As both a lover of the cinema and a student of history, and perpetually interested in the uneasy relationship between the two, I’ve always been struck by a peculiar dearth of good movies about the American Revolution. Perhaps it’s the both overt and covert pressure to make depictions conform to the narrow expectations of jingoism, and the trailed associations of schoolrooms, dioramas, and stilted historical re-enactments, which have combined to make movie producers wary to extremes of the milieu. Especially compared to the Civil War, which, although also hardly beloved of film producers, has been both forefront and background in some of the great American films, and has proved an apt vehicle for studying aspects of the national psychology. The Revolutionary War on the other hand seems both more remote, but perhaps not remote enough, its contradictions too thorny to deal with in the simplistic rhetorical fashion both most patriotic displays and most historical movies require.
The occasional examples from classic Hollywood are, by and large, weak, and more recent films have generally been big flops, like Peter Yates’ 1776 (1972) and Hugh Hudson’s terminally odd Revolution (1985), both of which were made by British directors. Revolution, in its eccentric casting and attempts to sustain a democratic, tapestry-like structure apparently inspired by the likes of Miklos Jancso and Theo Angelopoulous awkwardly translated into mainstream moviemaking, seemed to be trying to equate historical revolution with the social and artistic rebelliousness of ‘60s and ‘70s. But Hudson's film did so in terms so broad and incoherent that it became one of the more infamous disasters of its era: one review claimed that because of Revolution another serious movie on the subject would not be made again until 2776. Depending on how “seriously” one would take it as, The Patriot, directed by junk movie titan über alles Roland Emmerich, can be said to have belied that prediction, taking a stab at providing a big-budget, prestige-laden, full-blooded major Hollywood take on the subject. It proved a reasonable hit, but rather than winning Oscars, it instead became the object of a bruising cultural battle.
The Patriot’s version of history seemed to fit squarely with a Republican wet dream of tough, sovereign, romantic Americans battling evil, snobby Limeys, and filmgoers across the pond were appalled, fairly, as British soldiers are depicted committing acts more apt for SS Einsatzgruppen on the Russian front of WW2 than the Revolutionary War, in an American film directed by a German. The Patriot, it seemed, revealed a discomforting willingness to exaggerate history to justify hawkish extremes, perfect in the election season that gave unto the US, and the world, George W. Bush. A lot of the public argument over the film’s historical basis was tit-for-tat bickering that simply confirmed that history is really far more morally ambiguous than swashbucklers tend to be. But it is impossible to turn a blind eye to The Patriot’s more obnoxious obfuscations. It presents a hero, clearly based on an historical figure, Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion, who was a slave owner, but who in the film only employs freedmen. It exaggerates the Continental Congress’ dedication to giving freedom to slaves who fought for the American side, and generally portrays historical South Carolina as a demi-Eden of embryonic egalitarianism and tolerance, to sell its essential, incredibly simplistic pitch of fair, upstanding citizens threatened by bludgeoning imperial force. Such pussyfooting damages The Patriot’s chance to be the great Revolutionary War movie even before it begins. This pitch was hardly surprising, however, considering that The Patriot is both pseudo-sequel and pseudo-remake of star Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), a film which freely reinterpreted a history far less immediately familiar to many moviegoers into a realm of chauvinist histrionics, sectarian propaganda, and primal blood feuds, taking the hysterical, vengeful machismo Gibson had developed in movies from Mad Max (1979) through to the Lethal Weapon movies into a new, macrocosmic context. Soon even Jesus wouldn’t be safe.
Which is to say that The Patriot’s bluster is necessitated less by the ideological imperative than by the generic, to the extent that the two can be cleanly separated, which isn’t that far. Generically speaking, then, The Patriot is a mildly rousing revenge flick, partly because it is elevated by the work of its high-class collaborators, most specifically cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and composer John Williams, and Emmerich’s classical sense of cinematic shape and action. Deschanel, one of the most gifted and under-recognised of great contemporary cinematographers, crafted the movie in bold, sun-dappled greens and frosty blues, a kind of moving fresco style evoking the iconic works of Leutze and other historical genre painters. Pictorially, The Patriot is often astounding, so much so that it’s the film’s sheer audio-visual quality which compels me to revisit it. Dramatically, it’s a perverse and conflicted piece of work. Co-star Chris Cooper said when he signed on that he though it was going to be a reasonably straight movie about Marion, who waged a proto-guerrilla war against the army of General Cornwallis, but what came out of the development maelstrom was instead a Mel Gibson vehicle. There are signs throughout The Patriot that screenwriter Robert Rodat had intended a follow-up to his screenplay for Saving Private Ryan (1998), in offering a similar blend of muted triumphalism and a level of moral probing over the ugliness of war pursued for seemingly just causes. There is irony in the title, as some picked at the time whilst also possibly failing to grasp the meaning intended: Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin, is barely a patriot. Although depicted at the start as a member of a legislature, he has little commitment to ideology, takes no overt interest in the political shape and nature of the nascent country he’s fighting for, and resists the idea of war, except when conflict injures him personally. His one moment of real patriotism is supposed to be the moment where he puts the cause – taking up a standard and reversing a retreat – ahead of a chance for revenge.
