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The Patriot (2000)

There are so few movies these days with any redeeming qualities whatsoever, that I feel like a piker quarreling with one that's at least pretty good.  But I will, because I don't think we should ever settle--we should always demand more--and also because the problems with the movie are so symptomatic of the industry in general.  First, the good things, and there are more than a few.  If nothing else, it's a real treat to see the Revolution, which would seem like a natural source of material, given one of its rare big budget treatments by Hollywood. The best prior efforts were John Ford's Drums Along the Mohawk and the musical 1776.  TNT had a decent TV movie version of Washington crossing the Delaware to defeat the Brits at Trenton several years ago, called simply The Crossing.   And there's the famously awful Revolution, with the ridiculous spectacle of Al Pacino trying to pass as a Colonial.  Relatively unknown, but a real sleeper, is the 1959 adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's The Devil's Disciple, starring Kirk Douglas.   You'd be hard pressed to come up with any others, good, bad, or indifferent.

The big budget lavished ion this effort buys a lot, and it's all visible up there on screen.  You've got :  the producers and director of Independence Day, a bad movie, but a blockbuster; Mel Gibson, a reliable action hero and a bankable leading man; music by John Williams; and, best of all, cinematography by the great Caleb Deschanel, familiar to most through his exquisite work on The Right StuffThe Natural and The Black Stallion.  Add in the sumptuous sets, period clothing, proverbial cast of thousands, and numerous special effects, and you've got some major league eye candy.  This is a historical epic in the fashion that David Lean and Stanley Kubrick led us to expect, so grand and beautiful it seems almost like a painting, requiring big time stars to get us to tear our attention away from the backdrop (which is why Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai and Spartacus--with Peter O'Toole, Alec Guiness/William Holden, and Kirk Douglas respectively--are such good movies,, while Doctor Zhivago and Barry Lyndon--Omar Shariff and Ryan O'Neal--are merely beautiful ones).

It is also a pleasure to see a war movie that breaks the typical culture bounds.  As a rule, Hollywood tends to make popular wars look fairly bloodless and impossibly noble on the screen, saving the blood and guts and brutality for the unpopular causes.  Until recent years, it was unusual to see a WWII movie where the action was a senseless slaughter or where the mission seemed dubious.  On the other hand, Vietnam movies almost uniformly present the war as futile, even ignoble, and revel in the bloodshed, preferably of "innocent" villagers.  So it is a pleasant surprise that The Patriot depicts combat in all its gory, murderous reality.  Particularly bold is allowing Gibson's character to commit and condone true atrocities.  This is a movie that makes as much sense backwards as forwards, as Gibson's speech to the South Carolina legislature about the likely effects of the war, and the lack of a compelling reason for fighting it, seems even more profoundly true when the dead are tallied.  It is well to recall that even the wars we generally approve of are godawful things and seldom worth the bloodshed.

Of course, one of the other impressive things about the movie is how good the filmmakers are at pushing our buttons, so that by the end of the picture we'd pretty much approve of using nerve gas on the Brits.  In terms of pure emotional manipulation, the movie succeeds brilliantly.  But this is where the weaknesses begin to show, for killing people shouldn't be purely emotional, there should be some reason involved.  Here, the movie fails miserably.

A few years ago, we postulated the Falling Down Effect.  This idea, named for the very nearly good Michael Douglas movie, holds that today's movie makers are so determined to stack the moral deck in their own favor, that they will damn near ruin their own films in order to win an argument.  In the case of Falling Down, this took the form of turning Douglas from an understandably (though, obviously, excessively) "angry White male" into some kind of stark raving child molester by the end of the movie.   It seemed quite clear that at some point, they realized that his character was more or less sympathetic and decided that this was politically unacceptable, so they suddenly turned him into a monster, to make sure the audience turned against him.

