The Patriot (2000)

Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) is a principled man who leads the charge against a cartoonish supervillain in "The Patriot." Heath Ledger and Tchéky Karyo also star.

Directed by Roland Emmerich. Written by Robert Rodat. Produced by Dean Devlin, Mark Gordon, Gary Levinsohn. Photographed by Caleb Deschanel. Edited by David Brenner, Julie Monroe. Production designed by Kirk M. Petruccelli. Music by John Williams. Starring Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, Joely Richardson, Chris Cooper, Tom Wilkinson, Tchéky Karyo, Rene Auberjonois, Lisa Brenner, Donal Logue, Leon Rippy, Adam Baldwin, Jay Arlen Jones.

Because it has a hero that is deeply conflicted about his own values, perhaps it is highly appropriate that Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot is so schizophrenic on how to operate as a cohesive film. One one hand, it’s a handsomely-mounted period adventure about that most elusive of subjects for big Hollywood pictures: the Revolutionary War. On the other, it’s a somber character study about how battle brings good men to the brink of their own personal abyss. It sounds like a compelling mix, but the two halves just don’t gel: one minute our hero is pontificating about the evils that men are capable of during warfare, and the next he’s stabbing a horse with an American Flag in slow motion. It’s well-made and fun, but it’s also problematic, because for all its deeper aspirations, what it really wants to be is a big action movie—the American Rebellion reimagined as a brainless comic book. Such things have their place, but the The Patriot makes the mistake of letting isolated scenes make stabs at depth that are otherwise studiously avoided. It has no serious ideas to convey, which is only irritating when the screenplay underlines the serious ideas it meant to convey. It’s themes arrive so briefly, it’s difficult to consider them genuine. There’s just no time for it to do everything it wants to do. But what it does, it does well.

Mel Gibson stars. He’s Benjamin Martin: former soldier of the French and Indian War, widow, loyal father, Southern plantation owner during the political maelstrom of 1776. He is a sympathizer to the plight of the American Colonials, but he keeps his cards close to the vest, and during an Assembly meeting in Charleston, he firmly stands in favor of pacifism against the British threat. His oldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), disagrees, and joins the Colonial Army. “When I have a family, I won’t hide behind them,” he growls. One night, on the lawn of Martin’s plantation, a fierce battle rages, and the humanist Martin tends to the wounded on both sides (including his son). This brings him to the attention of the odious Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs) and his armed dragoons. Tavington, a sociopath who brands Gabriel as a spy to be hanged. orders Martin’s plantation burnt (as punishment for saving the colonials). Then he murders one of Martin’s children and disappears into the fog of war. If you’ve ever seen a movie before where Mel Gibson’s family is murdered, you can probably imagine that this turns out to be, arguably, a bad move on the part of the British.

Martin, stricken with grief, goes berserk, enlisting his remaining sons to ambush the British Regulars (in an effective, disturbing little scene), and then joining with the Colonial Army to form his own band of militiamen that will prove improbably pivotal: he’s the MacGyver of the American Revolution. Melting his dead son’s toy soldiers into pistol shot (symbolism—get it?), Martin ends up staging an elaborate campaign against the British that employs Robin Hood tactics, and collects a ragtag group to join his militia. The cast now gets very large, climaxing in a huge battle between the American and British armies. And, of course, honoring action movie tradition, it all comes down to epic hand-to-hand combat between the heroic Martin and the evil Tavington.

Evil, heh. This Tavington, he’s a real piece of work: a psychotic martinet with iron-fisted command over men and a severe disdain for rebels, the colonies, traitors, and happiness in general. He lacks a mustache to twirl, but in every scene he projects the aura of a man who feels deeply satisfied about the puppy he just kicked. He is well-played by Isaacs, within the narrow confines of his underwritten, thankless role (an early scene hints at something more probing regarding Tavington’s history, but it’s quickly dismissed). Generally, he functions as a monster who will provoke Martin into action, threaten his loved ones, destroy plantations, torch churches, and generally behave every bit like the paper-thin antagonist that the script calls for. He would most certainly tie poor Betsy Ross to the railroad track, if it weren’t for the unavoidable fact that there were no railroads yet.  Tavington chafes against the English tendency towards conspicuous, ordered fighting, and soon gets special permission from Gen. Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), mastermind of the Southern offensive, to play dirty pool against the guerilla tactics of the colonials, and enjoys the work. It’s possible to have a villain with dimension (compare King Edward in Gibson’s own Braveheart). Tavington is just a one-note psychopath, which is not very interesting; it’s just lazy.

The dichotomy between Martin, who is engulfed by very palpable grief, and the cartoonish, unbelievable Tavington sets the tone for the rest of the film: specifically in how it ping-pongs between grim realism and goofy fantasy. Battle scenes are frequently horrific and brutal, but every once in a while the screenplay will stop for feel-good militia antics that seem lifted from The Wonderful World of Disney. The militiamen themselves are sketched very broadly–more like types than people–which makes each payoff for them empty. When Gabriel visits a town church reeling from a grisly death, the youth stirs the congregation (and reverend!) into enlistment with a speech so corny that even Frank Capra would be unconvinced. Scenes of cruel violence alternate with cutesy running gags, light slapstick, and borscht-belt punchlines. Even the dialogue is of two minds: lines that work with surgical effectiveness (“I’m a father; I haven’t got the luxury of principles”) are matched by ones so contrived they border on parody, as when Martin asks to sit next to a woman, and she sighs “It’s a free country, or, at least, it will be.” Like, really? Come on, guys. No.

