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The Patriot

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: The Patriot

Starring: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger
Director: Roland Emmerich
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 164 Minutes
Release Date: June 2000
Genres: Action, Drama, War


*Also starring: Joely Richardson, Lisa Brenner, Donal Logue, Leon Rippy, Gregory Smith, Mika Boorem, Skye McCole Bartusiak, Adam Baldwin, Tom Wilkinson



Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

When Playboy magazine critic Leonard Maltin slammed Hugh Hudson's 1985 movie about the American War for Independence, "Revolution," he predicted that "thanks to this megabomb, it'll be 2776 until we get another one." Though critics are never wrong, this is the exception. "Revolution," one of only about a half-dozen films that deal seriously with the Eighteenth-Century conflict, featured top actors Al Pacino, Donald Sutherland, Natassja Kinski and Joan Plowright. Nonetheless, Maltin called the script ludicrous and the acting a travesty. Unless you get a chance to take in D.W. Griffith's 1924 silent, "America," with Lionel Barrymore in an especially villainous role, "The Patriot" will likely be your first opportunity to see Redcoats and peasants battle in open fields, their stated mission to prevent the armies of General Cornwallis from moving swiftly North to New York.

While "Gone With the Wind" exploited our fascination with the Civil War during a good deal of the last century, Americans now seem to have lost interest in that conflagration and, indeed, for history in general. What could be more unusual, more horrifying, than the great experiment in modern democracy's pitting brother against brother during the 1860's? And nowadays, who could imagine that Americans could so enthusiastically fight the British people, now our staunchest allies? Perhaps the apathy lies with the history curriculum, which sucks the life out of these events by concentrating on laundry lists of causes and results and the political attitudes of only high government officials.

Utilizing Robert Rodat's ("Saving Private Ryan") screenplay, German director Roland Emmerich presents the rebellion of England's thirteen colonies with a full range of human emotions and ideologies. "The Patriot" examines the theme of father-son conflict, pits the pleas of pacifism against the allure of belligerence, sets the cowardice of collaboration against the mandate of patriotism. Some battle sequences rival even the exceptional panoramas of Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." Solid performances by Mel Gibson in the title role and handsome Australian Heath Ledger as his defiant son fashion "The Patriot" as a spectacle that could cause its audience to rise up against the dull treatment of this marvelous episode from history teachers. By fixing attention on the lives of ordinary southerners during the final quarter of the Eighteenth Century, the film at once illuminates the ways that we ourselves might have fared were we living in good old colony times and crosses the border into schmaltz and cutesy-poo sentimentality.

Emmerich opens on a scene with the kind of humorous metaphoric resonance that can be easily grasped by a the broad audience which the picture hopes to attract. Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), a French-and-Indian war hero noted for his ability to fight guerrilla style rather than confront the enemy on open grasslands, has retired to raise his seven children as a single parent. Since his wife had died leaving the youngsters largely in the custody of his sister-in-law Charlotte (Joely Richardson), Martin is now determined to lay down his muskets despite the call to arms by his neighbors in the early stages of the Revolution. But when the Redcoats take the fighting right into Martin's back yard, gratuitously shooting one of his sons in the back while taking another to be hanged, Martin can no longer embrace pacifism. Arming his male children, he sets out to free his eldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger) and avenge the death of his boy at the hands of the evil Col. William Tavington (Jason Isaacs), whose arrant brutality shocks even the officer's superior and supreme commander of the English forces, General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson).

What follows during this two hour and forty-one minutes' epic is a series of scenes, alternately ruthless and emotional, as Emmerich unfolds a microcosm of the war's effect on ordinary American families during the final year of the colonial experience. While critics will be divided on which aspect is the more effective--the scenes of carnage in the fields or the display of family tensions and political strife within the environs of Charleston--I would applaud principally the former. Emmerich's cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, makes more than effective use of costume designer Deborah L. Scott's uniforms, the outfits contrasting the majestic attire of the English (which ironically increased their vulnerability) with the peasant threads of the irregular fighting forces known as the militia. This was a time that every citizen was armed, when attempts to pass gun control laws would be properly looked upon with laughter by the raggedy bunch of "farmers with pitchforks" whose ability to take on the disciplined armies of Redcoats so shocked Cornwallis. (The right of the people to keep bear arms, "a well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State," was to be incorporated into the Constitution fifteen years later and to become one of the most politically charged battlefields in our own time.)

The most memorable scene occurs shortly after the lingering opening of the movie, as Martin hands guns to his kids, who then methodically and with no small butchery ambush and wipe out a force of Redcoats holding Gabriel prisoner. This is the scene bound to be the most talked- about one in the movie, as present-day Americans, horrified by a sequence of murders committed by youngsters in Columbine High School and other institutions of learning, will protest the butchery.

While Martin's struggle with his insubordinate son Gabriel is well-handled--the teenager insisting on his prerogative to sign up for the conflict like any adult--other aspects of family life are maudlin. Emmerich often lingers on the scrubbed faces of the Martin brood, capturing the love-hate feelings of Martin's youngest, Susan (Skye McCole Bartusiak) in the manner of a TV soap while frequently cutting to the other children, Thomas, Williams, Samuel, Nathan and Margaret simply to evoke "awww's" from those in the audience who enjoy expressing their affinity to young'uns. Nor does Emmerich shy away from too obviously suggesting the shy attraction between Martin and Charlotte, with Charlotte at one time pretentiously intoning, "I am not my sister." The family sequence that does stand out involves the mostly New England custom of bundling, in which a young man and his sweetheart are allowed to spend some time alone in bed without undressing. The way the Pennsylvania Dutch do this is to place a wooden board between the lovers, but in the situation at hand, Gabriel is swaddled in a primitive straitjacket to immobilize his arms and legs before he is joined in the sack by his girl friend, while his in-laws-to-be retire to the next room, their ears scrunched tightly to the wall.

The largest flaw in this mostly meritorious project is its predictability. How often have we heard the hero hiss to the villain, "Before this war is over, I am going to kill you," and have the two meet in the open battlefield, seeking each other out to decide their fate? And how often have we seen the tables turned as antagonists, facing each other, talk instead of shooting, or get tricked as the opponents play dead? Jason Isaacs is convincing, however one-sidedly ruthless, as the gung-ho officer who believes that the English have no right to play by the rules of war if they want to win, and Mel Gibson, photogenic as ever, mirrors the complexity of Tom Wilkinson's Cornwallis.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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