You don't send a boy to do a man's job. Roland Emmerich -- the director of
such dreadful action films as "Independence Day", and the recent "Godzilla"
remake -- should not have been assigned an epic about the American
Revolutionary War. It's nonetheless unsurprising that my opening maxim never
occurred to anyone involved with "The Patriot". After all, they did approve a
script in which two small boys are given guns and told to shoot at British
people in the woods.
The tots are about ten years old, or maybe a little younger. The film's hero,
played by Mel Gibson, is a widower whose farm is unjustly attacked by
'Redcoats' (the nickname for the Brits); he's also the one who supplied the
kids with their weapons, and ordered them to commit murder. After their
shooting spree, when Gibson is tucking the lads into bed, one of them reports
"I'm glad I've killed, pop!"
America -- although a film as blindly patriotic as this would never admit it
-- already has enough gun-crazed maniacs. Their defence for bearing arms is
that 1) the constitution allows it, and 2) they need to do so for home
protection. With scenes like the one above, "The Patriot" serves as an
incitement of those freaks, and also of the pathetic flag-wavers who wear
stars-and-stripes shorts at street parades and recite "We really do live in
the land of the free and the home of the brave!" as if paraphrasing a line
from one's national anthem is the same thing as seriously examining one's
"The Patriot" is being advertised as the Revolutionary War equivalent of
Gibson's great Scottish epic "Braveheart", but it's nowhere near as
entertaining, and does a much more methodical job of demonising the British
while glamorising a revolt. The narrative essentially consists of Gibson and
a small band of merry men wandering around the country discussing "the
cause"; although now and again Gibson meets up with his family, or there will
be another attack from those horrid Recoats. Of course there is a token black
character among Gibson's troupe, who gets some racist comments at first, but
then apologies, so none of the Americans come off looking evil.
When the level of the storytelling becomes apparent, we hold out hope that we
can at least expect some spectacular sequences of dumb action. But there is
hardly any fighting until the climax, when comes a highly implausible battle
scene, with Gibson running through the bloody lines unharmed, carrying the
American flag. Then he thrusts it into the ground and has a ridiculous clash
with a British officer (Jason Isaacs), where each man wields two swords in
each hand, and juts them at each other in time to swashbuckler music chords.
To picture this, recall the Jim Carrey comedy "Cable Guy", with its parody of
the famous "Star Trek" fight.
Gibson opens every scene with a flustered, confused expression and then turns
it into a frown. It's like "Braveheart" going senile but sporadically
returning to his old self. The dialogue that he and all the other actors have
to speak varies from horribly stilted ("Men! Richly fight for the cause about
which you spake!"; "Father... this yonder boy be two years younger than I!")
to nonsensical ("I'm a parent, I don't have the luxury of principles") to
lazy and pedestrian ("Daddy, daddy, come back!"). And there are scenes of
ineptitude, such as when Gibson's platoon creep up behind a British ship, and
then Emmerich cuts to a wide shot to show the boat blow up. How the hell did
that happen? Did they throw a hand grenade? Where did they find one of those,
being in the 1770s an' all?
Like "U-571", another dreadful recent war movie, "The Patriot" has drawn fire
for its reworking of history. The real-life figure Gibson's character is
based on was known for shooting civilians for sport, and raping his slaves
(in the film, he doesn't even keep slaves; the Negroes working his land are
free men). And William Tavington, the English colonel who the screenplay pits
him against, did not murder children or use any unorthodox tactics. Even if
you don't care about the facts, "The Patriot" is incompetent and
disappointing. I dragged a buddy to the screening with me, and felt compelled
to apologise both during and after. I think I'll ring him again right now.
Copyright © 2000 UK Critic