The Revolutionary War has barely made much of an impression in cinema
history, especially with the forgettable "Revolution" by director Hugh Hudson
that was a huge flop back in 1985. It only takes someone like Mel Gibson to
give the audience what they want: a feverish action picture using history as
an excuse for gangland warfare, which is what makes "The Patriot" a success.
No quill pens, no rousing speeches, only an abundant supply of blood and
guts. "The Patriot" is not much more but it has the potential to be more than
Ponytailed Gibson plays the fictional Benjamin Martin (based on the real-life
"Swamp Fox" Francis Marion), a widowed father of seven kids living in South
Carolina during the turbulent times of 1776, just after the Revolutionary War
had started. Martin is opposed to the war, and is against his older son
(Heath Ledger) from joining to fight the fight, namely against the British
Redcoats. In one crucial scene, Gibson tells the people at a convention that
why fight a war where there is one tyrant thousands of miles away when there
are three hundred one mile away, or something to that effect. That scene
resonates strongly but is soon forgotten in the way of grisly, gory violence.
Martin faces an ordeal of his own when the redcoats come to his home where he
is caring for the wounded soldiers, and a sadistic, volatile British leader,
Colonel Tavington (Jason Issacs), murders one of Martin's sons and all the
wounded in cold blood. Now Martin is mad as hell, and is in full-killing mode
as he takes his family out of his home, now burned to the ground, and brings
his sons with rifles in hand to take out twenty redcoats. The scene is
intense and bloody as Martin, armed with a musket and a tomahawk, slices and
decapitates with nary a trace of respite - he is Mad Max bent on an unending
ode of vengeance. He also forms a militia, bent on destruction and murder all
in the name of freedom from the British.
"The Patriot" is a revenge tale, as packed with thrills and action as one
can expect. Gibson does this kind of role perfectly, and he exudes the humor
and pathos of a warrior with a dark past as he did in "Braveheart." But I was
somewhat bothered by the characterization, notably when reference is made by
other members of the militia about Benjamin's days fighting the French and
Indian War (he finally explains all to his son about his beastly, brutal
methods). If Martin is such a ferocious, animalistic warrior, why is he so
opposed to the war? Sure, he does not want his sons to join but why is he so
unwilling to fight the fight? It only takes having one of his own family
members killed for Benjamin to change his mind, but the one brutal scene
where he tomahawks a redcoat repeatedly hints at other aspects of the
character that the writer, Robert Rodat, and the director, Roland Emmerich,
are unwilling to explore. There is a crucial line of dialogue, spoken in
voice-over at the beginning, that suggest more levels to Martin's
personality: "I have long feared that my sins would return to visit me." They
have, but "The Patriot" does not cut it as a character study, it is pure
action targeted to entice viewers, not to make them think about what war does
to men. A shame coming from Rodat who explored this theme ever so briefly
with "Saving Private Ryan."
As an action picture, "The Patriot" delivers in more ways than one. The
performances also hit the right notes, including Tom Wilkinson as Lord
General Cornwallis, who leads the British troops in the South - his battle
strategies have always been exceptional but he has underestimated Martin's
militia. I also like Heath Ledger, a strong young actor who holds his own
with Gibson and does a fine job playing his son. There is also a nice
throwaway role by Rene Auberjonois as the courageous pastor who joins the
militia (as pastors did in those days) - if only there was more screen time
devoted to him. The rest of the militia are depicted as stereotypical
one-dimensional grunts. And Tavington, as played by Issacs, is so
unredeemingly evil that I only wish some hint of humanity was placed there.
He is also given the benefit of the old "the killer is never really dead"
syndrome. Please, those idiotic syndromes have no place in cinema anymore,
especially an ambitious action picture like this one.
"The Patriot" is fine entertainment, dazzling, humorous and exciting (watch
out for that cannonball that aims directly at the audience at one point).
There is an instant visceral charge to it, but there is no intellectual
weight, and no true moral resonance. In its fervent patriotic spirit, it says
that it was the right thing to fight the war and to die for your country to
acquire independence. It just doesn't tell us why.
Copyright © 2000 Jerry Saravia