There are a lot of old glories waving in The Patriot. Tattered and soiled, they wave across battlefields and plantation lawns, held high by good Revolutionary militiamen fighting the bad bad Brits. In Roland Emmerich’s rousing Independence Day extravaganza, these flags represent faith and tenacity more than fearlessness or wisdom, blowing wildly as opposing sides line up and march into each other’s weapons-fire: in the 18th-century, war is a gentlemen’s occupation. You follow orders, no matter how dreadful or unsound, and if that means certain death, well, you consider yourself fortunate to pass on in so splendid a fashion.
Such is the conventional thinking, until Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) starts fighting dirty. Renowned veteran of the French and Indian War, tobacco plantation owner, and widowed father of seven, Ben changes the course of the Revolutionary War when he realizes that his unsportsmanlike behavior against the French a nasty, if motivated, massacre for which he’s been feeling guilty ever since was, in fact, quite effective. Thrillingly and appallingly effective, you learn early on, when Ben righteously enraged by the murder of one of his sons slaughters 20 redcoats in about three minutes. Even when they’re all dead, Ben’s in such a lather that he continues chopping at a corpse his Cherokee tomahawk, much to the horror of three remaining sons, who have only heard rumors about their father’s wartime eminence. Suddenly aware of his audience, Ben turns to face them, bloody and spent. In this moment, it’s clear to even the most jaded viewer that such revenge, however inspired and electrifying to watch, is a costly business.
At first, this awful moment appears honest and instructive, revealing the survivors’ simultaneous exhilaration, disgust, and fear. Ben and his kids can’t quite believe what’s just happened, let alone that they’ve participated in it: in a fit of militaristic rapture, Ben had recruited his frightened preteens to pick off British officers with their muskets while he rampaged mano-a-mano. But like so many recent films about reluctant heroes Unforgiven, Braveheart, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Gladiator, Road Warrior, even Rambo this one offers the ethical dilemma as a kind of preemptive strike, acknowledging that butchery and hellish wrath are unhealthy before getting on with the show.
Like Braveheart‘s William Wallace, Ben is loosely based on a historical figure, Francis Marion, a.k.a. the Swamp Fox, who was not quite so reluctant as The Patriot‘s protagonist (who becomes known as the Ghost). A Cherokee War veteran who became a general in the Continental Army, Marion was revered for his crafty lowdown strategizing. Between Caleb Deschanel’s stunning cinematography (awash in filtered light), John Williams’ intrusively rah-rah score, and Robert Rodar’s (Saving Private Ryan) galvanizing screenplay which draws on a few other Revolutionary Warriors as well, including Thomas Sumter and Andrew Pickens Ben is undeniably charismatic and grand. And the best part is that he doesn’t mean to be: he only enters the fray when it invades his home, quite literally. Once the infernal Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs) starts murdering the children, Ben has to readjust, since he’s just denounced the war to his fellow South Carolinians, including his former war buddy Harry (mournful Chris Cooper) and his feverishly patriotic son Gabriel (pretty Heath Ledger).
And, on the off chance that you’re not convinced by the turbo-tomahawk scene that Ben should be back in action (like the hero he is born to be), the film incorporates its own rather cunning instructional moment. Ben and Gabriel look out from a mansion window, onto an in-progress battle, which plays for the rest of us like a movie-within-the-movie (we see point of view camera angles and close-ups of bodies knocked about and essentially demolished by cannon fire). Observing that this practice of marching into enemy fire is less than efficient, the wily Ben advocates that he and the guys form a militia, the very kind that the Second Amendment supports, comprised of farmers and other such artful deceivers, who will be under no compunctions to be so polite professional military counterparts.
No matter that Tavington is himself roundly reviled for employing similarly unsportsmanlike tactics, in particular by his commander, the effete General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson). Ben and company have the moral high ground, because their families are very much at stake (as the Colonel specifically targets them), whereas the knavish Tavington is only bothered by some prissy dead- father-issues (his own having squandered the family estate and reputation). There’s a method in this seemingly mad domestication of the film’s general war- plot, in that the Revolutionary War was very much a civil one, brothers taking up arms against brothers (or neighbors, anyway), but the film is less interested in these broader issues than in the immediate, viscerally charged, this-time- it’s-personal! conflict between Tavington and the Martins. But the method is somewhat lost amidst the movie’s obvious approbation of Ben’s vindictive violence.
