It took nearly a century of feature-making for the American film industry to turn out a really good movie about our Revolution, but here, finally, it is. Contrary to all expectations, The Patriot not only finds a rousing, robust, broadly appealing action spectacle in this most bizarrely neglected chapter of America's past, it does so in a way that makes the period feel remarkably vital and convincing. From some angles, that accomplishment looks as miraculous as the Revolution itself.
Although it's squarely tailored to the heroic shoulders of star Mel Gibson, the movie was not produced or directed by him (unlike Braveheart, the film containing his most famous epic role). Rather, The Patriot unites two teams associated with three big summer movies of years past: screenwriter Richard Rodat and producers Mark Gordon and Gary Levinsohn, who collaborated on Saving Private Ryan, and the director-producer team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the duo responsible for Independence Day and Godzilla.
Although anomalous as hell on the face of it, this teaming suggests an interesting logic. Despite coming on the heels of hits like Dances with Wolves and Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan deserves credit as the film that solidly returned the broad-stroke history spectacle to the front ranks of American moviemaking. It was certainly first to venture into the fluffy territory of summer with such weighty themes. In doing so, it established an upward arc that was in marked contrast to the downward curve of the Devlin-Emmerich sci-fi extravaganzas, which, though hugely popular, showed every sign of collapsing into cheesy self-parody.
So it makes an odd sort of sense that the creators of ID4, which delighted in dynamiting our national monuments, would set about, as it were, to refurbish them. The Godzilla team learned the lesson taught by Saving Private Ryan: that, box office-wise, there's now a renewed future in the past. And in bellicosity pro patria.
They weren't the only ones to take the point, of course. The studio run by the director of Saving Private Ryan kicked off the summer with Gladiator, Hollywood's first return to the classical age in over three decades. Chances are, it and The Patriot, with their counterposed Aussie stars, will end up squared off against each other in next year's Oscar contest. If so, my money will be on The Patriot, and not because of any preference for American over ancient history. Emmerich's is simply the better movie: richer in emotions, ideas and characters, less homogenized by digital effects and committee writing, more resourceful in deriving big-screen excitements from gnawing inner conflicts.
Which is not to suggest that it's perfect, even by flag-waving, popcorn-movie standards. As Saving Private Ryan showed, Rodat has a knack for mainstream approaches to America's embattled past but an unsteady sense of how to convert those ideas into a solid dramatic whole. The Patriot, similarly, is as ungainly as it is bold and engaging. It has a first hour that's absolutely terrific; a subsequent 75 minutes that's bloated and frustratingly erratic; and a final half-hour that, thankfully, ties up the story's fraying ends in a blazingly cathartic and gripping battle sequence.
The premise is as old as countless westerns (and as new as Ridley Scott's Rome): a man who wants only to cultivate his homestead and family is forced into battle by the world's intrusion. Like Pvt. Ryan, the film begins strategically on a note of elegiac regret and mortifying self-accusation, together suggesting an attitude that might be called Christian stoicism. Benjamin Martin (Gibson) is a widowed South Carolina plantation owner who, when war ignites in 1776, has seven children to protect and a haunted past to forget. As a hero of the French and Indian War, he committed acts that dog his memory and compel his bitter opposition to the enlistment plans of his oldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger, a handsome Aussie launched toward stardom by this role).
Most surprising in the movie's opening third is its sure confidence in portraying a period that American filmmakers have tended to treat as either sacrosanct or unfathomable, and its willingness to touch on actual historical issues. None of this aims at the kind of high-toned poetic realism pursued in, say, Michael Mann's Last of the Mohicans. Rodat and Emmerich embrace the more traditional, storybook strategies of John Ford (whose unrealized Revolutionary War project, April Morning, might well have anticipated The Patriot), in which foursquare pictorialism and forthright sentiments are carefully aligned. Yet The Patriot anchors both in thoughtful complexities. As the war approaches, Martin sternly tells the South Carolina assembly that putting parental duties above principle keeps him from joining the rebellion's cause. (He doesn't confess the guilt that is perhaps a more important motive.) While he speaks, you realize not only how deep his emotional stake is, but also how exactly it evokes a dynamic that was surely crucial to the Revolution: the see-saw between narrowly defined individual self-interest and the collective ideal of political liberty.
