Corny and melodramatic as it is, “The Patriot” still manages to do something few films have done — to tell a story of the American Revolutionary War that has some emotional pull and isn’t stuffy and dull. German helmer Roland Emmerich’s take on the struggle to form the first true democracy since the ancient Greeks is told in broad strokes and at considerable length. But, with one exception, it wisely focuses upon common folk rather than prominent figures, and makes a sincere effort to address some of the complex currents and vexing issues that faced the men who decided to take up arms against the British. Commercial prospects look solid, if not stellar; Mel Gibson’s involvement, a big promo push and strong action elements will probably not be enough to overcome a resistance to the material by a certain percentage of the public.
It remains one of the mysteries of the American cinema why the incredibly dramatic and complex birth of the nation has provided such infertile ground for motion pictures. It may have something to do with the way the founding fathers have been deified by schoolbooks to the point where they’ve ceased being flesh and blood, or with the events’ historical distance, or with the cumbersome trappings of quill pens, muzzle loaders, wigs and the like. Still, there isn’t a single self-evident reason why Hollywood has always shied away from the subject. But with the exception D.W. Griffith’s 1924 silent “America,” the films set in the colonies 225 years ago rep a meager and artistically mediocre lot, with the last two, Hugh Hudson’s 1985 “Revolution” and James Ivory’s 1995 “Jefferson in Paris,” setting back the cause even further.
Ambitious screenplay by Robert Rodat (“Saving Private Ryan”) unmistakably brands itself as a product of its era with its very Baby Boomerish fetishism about family; children and the family unit were certainly sacrosanct in the old Hollywood, but in historical films of no previous period did characters fuss as sentimentally about the well-being of young ‘uns as they’re doing now (see “Gladiator”). All the same, Benjamin Martin (Gibson) has a good excuse, as he’s both father and mother to a brood of seven now that his wife has passed away.
Poetically seen unsuccessfully trying to fashion a rocking chair from which he can watch his kids grow on his South Carolina plantation, Benjamin is a former warrior and hero of French and Indian War who’s seen too much blood and is now a dedicated pacifist. But the times don’t easily accommodate such a position. It’s 1776, eight of the 13 American colonies have decided to back the rebellion provoked by King George’s “taxation without representation” policy, and a Declaration of Independence is expected to be issued shortly from Philadelphia. Now the assembly at Charleston must decide what it will do, and when it finally joins the fight, Benjamin cannot prevent his headstrong oldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), from signing up. “He’s as impudent as his father was at his age,” a friend helpfully reminds Benjamin.
Lord Gen. Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), supreme commander of the British forces , soon takes Charleston, and a stunned and wounded Gabriel stumbles home. In one of the film’s most haunting scenes, the family watches from their windows as a battle suddenly materializes at night on their property. Diplomatically treating the British wounded the next day, Benjamin’s family is changed forever by the shocking behavior of the arriving Col. Tavington (Jason Isaacs), leader of the Green Dragoons, who instantly arrests Gabriel and commits a gratuitous act of violence against Benjamin’s family.
This event, at the film’s half-hour point, naturally re-ignites the warrior in Benjamin, and we see the primal nature of guerrilla warfare (which Benjamin learned as a young man) as he and two of his sons dash through the woods to ambush the small convoy escorting Gabriel to his date with the hangman. This tense sequence, in which young boys shoot soldiers and Benjamin butchers others with a tomahawk, is startling in its devastating brutality, as well as an indication of the strategy that will help the ragtag colonists turns the tide against their superbly trained, but tactically outmoded, opponents.
After depositing the kids in Charleston with their Aunt Charlotte (Joely Richardson), Benjamin is made a colonel in the South Carolina militia by an old comrade-in-arms (Chris Cooper) and settles in the for long haul against the Brits. The militia’s general aim is to keep Cornwallis busy in the South so he can’t sweep north to New York. To this end, Benjamin recruits many of his cohorts from previous battles who, like himself, have since settled down. One of the merits of the film’s scrutiny of family is the kaleidoscopic picture it provides of how the war fractured and tore apart all families, since it was not a conflict fought just by professional soldiers but by the populace at large.