But the titular irony seems to me reasonably deliberate, if finally largely smothered by pandering. Martin is haunted throughout the film by what others regard as his illustrious victory during the French and Indian War, where he and his men, in revenge for an earlier raid, attacked the remote Fort Wilderness and, slowly and with relish, massacred enemy soldiers in an act of calculated terrorism and pathological bloodlust. His melancholy knowledge of the ugliness of his act, and of war in general, contrasts the heroic dint each has taken on for others. His son Gabriel (Heath Ledger), who joins the Continentals in spite of his father’s resistance, is curious about why his father has been bought drinks all his life by men who admire him but who refuses to explain his past to his children. After the Revolutionary conflict finally spills over into Martin’s world and claims the life of two of his children, the film becomes on one level a study in blood begetting blood, acts of internecine warfare spiralling into carnage and degradation, with only a faint and possibly illusory kind of idealism to salve the brutality.
Martin credits his wife, deceased before the film starts and thus always seen through a haze of posthumous idealisation, with his spiritual and psychological salvation, a salvation that is then repeatedly tested to breaking point as he loses sons to the viciousness of British Dragoon Tavington, played with Snidely Whiplash-esque dedication by Jason Isaacs. He is also constantly engaged in an argument of ethics versus expedience and satisfaction by his fellow warriors, including French officer Villeneuve (Tcheky Karyo), who lost his family on a ship sunk by a British privateer. That a sheer thirst for vengeance is often a cause in war is repeatedly invoked, and supposedly found wanting, but the narrative impulses say otherwise. And yet Martin stands as a pivotal figure, standing between an age where warfare, as a defining aspect of “civilisation,” could be irredeemably cruel but when placed at the service of imperial power-plays at least gains pretty words to dress them up, and another where the warrior’s ideal is republican, evocative of Pericles’ speech about the difference between Athenians and Spartans, based purely in the necessity of defence and security. In this regard, then, he is indeed a peculiar and specific, if also accidental, kind of patriot.
The trouble is, the message tends to get lost in the film’s overwhelming need to get us to the point where Martin and Tavington rumble on the battlefield, and piles up causes for outrage so excessive, including killing off not one but two of Martin’s sons, and seeing Tavington burn a whole village alive inside a church, that moral complexity is rendered incidental. In spite of giving Cornwallis (a thankless role filled tolerably by Tom Wilkinson) a measure of gentlemanly dignity, the film takes it away from him later as he acquiesces to Tavington’s activities, and paints the imperialist enemy in such broad terms that the moral shading is also only one-sided. Tavington is so overwhelmingly monstrous that the quandary of the hero is obscured in the mix: Martin’s sins are, apparently, forgivable, but Tavington’s, we must feel, aren’t. The character is based loosely on Banastre Tarleton, a future MP for Liverpool and advocate of the slave trade who did indeed embody many of the least charming traits of his era’s high Tory conceit, but was hardly a prototypical Reinhard Heydrich. Tavington is the son of a disgraced drunkard, with a chip on his shoulder to lend facile motivation to his essential psychopathy, determined to bash and bleed everything between him and his goal of power and wealth, willing to commit war crimes if they bring his goals closer. The church burning scene is the film’s most ludicrous and discomfortingly insincere moment, especially as more realistic and historically grounded atrocities might have been provided. But the WW2 parallel seems once more deliberate, if one again accepts the story more as a parable about war than merely a specific portrait of an epoch.