The film has a somewhat shallow sense of history, never more apparent than how it deals with race in the American colonies. The militia take on a slave Occam (Jay Arlen Jones), as one of their members, who could earn his freedom if he stays with the militia for 12 months. It’s not an awful trajectory for a supporting character, but The Patriot‘s skill at handling an ensemble is so deficient that frequently Occam simply hangs around in the background, forgotten. Sometimes he grumbles a few words, but they’re all aimed primarily at telling the audience where his character is in the geography of the story. He scarcely comes across as an individual, and his racist nemesis (Donal Logue) is equally unlucky: he’s a charmless bully, and then relents over the course of time, so by the end he shows the deepest of respect. It happens so quickly that it reeks of pure tokenism, trivializing the issues here in order to jam them in. It’s made extra insulting when counting the shrewd calculation in which the two protagonists, Benjamin and Gabriel, are positioned to be improbably enlightened on the subject, given the time period. Gabriel takes offense at the racist, and Martin owned a plantation where every black was a free man working in earnest.  Unlike, you know, 99% of Southern plantation owners. This is to make the audience feel good about liking this character, because he’s not a slave-owner, even though if this were reality he would be. It’s a sop to the audience, and a suspiciously convenient one.

The movie has a nasty habit of establishing subplots that frequently lie fallow: it’s so busy that concepts are quickly sketched and never embellished, because there’s just no time. Gabriel’s romance with the colonial girl Anne (Lisa Brenner), sweet as it is, is so perfunctory that it clumsily telegraphs what her purpose is within the overall story (which is…ah, but you know). Martin begins a semi-romance of his own with Charlotte (Joely Richardson), sister to his deceased wife, which is maybe a little icky, and that’s also barely explored. Benjamin, who harbors dread secrets about his own past in the French and Indian War, is contentious with the militia’s French liaison, Villeneuve (Tchéky Karyo), but this is handled in merely about a dozen lines. No time. A Tory joins the British campaign, and any potential angst he might feel about targeting his countrymen is dealt with…in a line, briefly. No time. Martin’s children are kept off to the sidelines, for the most part, and are revisited in a handful of scenes that feel more like housekeeping than storytelling, even the shameless moment when Benjamin’s unspeaking daughter finally talks by begging her father not to go back to war. The film is clunky the way it shifts gears; little feels organic.

That any of this works is a tribute to Mel Gibson as an actor (and I said “actor,” and pointedly not “human being”). Martin, in the previous war, discovered terrible things about his own capacity for violence, and when he finally springs into action, Gibson taps into a rage that is frightening and compelling. Later, he finally brings his son into his innermost circle and tells him a chilling story about his past, and his own capability for atrocities. This is interesting stuff, dealing with the secrets between men, sons, and their innermost souls, and once can sense the tricky self-loathing that Martin feels. It deserves more than the movie is willing to commit, favoring more entertaining “popcorn” moments. Because of this, Martin seems to alternate between being a genuinely anguished soul and being a goofy Mel Gibson kinduva guy. Gibson does try to lay more depth into these shifts, but for the most part the disconnect is unfortunate, as it actually makes Martin seem unintentionally sociopathic. None of these shifts to darkness pay off in the over-the-top, feel-good ending, mind you, including how it ultimately deals with Benjamin Martin’s need for redemption: it’s kind of ignored. This gets to heart of the film’s central problem: it wants to be about serious things, but doesn’t want to take them seriously in any consistent manner. The screenplay, by Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan), bites off way more than it can chew; it tries too hard to have something for everyone.

Is all this a deal-breaker? No. If this sounds harsh, it is meant to be analytical, but not dismissive. There’s a great deal to enjoy here. The production values are strong: Caleb Deschanel’s photography evokes the misty nights of the deep South in beautiful light and lush golds, blues and browns, lingering on the plantations and swamps and landscapes so you can wallow in them. Early on, a skirmish spills onto the front of Martin’s planatation, and the use of smoke, light and sound to suggest the conflict encroaching ever closer is haunting. The special effects are persuasive, the sense of detail fine. John Williams’ score is stirring, even when it relies too heavily on rummy-dum-dum marches and heroic trumpet fanfares over monotonous scenes of horse riding. There’s a rare generosity to the film’s pageantry that is quite impressive. That may be all there is, but there is quite a lot of it.

Anyway, there probably was no real way to come closer to the reality of the Revolutionary War in a big Hollywood crowd-pleaser. And with so few films ever made on the subject, The Patriot is valuable as an artifact that celebrates the spectacle and sweep of the period. It’s a rousing and effective motion picture. Entertaining. And it’s glued together by fine performances (I shouldn’t neglect Ledger, who goes through a lot over the course of the narrative, and keeps his transformation subtle—it’s all in the eyes). The Patriot, for all its faults, does kinda “work,” and that’s nothing to sneeze at. And the Revolutionary War will still be there, waiting for the next filmmaker to take another stab at it. It’s good; it could have been more. Maybe next time.

GRADE: B-

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