The Patriot


Directed by Roland Emmerich

With Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs, Chris Cooper, Tcheky Karyo, Rene Auberjonois, Lisa Brenner, and Tom Wilkinson.

By Reece Pendleton

In “The Devil Finds Work,” James Baldwin’s 1976 essay about the portrayal of race in American movies, the author tartly remarks that self-evasion is the only history this country has. The statement came to mind while I was watching Hollywood’s latest summer spasm of red, white, and blue bombast, The Patriot. The film stars Mel Gibson as a widowed South Carolina plantation owner who’s reluctantly drawn into the early skirmishes of the American Revolution. It’s a tempting idea for an action picture, given the noble impulses that led to the war and the sacrifices many ordinary people made to win their independence. But while The Patriot espouses the values associated with the revolution, it’s all too willing to ignore or distort history, and inadvertently it has less to say about patriotism than about our own talent for delusion.

Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin, is the stern but loving father of several adorable children, a decent man who’s so benevolent that he doesn’t own slaves. No, the black folks working his fields, as one grateful plantation hand explains, “work the land freely.” In South Carolina. In 1776.

Conscience-stricken by his own brutality during the French-Indian wars, Martin opposes South Carolina’s entry into the conflict with Great Britain and gives a heartfelt speech (the first of many) at a town meeting, pleading with the assembled statesmen to give diplomacy a chance, to spare their families the horrors of war. He tries to stick to his pacifist inclinations, but the battle literally spills over into his backyard. After a cruel British colonel, William Tavington (played by Jason Isaacs with all the subtlety of a James Bond villain), arrives at Martin’s home with his troops, shoots one of Martin’s sons, arrests another, and burns down the plantation, Martin becomes the Rambo of 1776.

Using a swamp as his base of operations, “The Ghost” (as Martin is called by the British troops) forms a local militia, successfully employing guerrilla tactics against the befuddled enemy. A frustrated General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) tires of the cat-and-mouse game, and on the eve of a crucial battle between British and American troops he unleashes the dastardly Colonel Tavington to kill the militiamen’s family members, including Martin’s eldest son.

The commanding American colonel (Chris Cooper), a longtime friend of Martin’s, begs him to stay and lead the troops to victory, reminding him of his deceased wife’s admonition to always “stay the course.” But a grief-stricken Martin has had enough and decides to go home. Fortunately for America, he finds the tattered Stars and Stripes that his son had been mending before he was killed, realizes the error of his ways, and rides back, waving the flag, to the huzzahs of the rebels. During the battle, when the Americans are about to fall to the British, Martin picks up Old Glory again, waves it around in slow-motion, and inspires his men to beat the crap out of the Brits. In case this is too subtle, he then uses the staff as a jousting instrument against his nemesis, Colonel Tavington.

The film’s press kit stresses the filmmakers’ attention to historical detail: they’ve covered everything from the military uniforms, which are “as historically accurate as possible,” to Martin’s house, also “as authentic as possible” with its “high ceilings and long corridors…an aged brick fireplace in one room, a marble one in another…the picture of Colonial, masculine taste–with a few feminine accents to reflect the lasting importance of Martin’s union with his deceased wife.” The Smithsonian Institution is prominently credited in the film for “historical consultation.” We can rest assured that the muskets and powdered wigs are remarkably authentic, and that the filmmakers have meticulously researched what a cannonball looks like when it rips a person’s head off.

Unfortunately the rest of the movie is about as realistic as Walt Disney’s Johnny Tremain. Director Roland Emmerich is best known for the sci-fi spectacle Independence Day, in which a stern but loving U.S. president leads a group of fighter pilots into the wild blue yonder to kick some alien ass. Screenwriter Robert Rodat also scripted Saving Private Ryan, in which a stern but loving Tom Hanks leads his platoon into a pile of sentimental goo. With credentials like these, we know that moral ambiguity isn’t exactly a high priority.

The press materials become curiously vague when addressing the historical model for Benjamin Martin, saying only that the character is an “amalgam” of several Revolutionary War heroes. In point of fact, he seems to be based on the militia leader Francis Marion, a South Carolina plantation owner and veteran of the Indian wars who was known as “the Swamp Fox” for his effective use of the local terrain in springing guerrilla assaults on British troops. But Marion was also a slave owner and hardly the benign if conflicted patriarch played by Gibson.

The South Carolina militias, portrayed in the film as a ragtag band of good-hearted family men, could be exceedingly ruthless, not just against British troops but with neighbors who refused to join them or take sides–the lynching of perceived loyalists and destruction of their homes was not uncommon. The British in the film are laughably one-dimensional: General Cornwallis and his entourage are aristocratic fops, while Colonel Tavington and his dragoons are evil incarnate, the John Williams score rumbling ominously every time they arrive in slow-motion like Darth Vader and his storm troopers.

These fanciful touches might be excused on the grounds of dramatic license, but not the film’s appallingly dishonest portrayal of race. Following in the footsteps of Mississippi Burning and A Time to Kill, the film presents blacks as little more than ideological window dressing, there to affirm white America’s inherent tolerance. Occam (Jay Arlen Jones), the token black character, stoically endures the indignities heaped upon him by the token racists, while the noble black masses happily toil in the fields, tend to the white children, and throw Martin’s son a Gullah dance party when he gets married. We might as well be watching Gone With the Wind.

The film’s most bizarre moment comes in the final scene, when Martin returns home after the war to find his friends in the process of rebuilding his house. Occam steps forward: “I was told that if we won the war, we could rebuild a whole new world of freedom. I figured we could start right here with your home.” “Right here” is South Carolina, the home of institutionalized slavery for the better part of the next century.

Yet this sort of historical fantasy is only symptomatic of the conflicted ideology underlying The Patriot. The movie wants us to gasp at the horror and brutality of war but then embrace its rousing jingoism. It’s not hard to see Martin as a stand-in for America’s baby boomers, still haunted by a past war (read “Vietnam”) and trying to exorcise the ghosts through more bloodletting (read “the Persian Gulf”). Like our current nostalgia for World War II (Saving Private Ryan, Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation), The Patriot reflects our wish to redeem ourselves through sacrifice. But that entails more than briefly nodding to our flaws, magnifying what we like best about our past, and waving it around, hoping the euphoria will resolve any contradictions. As Baldwin suggests, we’ve too often rewritten our history to avoid the legacies we most need to confront. Like Benjamin Martin, we’re still trying to atone for our sins, grabbing at any tattered flag to make things right again. i

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.