The Patriot’s plays for moral seriousness are not only undermined by its historical confusion. Here the portraiture of period semi-rural America, through figures like the family of Gabriel’s lady love Anne Howard (Lisa Brenner, who today suggests a rough sketch for Anne Hathaway), tries for John Ford-esque homey Americana, but instead comes closer to the tweeness of ‘50s Disney-produced dramas: only Rene Auberjonois as a priest turned guerrilla really captures that sought-after spirit. A coastal hamlet populated by runaway slaves, which becomes a refuge for the Martin clan, opens up interesting realms for investigating uneasy multiculturalism in the context of a war where the clash between pure liberty and control is hardly neatly demarcated by flags, but the setting is instead Ewok-cute, and the black characters’ perspectives are window dressing. Such plasticised context sits cheek by jowl with gruelling warfare and massacre: Gabriel’s pretty, young, big-eyed bride is roasted alive along with her village, children are shot and taught to shoot in cold-blooded ambush, and other touches that could have in a less determinedly manipulative movie have been frightening studies in compulsive violence. Sequences in which Martin repeatedly ruffles Cornwallis’ feathers, firstly by blowing a supply ship and then bluffing Cornwallis into giving up some of Martin’s captured men, are pitched on an irritatingly Robin Hood-ish level, and stick out as strained repetitions of the Braveheart-style formula. Likewise the film’s ‘humorous’ touches are often facile – “Can I sit here?” Martin asks Charlotte, to her replay, “It’s a free country…or it soon will be,” a line that might pass muster in a Richard Lester satire, but here just seems archly embarrassing.
Still, whilst Emmerich is rightly criticised for his reductive sense of drama and bombastic obviousness, he rarely gets any credit for his visual control, which is consistently strong, even superlative. Scattered throughout The Patriot are fragments of visual craft and scattered imagistic ebullience that are great cinema, and, as the best big-budget films should arguably always should try for, this one uses its expense to provide pictures charged with poetic qualities, on a grand scale. Such moments here include the Martin family witnessing a brutal battle fought on their plantation grounds, musket fire and massacre glimpsed through hazy mist and foliage, and a near-surreal interlude where Martin and Gabriel watch a similar scene of carnage from the window of a recently abandoned plantation house, astounded to see two armies raining death on each-other in a setting of antebellum pristine. Such moments translate the innate strangeness at the prospect of war being fought literally in one’s own backyards into images of frightening beauty. The guerrilla band’s hideout is a deliciously neo-expressionist locale, an abandoned Spanish mission long since isolated and ruined within a swamp. It’s a fittingly atavistic, spiritual place for Martin, dubbed “the Ghost” for his near-supernatural aura of fear and elusiveness, to operate from, and the film’s crucial scene, when Benjamin tells Gabriel about what happened at Fort Wilderness, gains an indelible eeriness from this setting.
Emmerich’s real talents for directing action, too, are more than manifest in the scene of Martin’s massacre of the column dragging Gabriel away to be hung, which resolves in him deliriously hacking at a soldier who tries to flee with his steel-bladed tomahawk, in expiation of paternal fury that reveals a lunatic bloodlust in Martin grotesque to his onlooking children. Especially impressive is the sequence in which Gabriel leads the men from the massacred town in an attack on Tavington’s squad, encamped in a copse, and in the subsequent skirmish everyone except the villain dies. Emmerich employs Peckinpah-esque slow motion that invests the scene with both torturous excitement – never has the amount of time it took to reload a musket been deployed to such clever and thrilling effect – and a dreamy ponderousness, stretching a moment of utter carnage that only takes a few moments of real time to play out and turning it into a ballet of vengeful slaughter. Stylistically, the film is significantly indebted for most of these ideas to Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans (1992). The final, far more epic-sized fight sequence, based on the real-life battles of Cowpens and Guilford Court House where Daniel Morgan's and Nathanael Greene's determined and clever warfare paved the way for Yorktown, is well-staged. But here the film stumbles, nay, leaps into self-parody when Benjamin brings down Tavington’s horse with the standard of the American flag he clutches. The twelve years that have passed since this film came out have been long indeed, with one leading man dead long before his time and the other gone crazy as a loon, something that does indeed seem manifest at points here: in a role that hinges on menopausal male self-pity, Gibson, who once played grinding, neurotic internal strife with a certain finite skill that bordered on outright stylisation, mostly mugs his way through. He's particularly unconvincing in the scene where he finds the dead Gabriel, where the actor is clearly feeling for his stock reactive strength, but can't find it. It’s a pity that Rodat and Emmerich finally obeyed the need to extend Gibson’s crucifixion fantasies by killing off the son who rightfully ought to be the inheritor of the new world he believes in, and taking the charmingly awkward Ledger out of the picture. If there’s one justification for the film’s existence, it’s the lustre of Joely Richardson as the image of Enlightenment beauty, as photographed by Deschanel. Accepted purely as an historical adventure flick, The Patriot passes muster. Otherwise, if The Patriot had had the courage to live up to its best impulses, it might have been indeed become that ever-elusive worthy Revolution film, but as it is it’s a schismatic, mendacious, good-looking mess. Emmerich would later return to screwing up history with 2011's Anonymous.