Directed by Roland Emmerich. Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs, Chris Cooper. Columbia.
Decent Films Ratings
Content advisory: Bloody battlefield violence and gore; slaughter of non-combatants; a few strong expressions.
By Steven D. Greydanus
Two things The Patriot isn’t are cynical or ironic. It’s corny, yes, and manipulative, not to mention clichéd, sentimental, and platitudinous. But at least it believes in its clichés and sentiments and platitudes. Its convictions may be half-baked, but it has the courage of them. While I watched it I was aware of how the film was manipulating me; yet even so, and despite some moral reservations, the manipulation had its effect.
Unlike Gladiator, a more sophisticated but less involving film, The Patriot drew me in. With every war crime the villain committed, I wanted to see him brought to justice. When a young child burst into tears and begged her father not to go away, my eyes welled up right on schedule. ("It’s a father thing," I told my companion, a single guy who remained dry-eyed.) And when the protagonist ran into the thick of battle through faltering fellow soldiers, rallying them with tattered Old Glory held high, I felt a swelling of patriotic pride. Yes, I did.
When the film ended, though, my passions cooled while my misgivings remained. The protagonist of The Patriot, American militia leader Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson in his strongest performance since Braveheart) is not a perfect man; and it’s the film’s credit that it doesn’t pretend he is. He commits brutal acts. He kills in vengeance. But he’s so sorely provoked, you see. All right, it’s all very well for a film to point out that men sometimes resort to brutality when sorely provoked. But what about a film that goes to great lengths to provoke a man simply in order to get to the brutality? And what about the ridiculously monstrous caricatures on the other side who are necessary to bring about the needed provocations (and then of course to suffer the desired brutality)?
It’s easy to dismiss the caricaturing of the British on the grounds that The Patriot isn’t a serious historical drama anyway, but a popcorn action movie of the sort that always features black-hearted moustache-twirling villains. And, indeed, like previous efforts from director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin (the schlockmeisters who brought us Stargate, Independence Day, and Godzilla), The Patriot abounds with action-movie clichés, including the murder of the hero’s loved ones, the villain who won’t die, and of course (I trust this will not be perceived as spoiling anything) the climactic showdown between hero and villain.
On the other hand, in its bloodiness and gore (not to mention its length) it recalls such momentous films as Saving Private Ryan (which was also written by Patriot scribe Robert Rodat) and Braveheart (which of course also starred Gibson). Heads and limbs are blown off by cannonballs, bodies are skewered by bayonets and swords, and Gibson does terrible things with a hatchet. Perhaps the film doesn’t quite fall between two stools, but it certainly vacillates uncomfortably between them: Too grim and violent to bill itself as an earlier Independence Day, but too light-weight, cliché-ridden, and caricatured to be taken seriously as a realistic war film, The Patriot never quite manages to justify itself in either capacity, though it still manages to work often enough as one or the other.
I said above that The Patriot has the courage of its convictions. So it does. It opens on a rather thoughtful note; and proceeds to sound a number of other notes as well, some thoughtful, some sentimental, some simplistic, some silly. Here are some of the things The Patriot believes, expressed in propositional form:
- Family is important.
- War is so terrible, and makes men do such terrible things, that even if you have a legitimate grievance it is better to avoid war and to pursue instead other avenues of recourse; especially if you have young sons and daughters to protect.
- Unless one of your sons is murdered.
- Then you can go and do the terrible things. (Your other young sons can help.)
- Family is very important.
- Old-fashioned field warfare is foolish and vastly inferior to guerrilla hide-and-seek hit-and-run tactics.
- Therefore, a ragtag militia of grungy, snaggle-toothed farmers will be able to hold their own against much larger numbers of polished, trained British regulars.
- If the farmers are important characters, they will not be grungy or snaggle-toothed.
- Family is very, very important.
- Enemy officers are brutal and lawless.
- Unless they are effete powdered aristocrats.
- When you get right down to it, even the effete powdered aristocrats are really brutal and lawless.
- Family is very, very, very important.
- God bless America.
Despite the tongue-in-cheek tone of the above list, it will be seen at once that there really is something to some of these ideas. Guerrilla warfare really is superior to old-fashioned field warfare, and ragtag militias really did hold their own against superior British forces until French reinforcements arrived. War certainly is terrible, but also sometimes justified. Family, of course, is important, and, indeed, God bless America (and all our world).
Some of the lessons, though, fall kind of flat. Particularly juvenile are the film’s attempts to address race and gender. Of course all the women are spunky and independent, and all the blacks are noble and loyal. Although some of the blacks are slaves, the story is careful to point out that the blacks who work on Benjamin Martin’s land are free, not slaves. Later there is a slave who joins Martin’s militia in the hopes of winning his freedom, and Martin’s son Gabriel talks pointedly about building a new world in which All Men are Created Equal. Naturally the black man stays with the militia long after he has won his freedom, causing one of the white soldiers who harassed him earlier to solemnly pay tribute to the other man’s honor. In the end, after the war, the black man hangs around to begin construction of the new world by helping build Martin’s new home (no mention of his own new home, or whether Martin would help him build it).
But the film offsets these weaknesses with considerable strengths. Besides Gibson’s compelling performance as Benjamin Martin, Jason Isaacs as British Colonel Tavington (the brutal and lawless one) is suitably malevolent, Tom Wilkonson as General Cornwallis (the effete, powdered, aristocratic one) has dignity and presence, and Heath Ledger as Martin’s son Gabriel shows promise as a leading romantic man in his own right.
The film looks terrific too. The costumes and props are exquisite, and the scenery is beautiful, and beautifully photographed. The main characters are also beautiful, but whereas in many another film the beautiful people are also immortal, this is a film in which just about anyone can die. Yet, though there’s a great deal of violence, there’s almost no profanity, nor is there any effort to heat things up with sex or nudity.
A few scenes are especially striking, such as a riveting parley between Benjamin Martin and Cornwallis, which in its depiction of punctiliously observed rules of civilized conduct under wartime offers a welcome counterpoint to the savagery of the rest of the film. There are well-drawn characters and scenarios of surprising poignancy and feeling. Writing that, I wonder why I find the poignancy surprising: Is it simply because so few films make a genuine effort at unadorned sincerity?
Sincerity is a good thing. It may not be enough to make The Patriot a very good movie, but if you can stomach the violence and look beyond the caricatures, it may be enough to make it worth watching. There’s virtue here, not unmixed or totally clear-eyed, but earnest, brave, and heartfelt. It’s not a totally successful effort, but it’s an admirable one.