The Patriot not just about the American Revolution
Review by Jon Roland
July 4, 2000

The movie The Patriot starring Mel Gibson, which opened across the United States on June 28, 2000, is the story of an epic struggle between good and evil, but although the producers did well at re-enacting the setting of the American War for Independence, it is really an allegory of our own times, with some pointed references to recent events.

Benjamin Martin, played by Mel Gibson, is a composite of various Patriots: Colonel Daniel Morgan, who fought the brutal Colonel Banastre Tarleton and Lord General Charles Cornwallis at the Battle of Cowpens; Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox," a guerrilla fighter from South Carolina’s wetlands; Elijah Clark; Thomas Sumter; and Andrew Pickens, all renowned freedom fighters.

The character most resembles Francis Marion, who was commissioned a Captain in the Revolutionary Army and was later promoted to Major, Lieutenant Colonel and finally Brigadier General. His early military experience was fighting against the Cherokee Indians. His heroism and military skills consisted mainly of commanding militia units in guerrilla tactics, taking advantage of forests and swamps for cover and evasion. He is credited with a daring rescue of American troops surrounded by British forces at Parkers Ferry, South Carolina. After the war, Marion served three terms as a member of the South Carolina Senate.

The central character of this epic is not just Benjamin Martin, but the Militia. The moral struggle of Martin is the struggle of the Militia, at first conscious of its domestic duties, and reluctant to risk those under its protection with a forceful response to tyranny, but compelled to resort to force when it is unable to protect them in any other way.

This is a familiar theme in drama. It is the struggle of the Pacifist Bride who finally resorts to violence to protect her Lone Lawman husband in High Noon. The moral is clear. A righteous person avoids violence, even at the cost of his personal dignity and pride, but sometimes Evil leaves him no choice but to use violence to defend the innocent, especially those he loves. He agonizes over the harm he has done in the past, and that he is doing, and must do, but love is stronger, and while it may begin with those of his own family, he cannot avoid the duty that comes with love of the innocent everywhere. It is about the way a man discovers the patriot in himself.

The emotional climax occurs when Martin's son Gabriel comes to the village of Pembroke, to find the villagers in church, praying for the souls of three of their neighbors, a man, woman, and female child, hung from a dead tree outside the village by British troops. He interrupts the service to announce a call-up of the militia, but finds the townsmen afraid to join him, until Anne Howard, wonderfully played by Lisa Brenner, rises to speak out. "... you are as ardent Patriots as I. Will you now, when you are needed most, stop at only words?

"I ask only that you act upon the convictions of which you have so eloquently spoken, and in which you so strongly believe."

At these words, the men of the village rise. They, and we, know they, and their families, will suffer much before the war is won, but they rise anyway, and something in the audience rises with them.

The ways in which this movie is relevant today is revealed by the ways it departs from Revolutionary War history. The story of Francis Marion would have made a good movie if told straight, but this movie has some points to make that justify the historical departures, and it is interesting how some critics have fastened on those departures to attack the movie, while conveniently avoiding their deeper meaning.

Much has been made of Martin handing muskets to two of his young sons, aged 10 and 13, and leading them on a merciless slaughter of the British soldiers taking his oldest son to be hung, on orders of the evil Col. Tavington, played by Jason Isaacs, or of the emerging camaraderie between a racist white militiaman and a black slave who originally joined to win his freedom and stayed on to finish the war. The first is decried as appalling, and the second as improbable. But in fact boys that young, and some women, did fight in the Revolution, as did some blacks, and fighting together does produce bonding that breaks down barriers. Some would have their readers believe that all white southerners were racist slaveholders, but in fact only wealthy planters could afford slaves, and among them, slavery was often regarded as wrong, especially among the better educated and more religious. There were free slaves in every state, and many of them worked on plantations for wages.

A more significant departure is in the scene in which Col. Tavington orders the townspeople, who have supported the revolution, into their church, then has them locked in and the church burned with all the people inside, including women and children. That would have been nearly an unthinkable atrocity at the time. The historical Colonel Tarleton was brutal, but not that brutal. He recalled in his memoirs the pleasure he took in shooting fleeing rebels in the back, and there was an incident in which burned bodies of militiamen were found at a battle scene. The homes of revolutionaries were often burned, but not with live noncombatants inside. But it does not represent a Revolutionary War event. It represents the Davidian church in 1993. And Col. Tavington represents the modern paramilitary federal agency, as revealed in the meeting between Col. Tavington and Lord Gen. Cornwallis, in which Cornwallis berates Tavington for his brutal methods, but accedes to Tavington's proposal to operate "free of the chain of command" so that Cornwallis would be held blameless for his actions, and offers him land in Ohio if he can pull it off. This kind of conspiracy to afford deniability to superiors while conducting atrocities is something that could occur in any time, but didn't happen during the American Revolution. It is happening in our own time.

The movie brings out other things about the militia. It shows them being called up, not as an act of an official, but by private persons aware of a common threat. It shows how they might initially be less effective in a stand-up battle requiring extensive military training and discipline, but how they become more effective with experience, until they can defeat the most powerful army, largely because they are better at personal combat, making up in personal skills what they lack in unit cohesion. It should be noted that, for all its unit discipline, it was individual combat ability that did most to enable the Roman militia to conquer the Mediterranean world.

Gibson turns in his usual wonderful performance, comparable to that of his performances in the equally pointed movies, Conspiracy Theory and Braveheart. But the outstanding performance in this movie is by a newcomer, not just to acting, but to life — Skye McCole Bartusiak, who plays Martin's youngest daughter, Susan. Getting a child so young to act so well is amazing, and I predict more outstanding performances from that young lady.

Mel Gibson, Roland Emmerich, and the others behind this excellent movie should be commended for giving up a deeper appreciation of the concept of the militia, and how all of us have a militia duty to defend one another. It has done a great deal to revive the militia spirit to defend our Constitution, for which so many noble patriots died.

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