The Patriot does something nearly as egregious.  Having apparently decided that we could not handle a hero who owns slaves, they offer us the laughable scene where the black field hands, offered freedom, tell the British invaders that they are already free men, but work the land because they want to.  Even if such situations did exist, this is simply anti-historical.  Likewise, though blacks did fight alongside the Colonials, even fought at the Cowpens, which is one of the battles recreated in the movie, the treatment of the black member of the Irregulars has very little ring of truth to it.  If the producers of The Patriot merely had the courage of their convictions, and assumed a modicum of maturity and historical understanding from the audience, they could have either ignored the issue of race altogether or shown the bitter irony of slaveowners fighting for freedom.  Either would have been preferable.

This is bad enough, but even worse is the way they turn the war from a battle for an idea (Independence) into a completely personal and Ramboesque matter of vengeance.  It is certainly true that the British committed some atrocities and that Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, upon whom Tavington is based, was one of their more brutal officers, but to transmogrify such isolated actions into the reason that Americans fought demeans both the British and the Colonials.  As odd as it may seem, the Revolution really was about idea-- ideas like freedom, representation, property, and the like.  The belief in liberty was so strong that it seemed a sufficient cause for thousands of men to take up arms against the most powerful nation on Earth, a country from which most of them came, and toward which most still looked with great respect.  The movie would be more powerful and more true to its subject if Benjamin was driven, not by petty personal concerns, but by the ideas that had inflamed the American culture.  It is really the men around him--especially the outstanding character actor Chris Cooper as Colonel Harry Burwell--who are fighting for a great cause. His own war is nothing to be proud of.

So, the temptation is to only give the movie a qualified recommendation, but for me, there is one scene that redeems the film : when Benjamin takes his two younger sons and goes after the British troops who have his son, Gabriel.  The action in this sequence is of course amazing.  But what really sets it apart is the politically incorrect subtext.  Myriad critics took the movie to task for showing youngsters wielding guns and shooting people, but that's the whole point.  Guns are terrible, wonderful things.  They don't discriminate between good and bad shooters nor between good and bad victims.  They can kill accidentally.  They can kill rapidly.  But more than anything, they can level the playing field between the powerful and the weak.  Absent guns, there would be no America.  Amidst all the talk in recent years about why, and whether, we have a right to bear arms, it is an undeniable visceral pleasure to see played out on the screen an unanswerable argument about why a people who are hostile to concentrations of power and who believe in the idea of individual freedom would secure to themselves such a right.

There was a very bad movie in the 80s (it was actually 1984, which between the Los Angeles Olympics and the Reagan re-election campaign should be known as the Year of the Jingo) called Red Dawn, in which the Russians invade America but a gang of High School students takes to the hills with their guns and launches a guerilla war.  A bad movie, but it's an instructive premise, for it is simply unimaginable that a foreign power, or even an oppressive domestic party, could impose its will upon the American people, given the number of guns and the willingness to use them of a large segment of the population.  Shut your eyes and you can see the Germans marching through Paris, again, but, try as you might, you can't summon the Chinese parading down Main Street, USA.   They'd be pinned in a crossfire that would make the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid look like a quilting bee.

In the end then, there is more to like than to dislike about The Patriot.  That it could have been much better and that it lacks faith in the audience is unfortunate, but it is a function of the modern movie business and its unfortunate fear of ideas and of tough moral questions. It may be that in the current climate this is the best we can expect of Hollywood.  Still, it's hard not to wonder what might have been…


Grade: (B-)


See also:

