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
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
"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
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.