May 2021

The Patriot (2000)

patriotDIRECTOR: Roland Emmerich

CAST: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, Joely Richardson, Tcheky Karyo, Chris Cooper, Tom Wilkinson, Lisa Brenner, Rene Auberjonois, Adam Baldwin, Gregory Smith


With The Patriot, one gets the feeling screenwriter Robert Rodat was trying to do for the American Revolution what he previously did for WWII with Saving Private Ryan.  To an extent, he deserves credit, as The Patriot is, oddly enough, virtually the only big-budget Hollywood film portraying the Revolutionary War.  Alas, the man in the director’s chair here is not Steven Spielberg, but Roland Emmerich, he who leaves no cliche unused.  The Patriot is a marked improvement over its immediate predecessor on Emmerich’s filmography, 1998’s Godzilla bastardization, but features too many “a film by Roland Emmerich” hallmarks to be the true great war epic it clearly fancies itself.

We open in 1776 South Carolina, where widowed farmer Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), a single parent with an estate and seven children to care for, wants no part of the brewing war pitting the rebellious American colonies against England, an attitude which puts him at odds with his zealously patriotic eldest sons, 17-year-old Gabriel (Heath Ledger) and 15-year-old Thomas (Gregory Smith).  But when the war comes to his doorstep, literally, in the form of brutal British Colonel William Tavington (the hissable Jason Isaacs), Martin’s apathy is turned to grief-fueled rage, and the peaceful farmer-turned-guerilla warrior becomes a notorious militia leader known as “The Ghost”, providing an ever-growing thorn in the side of British General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), until Cornwallis tasks Martin’s nemesis Colonel Tavington with hunting him down.

On Emmerich’s filmography, The Patriot is one of his stronger efforts, possibly due to Rodat’s screenplay (then again, it’s riddled with cliches, so perhaps not), and clearly has lofty aims of being a “historical epic”.  It’s rousing and entertaining as long as one doesn’t subject it to serious scrutiny; Emmerich and Rodat have the Cliches 101 playbook open on the table, but they know which buttons to push, and it’s easy to get caught up and swept along even in its cheesier moments, but as with any Emmerich film, checking your brain at the door is conducive to greater appreciation.  The movie is studiously politically correct; pains are taken to make sure we understand that the black workers on Martin’s farm are freemen, not slaves, and we get a perfunctory subplot about a racist (Donal Logue) who sees the light after being rescued by a freeman (Jay Arlen Jones) so they can have an entirely predictable bonding moment in the climactic battle.  There are not one, but two obligatory romances, one between Gabriel and Anne Howard (Lisa Brenner), and an even more perfunctory and thinly-developed bonus pick between Martin and his late wife’s sister (Joely Richardson).  At one point, he asks if he can sit beside her; her response, “it’s a free country…or at least it will be” draws snickering, not least because one senses whoever wrote it—Emmerich or Rodat—felt they were being tremendously witty.  A few instances of comic relief, like Gabriel and Anne pranking each other by putting ink in their tea that turns their teeth black, are awkwardly inserted.  When it comes to Benjamin Martin himself, the movie shows a surprisingly substantial dark side to our hero; much is made of mysterious past deeds (or misdeeds) during the French and Indian War, and the movie’s most disturbing scene comes early on, as the revenge-fueled Martin, half-crazed with grief, arms both himself and two of his pre-teen sons and runs into the woods to ambush a British convoy, during which the two kids watch in mounting horror as Dad goes berserk and slaughters his way through the British soldiers almost singlehandedly, culminating in chasing one poor bastard through the woods, throwing a tomahawk into his back, and hacking him to pieces until he’s blood-splattered like some colonial mad slasher.  It’s a glimpse of a substantially edgier and less Hollywoodized film lurking beneath the surface.  Alas, for the most part, apart from his early burst of savagery, Martin is whitewashed from the real “Ghost”, Francis Marion, he’s loosely based on (a slave-owner and notorious Indian hunter).  On the other hand, the cartoonishly evil William Tavington (loosely based on Colonel Banastre Tarleton) drew criticisms from British audiences for the swath of atrocities he wreaks (as if shooting children, civilians, and wounded soldiers and burning down homes willy nilly isn’t enough to establish his “villain” credentials, the filmmakers give him a scene where he burns a church with townspeople locked inside, that was appropriated from a real similar incident committed not by any British officer in the Revolutionary War, but by the Gestapo in France during WWII).  The filmmakers seem desperate to make Tavington a detestable villain on the level of Rob Roy‘s Cunningham, but they’re trying too hard.  The film plays out against an epic historical backdrop, but in the end, the whole Revolutionary War is narrowed down to revenge and a climactic mano-a-mano, and the filmmakers honor the Hollywood rule that A) the villain must make it to the end of the movie, to be dispatched by the righteous hands of the hero, preferably bloodily and in slow motion, and B) no matter how large or chaotic the climactic battle may be, the hero and villain will find each other and be allowed to have an uninterrupted one-on-one duel.  Don’t come here if you’re a stickler for historical accuracy; the historical record shows the militia was a source of irritation to George Washington and committed its share of atrocities itself, while here it’s the virtual savior of the entire war.

