A New Work of Art with an Old Recipe
Okay, so it’s not Braveheart II. In fact, The Patriot is more spectacular, both visually and emotionally, than Mel Gibson’s 1995 Scottish epic. This is not your typical war film. It is your typical war hero film, but it is also so personal and horrific that it might move even the most cynical viewer to tears (or at least a temporary fogging of the eyes). The combination of Caleb Deschanel’s (The Black Stallion) cinematography and the venerable John Williams’ powerful yet subdued score makes for a fairly unsentimental and undeniably striking account of the Revolutionary War.
The Patriot‘s hero, Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), is, in many ways, a reincarnation of Braveheart‘s William Wallace a devoted family man forced by personal loss to lead “his people” into battle in the name of freedom. Martin, like Wallace, is based on a historical figure, Frances Marion, a Revolutionary War hero also known as “the Swamp Fox.” However, while Braveheart was set in distant 13th-century Scotland, far enough away chronologically, geographically, and historically to be of no political concern for U.S. audiences, The Patriot takes on the crucial event in the founding of this great (take that however you like) nation, the war that began in 1776. Director Roland Emmerich, the man who perpetrated such crimes as Independence Day and Godzilla, somehow manages to create a film so beautiful, it looks as though it were shot by a reanimated J.M.W. Turner (this is in no small part due to Deschanel’s breathtaking cinematography). The Patriot doesn’t slack the action department either, delivering magnificent battle scenes that will thrill even the most desensitized viewer into a renewed appreciation for the high art of war.
And how does Benjamin Martin stack up to the kilted William Wallace? Well, damn it, he’s a virtual one-man-army. He fights like Darth Maul on a PCP- induced rampage. When he hacks his enemies to death one by one with his weapon of choice, a hatchet, one would never guess that he is emotionally crippled by a dark, secret past. The film opens with two clues about this past, an image of his Cherokee tomahawk, hidden away in a trunk, and his cryptic voice-over saying, “I have long feared that my sins would come back to visit me, and the cost is too great for me to bear.” We don’t learn what these “sins” are until much later in the film, but the retribution he fears begins soon enough.
Martin, a wealthy South Carolina widower and father of seven children, attends a Charleston town meeting, where the discussion centers on the upcoming war, already declared by several other colonies. Though his fellow townsmen support the opposition of their British “oppressors,” Martin preaches pacifism. Though his former brother-in-arms, Colonel Harry Burwell (Chris Cooper) defends his past bravery in battle, others present challenge Martin’s patriotism.
“What?” you say. “A peaceful single father of seven? We like him already.” All right. But beneath his rugged yet loveable exterior lurks a very capable butcher men. We see him in one scene putting the finishing touches on a rocking chair, only to have it splinter apart when he sits in it. To augment the comic relief, he hurls the chair into a pile of broken rocking chairs, while his youngest daughter, charmed, laughs at him. Such endearing ineptitude is sharply contrasted by his performance in battle, where he becomes a killing machine, shocking three of his children who happen to be observing with his capacity for violence. Martin’s contradictory nature embodies not only the horrors of war, but the horrors of America, past and present, a country that sanctifies family, equality, and freedom, yet remains the most violent and destructive nation in the “civilized” world.
After the town council, Martin’s headstrong son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), signs up for the rebel American militia, and goes off to battle. When Gabriel returns home and to recover from a nasty gash, Martin thinks the worst is over, only to have the British literally show up on his doorstep. Led by stone-faced, stone-hearted Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs), the Redcoats are vicious, brutal, and heartless (unceremoniously disposing of wounded American soldiers on the Martins’ front porch). Colonel Tavington takes Gabriel off to be hung for treason against the empire and when Gabriel’s brother Thomas (Gregory Smith) attempts a daring rescue, shoots the boy in the back. Tavington’s dastardly act sparks Martin’s righteous rage and after rescuing Gabriel (in an unforgettable ambush of the Redcoats) he enters the conflict, organizes a mean militia of ragtag yokels, and chases the evil Colonel Tavington all over the South Carolina countryside. Along the way, through some fabulous battle scenes and fast-paced action, Tavington orders unthinkable atrocities in order to draw Martin and his merry men out of the woods, where they have been waging guerrilla warfare.
