In 1280, King Edward “Longshanks” (Patrick McGoohan) invades and conquers Scotland following the death of Alexander III of Scotland, who left no heir to the throne. Young William Wallace (James Robinson) witnesses Longshanks’ treachery, survives the deaths of his father (Sean Lawlor) and brother (Sandy Nelson), and is taken abroad on a pilgrimage throughout Europe by his paternal Uncle Argyle (Brian Cox), where he is educated. Years later, Longshanks grants his noblemen land and privileges in Scotland, including Prima Nocte (or droit du seigneur, the right of the lord to have sex with female subjects on their wedding nights). Meanwhile, Wallace (Mel Gibson) returns to Scotland and is reunited with his childhood friend, Hamish Campbell (Brendan Gleeson). Wallace falls in love with his other childhood friend, Murron MacClannough (Catherine McCormack); they marry in secret so she will not have to spend the night with the local English lord. Wallace rescues Murron from being raped by English soldiers, but as she fights off their second attempt, Murron is captured and publicly executed. In retribution, Wallace leads his clan to slaughter the English garrison in his hometown and send the occupying garrison at Lanark back to England.
This enrages Longshanks, who orders his son, Prince Edward (Peter Hanly), to stop Wallace by any means necessary. Wallace rebels against the English, and as his legend spreads, hundreds of Scots from the surrounding clans join him. Wallace then leads his army to victory at Stirling and then sacks the city of York, killing Longshanks’ nephew (Richard Leaf) and sending his decapitated head to the king. Wallace seeks the assistance of Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen), the son of nobleman Robert the Elder (Ian Bannen) and a contender for the Scottish crown. Robert is dominated by his father, who wishes to secure the throne for his son by submitting to the English. Worried by the threat of the rebellion, Longshanks sends his son’s wife, Isabella of France (Sophie Marceau), to try to negotiate with Wallace, hoping Wallace will kill her and thus draw the French king to declare war. Wallace refuses the bribe sent with Isabella by Longshanks, but after meeting him in person, Isabella becomes enamored of Wallace. Meanwhile, Longshanks prepares an army to invade Scotland.
Warned of the coming invasion by Isabella, Wallace implores the Scottish nobility that immediate action is needed to counter the threat and to take back the country. Leading the English army himself, Longshanks confronts the Scots at Falkirk where noblemen Lochlan (John Murtagh) and Mornay (Alun Armstrong) betray Wallace. The Scots lose the battle, and Morrison (Tommy Flanagan) and Campbell, senior (James Cosmo) die at the battle. As Wallace charges toward the departing Longshanks on horseback, he is intercepted by one of the king’s lancers, who turns out to be Robert. Remorseful, Robert gets Wallace to safety before the English can capture him. Wallace kills Lochlan and Mornay for their betrayal, and wages a guerrilla war against the English for the next seven years, assisted by Isabella, with whom he eventually has an affair. Robert, intending to join Wallace and commit troops to the war, sets up a meeting with him in Edinburgh. However, Robert’s father has conspired with other nobles to capture and hand over Wallace to the English. Learning of his treachery, Robert disowns his father. Isabella exacts revenge on the now terminally ill Longshanks by telling him she is pregnant with Wallace’s child, and intent on ending Longshanks’ line and ruling in his son’s place.
In London, Wallace is brought before an English magistrate (David Gant), tried for high treason, and condemned to public torture and beheading. Even whilst being hanged, drawn and quartered, Wallace refuses to submit to the king. As cries for mercy come from the watching crowd deeply moved by the Scotsman’s valor, the magistrate offers him one final chance, asking him only to utter the word, “Mercy”, and be granted a quick death. Wallace instead shouts, “Freedom!”, and the judge orders his death. Moments before being decapitated, Wallace sees a vision of Murron in the crowd, smiling at him.
In 1314, Robert, now Scotland’s king, leads a Scottish army before a ceremonial line of English troops on the fields of Bannockburn, where he is to formally accept English rule. As he begins to ride toward the English, he stops and invokes Wallace’s memory, imploring his men to fight with him as they did with Wallace. Robert then leads his army into battle against the stunned English, winning the Scots their freedom.