These personal stakes extend to all the colonists, of course. And so Ben and Gabriel are able to enlist a motley crew, comprised of the usual quirky types, designed to illustrate the range of the war’s effects: a plucky reverend (Rene Auberjonois); a gracious Frenchman (Tcheky Karyo) (shades of Godzilla‘s Jean Reno); a crusty old soldier (Leon Rippy); a pudgy racist (Donal Logue); and a black man named Occam (Jay Arlen Jones) who saves the racist’s life, thus teaching him that racism is bad. As if serving as precursor for Emmerich’s hand- everyone-a-coke-ish Independence Day, this film takes some serious liberties with the history of U.S. race relations, such that young Gabriel advises Occam to join the effort, because the war will lead to a “new world” in which all men will be (re?)created equal. Occam takes this idea to heart, nodding sagely as the white boy explains it (little do they both know how much more entrenched and harrowing the institution of slavery will become, after the good guys win). Besides, when Occam serves a full year, he’s legally free, though this year proves to be so encouraging that when his tour is over, he re-ups. And indeed, except for the racist (with whom Occam seems to become joined at the hip after the life-saving incident, as they never appear without one another again), most of the men behave as if he is their equal. (So what if the movie’s actual portrayal of Occam is limited, if we see the white men’s families and not his, and Occam’s scenes are more about their lessons learned than his?)
This self-serving revisionism is most overtly embodied by Ben, who doesn’t actually “own” slaves on his plantation; rather, they work for him because they like him (at least, this is what they tell a British soldier holding a gun on them). And the nonslaves repay their benevolent employer when the redcoats are coming after his remaining children, by hiding them and their Aunt Charlotte (radiant Joely Richardson, as Ben’s inevitable love interest, dead sibling “issues” aside), in a free “maroon” community on the South Carolina coast. It’s surely not a stretch to portray the white characters as dependent on their black counterparts for survival, but it is a bit, well, ironic, that only two black characters Occam and the loyal housekeeper Abigale (Beatrice Rush) speak, and those only a few lines.
It’s ironic because the movie is so clearly invested in the notion of speaking freely, or more precisely, speaking openly as individuals and communities. Free speech is the bottom line for democratic representation. And you know that The Patriot makes prominent, if passing, mention of that taxation without representation business that so notoriously ignites the whole shebang. Free speech is the movie’s most hammered-home point, what its protagonists fight for and viewers presumably root for.
It’s also ironic that this freedom translates into a capacity for ongoing revisions and interminglings of history and myth. On the one hand, more exciting myths mean bigger box office, and Gibson knows a thing or two about this process. The fact that here he embodies the “older” generation no matter how sneaky, admirable, and energetic says something about his own understanding of Hollywood money-making and torch-passing. At the same time, he and his co-creators are plainly aware of the power of delivering to expectations, and (quite like another aging superstar named Clint Eastwood), is proving himself capable of making wild and woolly onscreen violence look like a commentary on itself, and so pre-empting anti-violence complaints. Gibson is nothing if not an overkill specialist: give this man a reason to be mad, and no enemy can beat him, least of all someone with a British accent preaching gentility and practicing slasher- style carnage.
Just as history is written by winners, so hypocrisy is a privilege reserved for winners. And after watching this movie, you might make the same argument about patriotism. When making myths, it’s important to believe in what you’re saying: it’s important to have a strong national self-image, or a genetic predisposition to patriotism. The Patriot is a movie for its carefully planned holiday- moment, brashly flag-waving, falsely nostalgic, and cheerfully manipulative, dynamic and assured of its rightness. Watching this movie is like watching fireworks in some grandly appointed public place. The spectacle is moving, the colors are beautiful, the crowd around you is swept away as you are, the finale is conclusive. And you can go home believing that someone else will clean up the mess.