Jason Isaac’s Tavington is so coldly and effectively evil that he makes Everyone else seems mildly malicious by comparison. He kills women and children in an “ungentlemanly” fashion, according to his superior General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson); still, Cornwallis sanctions this brutality when his own pride is at stake. And Tavington can be as contradictory as Martin: when the British troops first descend on the Martin plantation, they promise to free all the slaves. Of course, the Martins don’t own slaves; they have free blacks doing all of their field and housework for them. But the irony is that while Benjamin Martin and company fight for a “free” country, historically, the Americans’ refusal to give up slavery resulted in the legal torture and slaughter of millions in order to maintain an economic order in which “democratic” values could be maintained. Despite the teary, bleary haze through which much of this film will be viewed by audiences sensitive to heinous war crimes and adorable grieving children, it should not be overlooked that The Patriot is, for all its sweeping grandeur, a formulaic, textbook piece of propaganda that glorifies all the petit bourgeois values of America, past and present, while stupidly sidestepping the contradictions embraced by scrappy, liberty-lovin’ Americans. Not that petit bourgeois values are inherently wrong, but when couched in the language of freedom and equality, they seem a bit well, petty. The filmmakers attempt to address the issue of slavery in the lamest possible way, by including among Martin’s followers a slave, Occam (Jay Arlen Jones) who fights alongside the white men in the rebel militia. Occam is signed up for battle in the stead of his cowardly owner, yet he soon learns that General George Washington has decreed that all slaves who fight for a year are to be freed. Occam, whose yearning for freedom is his only characteristic (Does he have a family or a past? We never know) is clearly a token character, in that he only has a few lines and those are so impersonal and ambiguous that he is made to speak for all slaves, not as an individual.
When Gabriel Martin explains to Occam that after the Revolution, this will be a new America, where everyone is equal, he does so without a trace of irony. How is the audience supposed to respond to this ridiculous bombast? Anger, laughter, nausea? The ugly truth is that the ideals fought for in the Revolutionary War were not intended to apply to slaves, who were all but ignored by the founding fathers. Just so with The Patriot, which acknowledges slavery, but ignores how integral it was to the system of early democracy. Other slaves or free black workers appear in minor roles, all seemingly happy and resigned to their positions.
While blacks have always played major roles in American history, they have always been represented as either unfortunate victims or irrelevant bystanders. In The Patriot, they are both. Mammies standing by, holding the white children while the white folk flirt and argue, are given nothing to say and everything to do. At one point in the film, Benjamin Martin’s diminished, bedraggled militia takes refuge in a maroon community, that looks like a tropical paradise, in scenes featuring steel drum music and swaying palm trees. This location only serves as a backdrop, however, for Gabriel’s wedding to Anne Howard (Lisa Brenner) instead of an opportunity to learn more about the lives of the blacks, or for the whites to interact meaningfully with them, beyond master and servant roles. The whole scene resembles some kind of sensationalized celebrity wedding, with the Africans hired for atmosphere.
Though we have come to expect such dismissive representations of blacks in American history period pieces, the obvious exceptions being those films made by black writers and directors Beloved, Rosewood is it too much to ask that an epic drama about our past include all who were involved in the creation of this country? Apparently. Like Benjamin Martin’s concealed past which involves bloody outrages committed during the French and Indian war the U.S. past seems to be something with which Americans can’t come to terms, preferring instead the myths of freedom, equality, and “justice for all.” The Patriot is, without question, beautifully realized and emotionally engaging, yet it repeats the formula of exclusionary representation, conceiving American history as the domain of whites, where blacks, free and slave are left on the sidelines, local color for more “heroic” characters.