    -The Patriot (Official Movie Site)
    -INFO : The Patriot (2000) (
    -The Patriot Resource
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Roland Emmerich (Imdb)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Caleb Deschanel  (Imdb)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Mel Gibson (Imdb)
    -Mel Gibson
    -ESSAY : The Ultimate Unmade War Movie. (John Meroney, July, 1999, American Enterprise)
    -ARTICLE : Capturing America's Fight for Freedom : Smithsonian experts help the makers of Mel Gibson's new movie, The Patriot, create credible Revolutionary War scenes and bring the conflict's many factions into sharper focus (Lucinda Moore, Smithsonian)
    -ARTICLE : Gibson blockbuster baits the censors  (April 13, 2000, Guardian Unlimited)
    -ARTICLE : Mel Gibson's latest hero: a rapist who hunted Indians for fun  (June 15, 2000, Guardian Unlimited)
    -ARTICLE : Patriotic Liverpool up in arms over Gibson's blockbuster (June 30, 2000, Guardian Unlimited)
    -ARTICLE : Spike Lee slams Patriot ( July 6, 2000, Guardian Unlimited)
    -ESSAY : Spike Lee and The Patriot (Stuart Buck, July 17, 2000, Enter Stage Right)
    -ARTICLE : Minister goes to war over Gibson's Patriot (JON CRAIG , Line One News)
    -ESSAY : Did the Brits Burn Churches ? (Couper Samuelson, The Explainer, Slate)
    -ESSAY : The Nazis, er, the Redcoats are coming! : The savage soldiers in "The Patriot" act more like the Waffen SS than actual English troops. Does "The Patriot" have an ulterior motive? (Jonathan Foreman, Salon)
    -ESSAY : British ire over `Patriot' irks massacre kins  (Times of India)
    -ESSAY : Is The Patriot Patriotic? (National Review, William F Buckley Jr.)
    -ESSAY : The smearing of  "The Patriot" : Anti-Americanism runs amok, again, and the left shows that nihilism is all that remains of its agenda. (David Horowitz, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Patriot Mind Games (Noam Scheiber, Iron Minds)
    -ARCHIVES : "mel gibson" patriot (Mag Portal)
    -ARCHIVES : patriot review (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : patriot "Mel Gibson" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Elvis Mitchell, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Stephen Hunter, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Susan Stark, Detroit News)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Jonah Goldberg, National Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Stanley Kaufman, New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot  : Forgive the big, messy, flag-waving folly of the men who made "Independence Day" and "Braveheart" -- this bloody celebration finally gives the American Revolution the epic it deserves. (Andrew O'Hehir, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (David Edelstein, Slate)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Michael Lind, Slate)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (J. Hoberman, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Richard Schickel, TIME)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Political Film Society)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Alexander Walker, Evening Standard uk)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (BBC Online)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (New Statesman, Andrew Stephen)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Terry Lawson, Sydney Morning Herald)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (BOB THOMPSON, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (James Bernardelli Reelviews)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (PETER TRAVERS, Rolling Stone)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (James Greenberg, Los Angeles)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Bob Carlton, Birmingham News)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Josh Jones , Pop Matters)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Film Comment,  Mark Olsen)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot ( Leah Salterio, Philipine Daily Inquirer)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (J. Carter Wood , The Voice of the Turtle)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Jon Roland,
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (Izzy Lyman , My Right Start)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (The American Enterprise,  Josh Larsen)
    -REVIEW : of The Patriot (George McCartney, Chronicles)

    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE : Revolutionary War (Matt Noble , Spark Notes)
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "francis marion"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "marion, francis"
    -Cowpens Online
    -Battles at Kings Mountain and Cowpens
    -Cowpens (Living History)
    -Cowpens  (1781)
    -Battle of Cowpens (Africans in America, PBS)
    -INTERVIEW : Colin Powell on blacks fighting during the Revolutionary War (Africans in America, PBS)
    -ESSAY : Turning Point in the Wilderness : The clash at King's Mountain between Patriots and Tories began Britain's long descent to Yorktown. (Tom Wicker , Military History)
    -ESSAY : The Unluckiest Man in Movie History (Timothy Noah, Slate)
    -ESSAY : : Revolutionary War Tales told by objects at State Museum (Editorial Staff , Kaleden)
    -ESSAY : ìOur Sacred Honorî : The signers of the Declaration of Independence live on. (Matthew Spalding, National Review)