Scotland in March. Thousands of feet have churned the recently frozen ground into thick mud. A cloud of mist hangs over the hillside; the breath from eight hundred clansmen dressed in kilts of ragged wool and leather. They stand in loose rows; shields, pikes, spears and swords held ready. There is no sound. Even the horses are quiet aside from the occasional soft, lonely thump of a hoof hitting earth. Everyone waits silently for the call to action.
‘Action!’ shouts the First Assistant Director and the camera on its crane begins the long panning shot. It starts off high to establish the size of the crowd then gradually descends to show the faces of the five hundred army reservists and the bearded men assembled from the bars and clubs of Glasgow – men handpicked for their ability to look threatening whilst wearing skirts and blue make-up. The camera finally drops to the front row where the professional extras and bit-part actors stand. Their expressions of terror have little to do with an impending battle and more to do with remembering to hold their spears straight and knowing exactly when they should start cheering.
Mel Gibson sets off on his horse. The camera picks him up and follows him as he gallops along the line. ‘Mel Gibson!’ whispers Jimmy McLelland in the front line. ‘Mel fockin’ Gibson – right there!’
Jimmy’s expression is more terrified than most. This is the most crucial scene of the movie. Quotes from this scene will be shown on the poster. If the film gets nominated for an Oscar, they’ll play it on the big screen during the ceremony and the whole world will be watching. This scene could very well go down in cinematic history – and Jimmy has a line to say in it.
He hadn’t been expecting this, the instructions from the casting agency had been to ‘stand in a field, hold a sword and look grubby.’ But yesterday, during the rehearsal, it had been clear that something wasn’t working. Mel Gibson’s epic speech seemed too long and staged – they needed to insert a line to break it up and give him a jumping off point.
Jimmy and a handful of other extras had been picked from the huddle around the catering truck and led, one by one, into the enormous fully heated production tent. When Jimmy entered, he was disappointed to see that Mel Gibson wasn’t present. Instead, there was a team of Americans wearing puffer jackets.
He told them about his appearances in Casualty and Take The High Road. The Americans hadn’t heard of either programme so Jimmy told them they were high profile, prime time, British television institutions. He did not tell them that his role in Casualty had been as ‘Man on Stretcher 1’ and that he’d appeared on Take the High Road when he was eleven years old.
‘We’ve added a line of script,’ said one of the Americans. ‘Do you think you could handle that?’
‘Oh aye,’ said Jimmy. He tried to appear nonchalant but his face was that of an excited puppy.
‘It’s a big scene, there’s a lot of setting up involved and we’ll only get one shot at it. Your line is right at the end of that scene so it’s kinda important you get it right. That’s why we need a professional.’
‘Right here, man. Right here,’ Jimmy beamed.
‘’Kay. You’re on the battlefield facing thousands of Englishmen, yeah? You’re frightened, you’re scared, you’re probably going to die, you think Wallace is asking too much of you. He stops and you say to him: “But the English are too many”. Got that?’
Jimmy decided to show off his acting skills by putting his own twist on the line. All the famous actors did that – Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro – they were known for it. He’d read it in a book.
‘But tha English – they’re too many fae us,’ he said.
‘No, no, no. You gotta stick to the line: “But the English are too many”. ‘Kay? Can you tone down the accent too – we need the line to be clear. American audiences find it difficult to understand Scottish people. Just slow it down a little, enunciate the words more, kay?’
‘But the English are too many.’
‘That’s much better. I think we’ll use you, you look kinda weedy and that might work well for some shots during the battle. If we can show how Wallace’s words have transformed you from a wussy looking streak of piss into a brutal fighting machine, it’ll drive home the point.’ The other men in baseball caps nodded in agreement.
‘’Kay then. That’s all for now’. The man went back to his notes and Jimmy left. A huge man in a red baseball cap followed him outside and tapped him on the shoulder.
‘Good work in there, man,’ he said.
‘Cheers,’ said Jimmy.
‘Just one thing though. Remember that this is a multi-million dollar picture directed by the biggest movie star in the world. This scene alone has taken weeks to develop and has cost more money than you’ll see in your whole lifetime.’
The colour drained from Jimmy’s face. The man jabbed him in the chest with a thick finger.
‘Don’t. Screw. Up.’ he said with each poke.
‘Don’t’ screw up,’ Jimmy tells himself as Mel Gibson races past him on his horse. Mel Gibson! In a few seconds he’ll be right in front of him, waiting for Jimmy to give him his cue.
But the English are too many.
Maybe Mel will see potential in the way he delivers his line. Maybe he’ll recommend Jimmy for roles in other movies. Maybe Jimmy will be invited into Mel’s trailer after the days shoot to discuss how everything went over a wee dram. Maybe they’ll even become friends! Jimmy pictures himself on a Malibu beach. Mel’s playing Frisbee with his kids while Jimmy sits alongside Shirley draped on a sun lounger. Actually, forget Shirley. He can get a new bird once he’s famous – a blond American one or one of those foreign supermodels.
But the English are too many.
Mel reaches the end of the row, flicks his hair and pulls the horse round to come back. He thunders towards Jimmy splashing mud into the faces of the front row extras. Jimmy can see the sweat steaming off the horse; can see the veins standing out in Mel’s neck as he shouts over the noise of galloping hooves.
Don’t screw up.
Then he’s there – Mel Gibson’s there, right in front of him. He pulls his horse up and the camera on the crane drops like the neck of a prehistoric beast to stare Jimmy in the face. Behind it, he can see the whole crew – the First Assistant Director crouched in the mud; the Sound Engineer holding the boom mic just out of shot; the cameramen; the runners; the writers; the art department; the costume department; the set dressers – an army of people in black all pointing their expensive Hollywood weapons towards Jimmy and his little sword.
This was nothing like Take The High Road.
Mel Gibson steadies his horse and looks directly at him. Jimmy’s mind empties itself of all thought.
He notices the man with the red baseball cap, arms crossed, eyes burning.
What’s the line, what’s the line?! Say something – say anything.
‘But there’s fockin’ millions of ‘em doon there, Mel,’ says Jimmy.