Among the British, Benjamin develops a reputation as “The Ghost” for his lightning attacks, one of which yields Cornwallis’ personal journals and another of which affords the general a view of a cargo ship full of arms being blown up for the edification of his guests during a garden party. It doesn’t all go the colonists’ way, however; in a dazzling ambush, most of Benjamin’s men are killed or wounded. On the pretext of a prisoner exchange, Benjamin is permitted to meet with the formal, increasingly exasperated Cornwallis in a scene designed to illustrate the full extent of the hero’s trumpeted impudence.
Enraged at being tricked, the English military leader gives free reign to Tavington to deal with “The Ghost” and his rebels as he sees fit, and the colonel’s previous scorched-earth tactics soon seem mild in comparison to the terror he unleashes on common citizens.
Of course, it all comes down to a face-off between the mortal enemies, Benjamin and Tavington, but against the spectacular backdrop of a decisive battle in which the disrespect that Cornwallis has exhibited for the militia comes back to haunt him. Overall, “The Patriot” gives a plausible indication of the dynamics of the Revolutionary War in political, military and personal terms; it is easy to object that enormously complicated events have been unduly simplified into black-and-white, good-and-evil oppositions, but setting them down in a way that general audiences can grasp is arguably no small achievement.
One symptom of the film’s tendency to put things in obvious terms is having the colonists speak in very middle-of-the-road “Americun” accents, so as to differentiate them easily from their British enemies; there’s no vocal acknowledgment of the conventional Southern accent or of the fact that many colonists at the time were first- or second-generation English who would not have entirely changed their linguistic ways.
At the same time, Emmerich and Rodat pay attention to historical details and dramatic grace notes that enrich the picture’s fabric. Of special interest is the portrait of blacks within the context of a story played out by white principals. Making the blacks working on Benjamin’s plantation “employees” rather than slaves does make the hero a nicer guy, but it is a historical wrinkle amplified by one character who joins the militia and sticks with it due to Gen. Washington’s edict that black men who put in a year’s service will be ensured free status and be paid for each month of duty. Pic’s most relaxed interlude takes place at a small black community on the beach where the colonists seek refuge for a while and Gabriel is married to a spirited young lady (an earlier scene between them makes amusing use of the old tradition of bundling). Gallic influence among the Brit-fighters is repped by a French officer (Tcheky Karyo) who helps teach guerrilla fighting methods and keeps reminding that a French fleet is on its way to lend a hand.
The gruesomeness of musket-to-musket, face-to-face combat between regimented lines of soldiers is vividly conveyed (rather too vividly in a couple of over-the-top shots that show the effect a cannonball can have on a human body) in massive battle scenes that contrast nicely with the smaller skirmishes that dot the proceedings. Pic’s scale is weighty but not heavy, and the accessories of the period don’t bog things down; the actors move easily and naturally, and the varied locations look lived-in.
Gibson (a man with seven kids himself, we can’t forget) forcefully socks over the two prime components of his role, the deeply caring dad who would just like to watch his children grow up in peace, and the vengeful, crafty warrior capable of great brutality. Aussie thesp Ledger (the handsome romantic lead in last year’s “10 Things I Hate About You”) makes an entirely believable son for such a father, cutting a dashing figure with style and seriousness. Isaacs stakes a claim as a legitimate heir to the Alan Rickman/Jeremy Irons tradition of ruthless British villainy as the endlessly evil Tavington, while Wilkinson adroitly creates a satisfyingly complex portrait of the tragically deluded aristocrat Cornwallis.
Production values for the South Carolina–shot epic are tops, with particular nods to Kirk M. Petruccelli’s production design, Deborah L. Scott’s costumes and Caleb Deschanel’s lustrous lensing. John Williams’ score is effective, if insistent.