As I get more reviews on The Legionnaire, I begin to forget which movies I covered. Most of the time, I can tell you whether or not there is an article about a title. As I approach 1,000 reviews, though, I am beginning to forget. For example, if you had told me before last week that I had not talked about The Patriot (2000), I would have thought otherwise. Given my academic studies, it stands to reason that it would have been among the first titles addressed when I began expanding this blog a couple years ago to cover most any movie. It is a film that I wanted to be so much better than what it is, a hope spurred on by Mel Gibson and my enjoyment of Braveheart (1995). Of course, that one is problematic, too, and for many of the same reasons as The Patriot. While I can write off the former as being about a period in history about which there is still not a ton of historical documentation, the latter is a more a part of my identity, at least in terms of the country in which I live. Why can there not be one good movie about the American Revolution?
One of the first problems with The Patriot is that it begins with the colonies’ struggle for independence already under way. It is also set in South Carolina, which will pose hurdles for other aspects of the film. Now, every one of the original thirteen colonies had representatives at the Continental Congress, and they all signed the Declaration of Independence. Yet, in South Carolina, the issue still seems up for debate. The person who is seemingly riding the line between patriotism to the cause and loyalty to England is Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson). After an opening sequence on his plantation, introducing him, and his sons that are eager to fight the British, they all head to Charleston where the issue of war with Great Britain is to be debated. After dumping off his army of kids with their aunt, Charlotte Selton (Joely Richardson), Benjamin takes his seat amongst the other bigwigs in the community to discuss the hot button matter of the day. With angry shouts on both sides of the issue, Benjamin says that he does not like the heavy hand with which the Colonies are being treated, but does not support war with England. That is not the case with his eldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger). Stopping only briefly to flirt with his beau, Anne Howard (Lisa Brenner), he goes straight to enlist in the Continental Army over Benjamin’s objections. And time goes on. . . . After a few years of fighting, the war eventually moves south, and a wounded Gabriel ends up stumbling onto the farm on which he had lived. Actually, a lot of soldiers, colonial and British alike, end up on the Martin land because of a nearby battle, and they provide relief for all the wounded. The first to arrive to assess the situation are the Redcoats, and the Martins were about to be given thanks for services rendered until Colonel William Tavington’s (Jason Isaacs) dragoons appear. Colonel Tavington takes a dim view of anybody with the slightest hint of rebellion. He orders the British wounded to be taken away, to burn down the Martin’s home, and to execute all the Continental soldiers, including Gabriel. Benjamin is shocked, but it is his second oldest son, Thomas (Gregory Smith), who tries to free his brother. In the process, he is shot dead by Colonel Tavington himself. Once the British leave, with Gabriel about to hung as a spy for carrying dispatches, Benjamin takes the next two sons in line, taps into his long-forgotten skills from the French and Indian War, and them Martin boys ambush the column in the woods, killing everyone that stands between father and son. There is nothing like seeing dad covered in blood. . . . At any rate, this means that Benjamin’s lot is cast, and he offers his services to his old friend, Brigadier General Henry Burwell (Chris Cooper), who takes command for a time after their latest defeat. Benjamin is made a colonel, given his son to be a part of the unit he forms, and goes out to form a group of irregulars to harass the British Army led by Lieutenant General Lord Charles Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), and keep him from threatening Washington’s forces in the North. Furthermore, Lord Cornwallis does not approve of the brutal tactics employed by Colonel Tavington. This gives Benjamin and his men a little bit of leeway in their guerilla warfare, but eventually it tries Lord Cornwallis’ patience. The final straw comes when Benjamin tricks Lord Cornwallis into a prisoner exchange with prisoners the rebels have not captured. In response, Lord Cornwallis turns to Colonel Tavington, telling him to do whatever he likes in bringing about Benjamin’s demise. One of Colonel Tavington’s moves is to sack a nearby town that had been supplying Benjamin’s irregulars, which is where Gabriel’s former beau, now wife, Anne lives. Colonel Tavington rounds up all the townspeople, locks them in the church, and burns it to the ground with everyone inside, including Anne. When Gabriel comes upon the destroyed building, he takes off in pursuit of Colonel Tavington with a few others from the town who had loved ones among the murdered. Gabriel almost succeeds in exacting revenge, but is killed. At this point, Benjamin almost gives up on the cause. What rallies him is finding an American flag amongst Gabriel’s possessions that his son had been mending. He then carries it into one more battle, which is where he finally comes face-to-face with Colonel Tavington, and gets even for his family. From there, the movie shows us the siege of Yorktown, which is basically where the American Revolution and the film come to an end.
There are several historical problems with The Patriot. Some of them are major, others are nitpicky things that only bother history nerds like myself. The smaller things include the general cleanliness of everyone involved, particularly the Continental Army, which is a personal bugaboo. History is a muddy affair, and when I see neat camps and tents of colonial soldiers, I sigh in my disappointment at the lack of attention to detail. There were also some issues with the uniforms, and armaments, especially the artillery. If you know the cannons of the era, what you see in the film will have you laughing hysterically. What is not laughable, and this is an embarrassing flaw in the film, is the treatment of race. Keep in mind that this is set in South Carolina, a state that less than 100 years later, will be the first state to secede from the Union. Make no mistake, this was over the institution of slavery, and the perceived threat that Abraham Lincoln posed to it. Yet, today’s film would lead you to believe that relations between white and black were relatively harmonious. Those African Americans working on the Martin farm are not slaves, they are freemen and women who I am sure (cough) are earning a wage. They are so devastated when the British torch the Martin’s house. At any rate, we cannot have our hero be a slave owner. The movie does, in the most limited sense, address racism. One of Benjamin’s men, Dan Scott (Donal Logue), does not like having to serve with Occam (Jay Arlen Jones), a slave sent to fight in place of his master. Historically speaking, this did happen. However, there was a much larger incentive for slaves to join the British side as they offered freedom to any who did so. There was no similar policy in the Continental Army, despite Occam talking about it. What is further confounding, beyond Occam’s attitude and him saving Dan’s life, is the wonderful little wedding celebration for Anne and Gabriel held at the free black community where Howard’s children took shelter. It is all happy and joyous, despite the war, and ridiculous. One could look at this and say, well, it may have occurred? Maybe? One of the many unfortunate aspects of American culture today is that there are those that get their history from Hollywood. I am here to tell you that this is not a historically accurate movie.
On to the Christian aspects of The Patriot! This, too, is aggravating. I appreciate that Benjamin is a praying man, and we see him doing so in a couple scenes. I even approve of his preaching of peace at the beginning, and his reticence to go to war. Armed combat is avoidable if enough people are willing to give it a chance. Imagine how much better of a world we would have if more people followed the Bible’s directive of beating our swords into plowshares. Nonetheless, these are mere details. One of the first things you hear in the movie is a narration by Benjamin talking about how he long feared that his sins would catch up with him. Sin is bad, but it is not like karma. With true repentance (handy for us Catholics with Confession), God erases our wrongdoing. Even without repentance, God is not going to punish us in a tit-for-tat manner as would be suggested by Benjamin’s opening words. Yet, that is essentially how the death of Benjamin’s sons is presented. God is bigger than such pettiness.
Because neither the history or theology is good in The Patriot, there is little for me to recommend in it. On top of the incorrect views about the way God works and the inaccurate historical details, there are also many tragic deaths. In addition to Anne’s demise, along with her neighbors, there is the senseless killing of the Billings family by Colonel Tavington’s men. Upon discovering the bodies of his wife and young son, John Billings (Leon Rippy) commits suicide. Take all this, along with the fact that it is nearly three hours long, and chuck the film.