Of course, such conflicts don't stay on the level of oratory. After Gabriel spurns his father's wishes and joins the rebels, Benjamin redoubles his efforts to safeguard his children and plantation. A couple of years transpire, but eventually the British, led by the best movie villain in recent memory, the superlatively cruel Col. Tavington (a terrific performance by Jason Isaacs), invade the family's sanctuary. Wantonly killing wounded soldiers and black freemen alike, they also capture Gabriel, who has just returned home, and send him off to be hanged. At which point the long-awaited finally happens: retiring, guilt-hobbled Benjamin Martin becomes ... Mel, enraged.
If this is what you paid your seven bucks for, consider it well spent. Next to the volcanic fury of Mel's rage, after all, Eastwood is a disgruntled flatfoot, Harrison Ford a kvetch with acid reflux. Only with Mel can we count on the hero himself, not just the baddies, being christened in blood. So it is here. Martin's attack on the British, assisted only by two of his younger sons, ends up a stupendous set-piece that's all the more resonant for being so troublingly orgiastic--proof not only of the hero's suppressed urges, perhaps, but also of revolution's undeniable sexual charge.
There's a problem here, though. Current moviemakers delving into the past seem to know only one motive: personal revenge. The villains sweep in to endanger/kill/rape the hero's family, and then he strikes back in righteous, scene-splattering retaliation. So it was in Braveheart, and so it is (as I complained at the time) in Gladiator. In The Patriot the all-too-familiar device provides a predictable, if effective, turbo-charging of audience emotions in the first and third acts, but it also accounts for the sputtering effect of the movie's protracted middle, which wavers between efforts to rekindle Mel's wrath ("this time it's really personal") and attempts to find equal dramatic thrust in other story elements.
Although this is a significant failing, it's far from fatal. There's a tremendous assurance in the way The Patriot is made that animates even the plot's vagaries and that comes across in countless moments uniting historic detail with impressive storytelling punch: the way Martin makes ammo from the lead soldiers of a slain child; the recurring jokes about two Great Danes owned by Lord Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson); the concern over the slippery battlefield morals of the rebels' Lafayette-like French ally (Tcheky Karyo); the efforts of a black slave (Jay Arlen Jones) to gain his freedom by fighting; "bundling" and other quaint customs witnessed in Gabriel's courtship of Anne Howard (Lisa Brenner); and others.
The movie's press notes say that Rodat based Martin on a number of real-life figures--Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens, Daniel Morgan, Elijah Clark and Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion--which indicates a commitment to 18th-century realities that's also evident in Kirk Petruccelli's superb production design, Deborah Scott's costumes, Caleb Deschanel's cinematography and the authentic textures of the weaponry and fighting, including the large-scale battles of Camden and, climactically, Cowpens.
For most audiences, the movie's appeal will surely lie not only in its story's emotional torque but in seeing this part of the past come alive for the first time. Why did it take so long? I've had a theory that the America cinema's realistic orientation has made it difficult for filmmakers to envision the way Americans lived before the invention of photography, when fashions made them seem (to us) more like Europeans anyway. There's also the fact that the West gave Hollywood certain unbeatably archetypal landscapes for its classic myths of history and nation building; how could the flat, effete East compete? In recent years, even outer space looked like a more promising place to meditate on the national character.
Perhaps no less significant is that the kind of proud, positive myth that The Patriot constructs--or honors--was once a matter of implicit national faith. It hardly needed illustrating. In recent decades, that faith has been so challenged as to vanish from many arenas, which gives the movies the chance to reassert a truth that belongs to ideals, not polemics. Just as Saving Private Ryan resurrected mythic World War II without the lacerating retrospection imposed by Vietnam (a debatable achievement, admittedly), Rodat's latest gives us Revolution-era America--the South, even--minus the coruscating aspersions of political correctness and academic leftism. It constitutes a reaction, perhaps, but one which recovers a kind of understanding that binds and encourages rather than divides.