the mimesis or make-believe. Thus, it comes without much surprise that the poetics has survived as a classic framework of literary analysis for it addressed not only the necessary structure and elements of tragic literature but also its necessary effect on the audience even in contemporary times.
Butcher, S.H. (undated). Poetics by Aristotle (translation). Internet Classics Archive. Retreived 01/17/2007 from http://classics.mit.edu//Aristotle/poetics.html
Gibson, Mel (1995). Braveheart. United States: Paramount Pictures.
Zemeckis, Robert (2007). Beowulf. United States: Paramount Pictures.
Zwicks, Edward (2003). The Last Samurai. United States: Warner Bros.