During the whopping two hour and 44 minute running time of "The
Patriot," my mood shifted repeatedly. Early on, I found the
oh-so-perfect picture postcard lighting of every single damn scene so
maddening that I leaned to a friend and growled, "I hate this movie!"
Then a juicy battle scene reinvigorated my fading spirits. Later, I even
got a little misty during a quiet father/son moment. But just as I was
ready to surrender to the story's rah-rah momentum, the filmmakers threw
in a series of hero-charging-forward-waving-the-flag-in-slow-motion
images so cheesy that I wanted to scream, "Run for your lives, they've
remade 'The Postman!'"
What else should I have expected from a Revolutionary War epic presented
by the producer and director team responsible for "Stargate,"
"Independence Day" and "Godzilla?" Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich are
infamous for their ability to take intriguing premises and turn them
into overcooked, cliché-filled, pop culture goulash. Many people find
their concoctions satisfying, but as for me, pass the Pepto Bismo,
To be fair, "The Patriot" is one of their better offerings. The
screenplay, by "Saving Private Ryan" author Robert Rodat, explores the
horrifying concept of having a war fought in your own backyard, while
effectively presenting the differences between the Brits' formal,
"gentlemanly" approach to combat and the American militia's guerrilla
But Devlin and Emmerich's treatment of the script is remarkably
ham-handed. John William's thunderous score assaults the viewer, as Mel
Gibson turns from a war-wary father into a colonial Rambo. This film
isn't about patriotism, it's about revenge. The ads should read
"Gibson's back, and this time… it's personal! Welcome to 'Death Wish
Mel plays Benjamin Martin, a South Carolina widower determined to stay
out of the uprising against the British and raise his seven children in
peace. A veteran of the French and Indian War, he is haunted by memories
of atrocities committed during battle. But his eldest son, Gabriel
(Heath Ledger), views the hesitancy of his father with disdain and
defiantly joins the rebels.
Months later, the fighting draws near and Gabriel returns home injured.
While caring for him, and other wounded soldiers from both sides,
Benjamin is visited by British troops, led by the sadistic Colonel
William Tavington (Jason Isaacs). In short order, Tavington has his men
burn down the Martin home, arrests Gabriel and orders his execution and
then shoots Martin's second eldest boy. As soon as Tavington leaves,
Benjamin arms his children, rescues Gabriel and becomes leader of the
area militia. His reputation as "The Ghost" grows to the point that
British General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) sends out his troops to
capture Benjamin Martin, by any means necessary.
At times, "The Patriot" delivers on its promises. Subdued conversations
between Benjamin and Gabriel are moving, thanks to the skills of Mel
Gibson and Heath Ledger, a handsome Aussie with talent and charisma
reminiscent of Gibson in his youth. A visit to a black refuge by the sea
provides a welcome respite from the fighting. Best of all is a clever,
well-staged prisoner-exchange negotiation between Martin and Cornwallis.
While a couple of the extremely graphic battle scenes are gripping, most
lack focus, playing out as mere excuses for Director Emmerich to fill
the screen with as much blood and gore as possible (he seems
particularly fond of showing the effect of cannonballs on human
Many civilian moments are as cloying as the battles are grisly. Every
scene is filled with gorgeous skies, sunbeams streaming through the
trees and other storybook imagery that blunts the sense of realism.
Young Anne Howard (Lisa Brenner) comes off more like a contemporary
woman than a colonial lass as she challenges the men-folk to enter the
fray. While delivering her speech, she exchanges so many coy smiles with
Gabriel that her words seem less like a call-to-arms and more like
The single most infuriating scene comes straight out of a teen slasher
flick. A good guy shoots a bad guy, who falls to the earth face down.
Our hero silently approaches and leans over the body when – surprise! –
the villain, apparently possessed of considerable psychic ability,
springs around at precisely the right moment to strike a fatal blow. Who
knew that the great-great-great grandfather of Jason from "Friday the
13th" was British?
"The Patriot" has its moments, to be sure, and I fully expect it to be
one of the biggest hits of this anemic summer movie season. But the next
time Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich decide to crank out another of
their manipulative popcorn epics, I hope they'll stick to aliens and
giant lizards and leave history alone.
Copyright © 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott