The Patriot Review
After all those Mad Max and Lethal Weapon movies, Mel Gibson became one of the most highly paid actors in Hollywood. Love him or hate him (personally, I thought his Lethal Weapon persona, the suicidal cop Riggs was - for the first couple of movies - quite a good role for him, and I've never find him less than entertaining), his overall popularity was undeniable. In fact, it must have put him in a position where he had the pick of roles to play, which is why I have no idea why Gibson chose to do, not one, but two major productions that centred on Brit-bashing. First up we had Braveheart, where the evil Brits are facing inner rebellion from their poor, victimised Scottish ranks and Gibson plays the heroic underdog William Wallace who takes them on and eventually enters martyrdom. Ok, it was a very good movie, I enjoyed it and I'd even give it some historical credit - some - but not enough to warrant Gibson saying in the opening voice-over “Historians from England will say that I am a liar, but history is written by those who hanged heroes.” Worst still, in 2000, Gibson chose to return to historical epics with The Patriot, where he was now a poor, victimised American playing underdog once again to the evil British Empire during the war of independence. Damn those dastardly Redcoats! But was it really that black and white?
It's 1776, the height of the American Revolution, and South Carolina is the centre of some of the biggest and bloodiest battles of the entire War. Veteran Benjamin Martin, ashamed of the atrocities he previously committed when fighting the French/Indians, is resisting taking part in the battle against the British, but when the dastardly British Colonel Tavington kills his son in cold blood, Martin goes ballistic. After taking his fight to the enemy all-but single-handedly, he eventually forms up a Militia - with the assistance of the French - and starts to make a serious dent in the imposing Empire. But will he be able to turn the tide of the War before his nemesis Tavington destroys everybody he cares about?
Let's get a few things straight. The British stretched their Empire across the Globe pretty-much by any means necessary. We did some pretty heinous things along the way, many of which I'm sure nobody is too proud of. But the American Revolution was basically a British civil war that occurred overseas. It was a battle between the British colonial settlers who wanted to be Independent and the British Loyalists who wanted to retain satellite control from the mainland. It was not as simple as right or wrong, or as clear as black and white, with many acts carried out by both sides being unforgiveable. Particularly since some of the now enemies were once fighting on the same side. The problem with The Patriot as a historical epic, is that it portrays the British as church-burning, cold-hearted fascists who were ruthlessly exterminating a bunch of 'farmers with pitch-forks'. Sure, there were real British soldiers who committed some terrible acts - most notably the Colonel that Tavington was based upon - but these were largely done without sanction, and should not have been indicative of the British behaviour as a whole. I mean, the burning of a church complete with the population of an entire village within it? I find it somewhat ironic that this idea was based on the real incident that occurred during the early conflicts where it was the Americans who were torching the church, and not the British as was portrayed. The Patriot is a painfully skewed view of a period of history that we should perhaps not be proud of, but which was a hell of a lot more murky than: Americans innocent victims vs. British evil scoundrels.
With all that out of the way, what I would say is that Director Roland Emmerich's craftwork here enables the story to be pretty enjoyable in spite of its historical inaccuracies. Forgetting them all, what you have here is a classically crafted tale of a man who hung up his arms to take care of his family, but who decides to take them up once again in order to both avenge them, and protect those that survived. It is this traditional persona that Gibson embodies, and his character arc is cleverly woven into a broader plot about fighting for what you think is right and, ultimately, facing off against the might of a huge opposing force. It really is what Gibson does best, and he certainly doesn't disappoint here. You simply can't wait for him to crack open that munitions chest under his bed and go medieval on his enemies, dispatching them with muskets, pistols, swords or hatchets, it's fantastic. Mel Gibson on a vendetta, it's what you came here for. It's just a shame that his avenging assault is shrouded in so much historical tripe. I mean, all of his best movies have the same basic ideas for his character - he cares about somebody, they get killed by the bad guys, he gets very irate and turns into an avenging warrior (everything from Mad Max to Lethal Weapon 2, to Braveheart and this movie) - but whilst they worked in his more frivolous and fantastical productions, when he started doing historical epics, he really ought to have tried to be a bit more historically correct. What he really should have done is called Braveheart, Mad Max 4: The Scots Warrior, and The Patriot, Madmax 5: Freedom Fighter!
For all my complaints about the factual side of this affair, and my annoyance with Gibson for fuelling his own prejudice by participating in movies like this, he is still the heart and soul of this movie - and he manages to engage and entertain throughout. Whether as the shy would-be suitor of his long-dead wife's sister, or the estranged father of a young daughter who refuses to speak to him, his performance perfectly fits the mood. And in his battle sequences - particularly the more personal ones - he excels, rage spilling over as he hacks and slashes at his enemies. It's a classic vendetta role for a classic revenge actor.
To back him up we have myriad solid support, whether in the form of Jason 'Event Horizon' Isaacs as the immoral British enemy Colonel Tavington or Tcheky 'Bad Boys' Karyo as the French supporter of Martin's campaign, who - despite having some of the best lines - appears to do little more than eat throughout the movie. Tom 'Michael Clayton' Wilkinson is on top stiff upper lip form as the initially honourable General Cornwallis and Joely 'Nip/Tuck' Richardson is both sweet and quintessentially 18th Century-lady-like as the love interest. We also have Chris 'Lone Star' Cooper as the Colonel opposing the British, Adam 'Serenity' Baldwin as a defecting American and a young Heath 'The Dark Knight' Ledger as one of Martin's sons. It's a superb ensemble cast, despite the fact that the whole thing is only held together thanks to Gibson's central part.
Roland Emmerich, the man behind Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, has created a fantastic period epic here, complete with some tremendous battle sequences on a fairly large scale. The massive final battle (which was based on real tactics which were used against the British during the war) is directed masterfully, and really achieves both the scale of a conflict between two huge armies, and the detail of a few smaller grudge-matches that occurred during the battle. Emmerich, directing an excellent cast and crew, puts together a thoroughly enjoyable - and epic, particularly in its Director's Cut form, which reinstates over ten minutes of welcome character development and plotting - production. It is just a shame that it purports to 'teach' viewers about a period of history many audiences will not be overly familiar with. This is fiction, and if you remember that, it can be fun watching Gibson do his avenging warrior thing in an original period setting. Just don't forget that it's not always as simple as Brits bad, Yanks good.