I have a column in today’s Times, which — if you can vault over the paywall — is available here. It’s not really about politics in any specific sense, but it is about the intersection of politics, film and violence that found tragic expression in the shooting in Denver on Thursday night. Here’s my concluding paragraph, to give you the sense of it:
“In the end, it is on people’s collective sense of realism and decency that we can rely. The madness of one individual will always be just the madness of one individual, not in itself a cause for censorship and over-imaginative speculation. But neither should we just regard nerd culture as a silliness that society will grow out of. Batman walks among us now, in ways that his creators would never have foreseen. We can no more ignore him than we can ignore religion.”
Anyway, I mention this more because there’s a little political factoid in the column which I thought I’d expand on here. It was originally longer, but had to be cut for space reasons.
Basically, it goes back to an interview with Mel Gibson in an Australian newspaper two years ago, which contained the following, delightfully off-base exchange about his film Braveheart (1995):
“The film's political impact on Scotland also is not lost on the former Australian, despite the fabrications added to spice up the script for entertainment appeal.
He agrees the movie partially led to a political upheaval in Scotland, which resulted in the country being granted autonomy from the UK Government only a few years later.
‘I became really aware of what a piece of art could do to change things,’ he says.
‘When I think it was just shortly after this, and I think Scotland was on the way to this anyway, they received some kind of partial autonomy and now I think they got the whole banana, right? It certainly started the ball rolling.’”
Which wins Gibson the Academy Award for Best Political Misunderstanding, and not just because a) the political struggle for Scottish independence rather predates Braveheart, and b) Scotland hasn’t actually, erm, “got the whole banana” yet. No, there’s also c) the fact that there’s little evidence to suggest that Braveheart did boost support for independence. Take the opinion poll findings collected on page 3 of this pdf. The film was released in September 1995, and yet support for independence fell between January 95 and March 96. Admittedly, support for devolution (which was a prospect rather than a reality back then) did rise slightly over that period, but that was soon eroded when support for independence clambered back to its former level. The overall effect is more or less flat.
Of course, as I say in my Times article, films can make a difference in all sorts mysterious yet significant ways — so Braveheart probably has contributed to fabric of Scottish politics. But when it comes to changing people’s opinions wholesale, there are only a few clear examples of cinema doing that, and they are generally documentaries. More often, a film appeals politically only to those who already share its politics. It is down to politicians to entice the uncommitted, as it always has been.