On the plus side, the movie is handsomely-filmed (although some panoramic wide shots have an overly clean, CGI look about them) and some of the battle sequences, while never as unvarnished and gritty as Saving Private Ryan, are rousing.  The movie does a little damage control about criticisms of demonizing the British by putting Tavington at odds with his superior General Cornwallis, who scolds him over his brutal tactics (although it later somewhat undoes this by implying a fed-up Cornwallis turns a blind eye to Tavington doing whatever he deems necessary to apprehend the aggravating Martin).  An interesting (and historically accurate) contrast is drawn between the “traditional” battles, with lines of men marching up face-to-face and taking turns shooting each other, which seems archaic and suicidal, and the guerilla tactics adopted by Martin and his militiamen, who hide behind trees and in bushes and tall grass and ambush the hopelessly unprepared British, who march in straight lines with lively drumbeats wearing bright colors and have no concept of such “dishonorable” sneak attacks.  “This is not the behavior of a gentleman,” the offended Cornwallis fumes, but it’s a more pragmatic form of warfare, and his genteel disdain for it is part of his downfall.  We’re all suckers for a movie about avenging the murders of loved ones by hissable villains and a big climactic mano-a-mano smackdown, and even in its paint-by-numers, cliche-laden way, The Patriot knows how to play the heartstrings and sweep us along.

patriot2The biggest strength holding the proceedings together is the forceful performance of Mel Gibson, who strides through the uncertain tone with gravitas and sheer force of presence.  Gibson gets to go into Mad Mel mode big time in the aforementioned early scene, and also gets not one, but two powerful scenes of intense grief.  If Gibson was trying to return to the Braveheart trough with another (somewhat fictionalized) rebel leader battling the British, he won’t win another Oscar here, but he imbues his role with about as much conviction as can be expected considering what he had to work with.  Heath Ledger continues to build on the “budding heartthrob” career trajectory he kicked off with last year’s teen romantic comedy 10 Things I Hate About You, while the ever-sneering Jason Isaacs does a good job in a one-dimensional role of making himself hissable.  There are assorted familiar faces in the supporting cast, but the likes of Joely Richardson, Chris Cooper, Tcheky Karyo, and Tom Wilkinson don’t get much to do, and certainly not anything challenging.

In the end, The Patriot has loftier aspirations and wants to be taken as a more “serious film” than the average Roland Emmerich production, but comes with its hallmarks—perfunctory subplots, a bloated runtime (almost three hours), cliches sprinkled liberally throughout, and a sometimes unintentionally cheesy level of melodramatic self-seriousness—that aren’t enough to make it unwatchable but drag it down from being to the American Revolution what Saving Private Ryan was for WWII.  It’s the best Hollywood film about the Revolutionary War, but the competition is virtually nonexistent.  Essentially, it aspires to be a Braveheart/Rob Roy/Gladiator summer action movie with a historical gloss, and while it’s not up to the level of any of those movies, it’s likely to attract some of the same audience.

* * 1/2