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Grade: CPatriot, The (2000)

Director: Roland Emmerich

Stars: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Chris Cooper, Joely Richardson

Release Company: Columbia TriStar

MPAA Rating: R

 

Emmerich: The Patriot

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The Patriot
The Patriot

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Wars tend to make excellent background fodder for great epic films, and nearly all the wars that have involved the U.S. have excellent films associated with them. Viet Nam inspired Apocalypse Now; WWII served as subject matter for a couple of Speilberg epics as well as Patton; WWI provides the background for Lawrence of Arabia and All Quiet on the Western Front; and of course there is the immortal Gone with the Wind for our U.S. Civil War. Even the Korean War has its M.A.S.H.  while the French and Indian War is painted via Michael Mann’s lyrical The Last of the Mohicans.

I’ve been anxiously awaiting the definitive American Revolution epic. 1776 is too lightweight, and my childhood memories of Johnny Tremain gave it more depth than more recent adult re-evaluation. Thus, I was anxiously awaiting Mel Gibson’s coming Revolutionary War epic. At long last, would there now be a definitive film to portray this cinematically challenged War?

Alas, I found myself disappointed. While The Patriot has its moments, it spends so much time developing subplots and demonstrating political correctness for American audiences that it loses any real feeling for its times. Only an idiot could believe that this film resembles the true history of its times. So, if you are a filmmaker with plans to make the definitive movie about the American Revolution, there is a huge opening at the top.

To its credit, The Patriot doesn’t have Mel Gibson charging forth yelling “Freedom!” I almost expected another Braveheart moment in this film; instead, they make that scene slightly more symbolic by having Mel rush the British lines armed with the 13-starred colony flag.

With Roland Emmerich directing you don't expect a work of art. Every two years Roland Emmerich rolls out a potential summer blockbuster. Two years ago it was the wretched Godzilla, 1996 saw the financially successful and enjoyable Independence Day debuted over the Fourth of July weekend. The Patriot may be Emmerich’s best film to date.

However, this film belongs to Mel Gibson. He dominates the screen whenever he appears, adding his deepest voice and touches of the same humor that we have seen in Braveheart. Make no mistake about it; many people are going to see this movie because of Mel, and many will over rate this movie because of Mel. The action sequences are well done and bloody, and Mel is at the center of these, becoming even more bloodied than he was in Braveheart. He even strikes the same pose that he does at the end of the Battle at Falkirk – the one where he kneels with a dazed look.

In fact, one of the reasons that the movie seems to play so long for me is that it borrows so heavily from other movies that I was replaying scenes from them as I was watching. Of course Mel (as Benjamin Martin) invites Braveheart comparisons. Not only is his character and humor similar, but the theme remains much the same. We have Mel resisting going into battle because he just wants to be a simple family man. Then fate intervenes and a family member is killed. Thus, Mel goes off to war and kicks major butt.

You would think that the British had done their research. Mel credits General Cornwalis as being a great military genius, but never explains the details. I’m not so sure that marching your troops in straight lines in open fields and shooting in unison is such a great idea, but it’s unforgivable that Cornwalis failed to check out Mel’s previous film history and prevent his colonels from killing any of Mel’s family. Besides William Wallace, we’ve seen the same pattern with Max Rockatansky in the Mad Max series. There’s also Hamlet where Mel eventually does forcefully kill the king after a lot of indecision.

The battle scenes also invoke images from Gladiator though they are generally done with less fast cutting than Ridley Scott’s film. The final battle with Mel does use some of the same computer generated enhancements, so it parallels Gladiator briefly. It even references High Noon.

This occurs when Mel and son Gabriel, aptly played by Heath Ledger (10 Things I Hate About You) go to recruit their militia “posse.” Gabriel interrupts the church service and gets about the same response that Will Kane did, except Anne Howard (Lisa Brenner) intervenes, shames the men, and gets them to join up. Instantly we know that Gabriel and Anne are destined for more action. Meanwhile, Mel (no need to refer to him by his character name of Benjamin) goes to the tavern for fresh recruits. He gets a much more enthusiastic response than Will Kane does, however.

There’s even unintentional homage to Gone with the Wind here. Remember how Selznick’s film romanticizes the lifestyle of the old South, where slavemasters treated their slaves like family. The Patriot stretches historical accuracy even farther. Here the South Carolina slaves are really slaves at all, but are free men who choose to live like slaves. Of course the British claim that they are freeing them and order them to fight on their side, but one “slave” chooses to fight in the Continental Army to gain his freedom. Early on, token cracker militiaman makes a racist remark to the slave, but this same man later tells the slave what an “honor” it is to fight with him.

One area that the film doesn’t attempt to be politically correct or even historically accurate is in its treatment of the British. I am certain that this film will never play very well in England because The Patriot portrays the Brits as cardboard characters-- either stogy and stuffy or completely evil. Cornwalis, played by Tom Wilkerson I (Fennyman in Shakespeare in Love), is the stogy and stuffy General, whose single fault is arrogance. British actor Jason Isaacs plays Colonel William Tavington as the heartless personification of evil.

Tavington hardly seems human, and perhaps this is what the screen writers had in mind from the beginning when Gibson narrates, “I have long feared my sins will come to visit me … and the cost is more than I can bear.” Tavington visits with a vengeance, providing Gibson with his sole motivation for joining the Continental Army. While Mel says that he doesn’t care for “taxation without representation” -- a school book phrase uttered without any emotional content or any historical development – this is no fight for freedom and no fight for independence. Mel’s fight is for vengeance at its lowest level and for self preservation at its highest. I’m still not sure what inspired him to carry that flag into the last big battle scene.

The film does have some charms. Of course, Mel Gibson’s star quality and seeing him take on the bloody Brits in battle is a treat, even if it is unbelievable that he could take on 20 soldiers by himself with a little help from his young sons. It does achieve audience empathy for the family to resonate better than the coldness of Gladiator.

The camera work and editing are satisfactory and carry the story along. While it doesn’t “wow” me like some other transitions I’ve seen, the fading in of the British flag to replace the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag atop the Charleston capitol was a nice touch to show that the British had taken over. I would have liked to have seen more cutting, as this 3 hour film could have told us the story in 2.5 hours or less without losing a great deal. Sometimes less is more.

This film tries to do too much. It throws in the patriotism angle for the 4th of July opening without a lot of substance behind it, because this is a film about family values more than anything. That is its essential message – a man will do what he has to do to protect his family; all else is secondary. Enjoy it for what it is.

 


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