Madeira Mondays: The Patriot (Part I)

Rousing. Violent. Exciting.

These are the three adjectives that Netflix has chosen to describe Roland Emmerich’s film The Patriot (2000). And Netflix is right. Seeing Mel Gibson (fresh from his turn as William Wallace in Braveheart) hacking dozens of British soldiers to death with a tomahawk is definitely ‘violent’. Then seeing him riding with a tattered American flag on a horse at sunrise while men around him shout ‘Huzzah!’ is pretty ‘rousing’, I guess. And every time that Heath Ledger or Jason Issacs are on screen (two talented actors who get to really chew some scenery in this movie), it is ‘exciting’ for me, the viewer, to watch them act.

But while The Patriot might be rousing, violent and exciting, it is also a comically simplistic portrayal of a complicated time in America’s history. Let’s get one thing straight: this movie is an over-the-top melodrama of the highest order. Like any good melodrama, you can expect exaggerated, stereotypical characters and clear cut Goodies and Baddies. And wouldn’t history, and human nature, be much easier to understand if it was really like this? If there really were simply heroes and villains? Perhaps that really is the appeal of films like The Patriot. More than their violence, their star power, and their exciting set pieces (note the battle scene where the guy’s leg gets knocked off by the cannon ball!), these types of movies are comforting in their simplicity. They present a national mythology that is easy to grasp and that most people can get behind.

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Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin. The film came out several years before Gibson was blacklisted in Hollywood for his anti-Semitic comments made during a 2006 DUI arrest.

The Patriot presents a version of the Revolutionary War where the the British Army is seemingly populated entirely by incompetent aristocrats and psychologically disturbed sadists who go around committing atrocities without repercussions. I’ll be talking more about this in next week’s post, but to say that this film’s depiction of British army officers during the American Revolution is ‘inaccurate’ doesn’t go far enough. It is outrageous. American civilians were definitely abused by both armies, but nothing on the scale this film seems to suggest as far as I am aware and often that abuse was by the REBEL army towards Loyalists.

But before I get any further ripping into this film, I have a confession: I loved The Patriot as a kid. I watched it so many times that I could still recite it today. I watched it so often in part because I liked this time period and there are so few films and books depicting it, but also because there are some engaging and fun things about The Patriot. Not enough to redeem it, mind you! This is not a ‘good’ movie. It’s a fun, bombastic melodrama (check out my reviews of The John Adams Miniseries or The Witch for ideas of much better, more nuanced, movies set in early America).

But in fairness to The Patriot, I have decided to break this post up into two parts. Today I’m posting about things which I think work about this film. They are largely related to the talent of some of the actors. Next Monday, I’ll be talking about the things that do NOT work so well.

As a quick synopsis (skip this paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled about the plot!): The Patriot is a story about a farmer with a troubled past, Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), who wants to remain neutral in the escalating conflict with Great Britain. But he’s pulled into the war when his headstrong son Gabriel (Health Ledger) joins the Continental Army and when an evil British officer, Colonel Tavington (Jason Issacs), murders his other son Thomas and burns his house down. The rest of the film follows Martin’s journey as he joins the rebel army and succeeds at every turn evading the British through guerilla warfare: stealing their supplies, planning sneak attacks, hiding in the woods and evading capture etc. Then Gabriel dies, also at the hands of Colonel Tavington, in a scene that is genuinely sad, especially given our loss of Ledger in real life. But all is well(ish) in the end because Martin enacts his revenge by killing Tavington and the Continental army wins the war (of course).

So it is a movie about a badass fighter man with a dark past who wants to get out of that life but is drawn into it when the baddies attack his family. Then he goes on a murderous rampage. This is basically John Wick…in the American Revolution.

As a side note, it made me laugh to learn that Harrison Ford declined the lead role in this because he said the film boiled down the Revolutionary War to a ‘one-man’s-revenge’ melodrama. Yup. That about sums it up.

That being said, there is some fun to be had here and some things that succeed in this movie.

Some things that work in The Patriot

1 – The score

As I was searching for things to praise, the music immediately came to mind. Then I looked up who scored it: John Williams! Even if you don’t know John Williams, you have probably heard his work. He scored ET, the Indianan Jones series, the first two Home Alone films, Star Wars, and the first three Harry Potter films. To name just a few.

The score in The Patriot is excellent and definitely ‘rousing’. It makes moving use of period instruments, like violins and flutes, and is delicate and hopeful. To be honest, the music is doing most of the emotional heavy lifting over a lackluster script and fairly cardboard characters (more on the characterization below). You can listen to the theme here.

2 – Everything looks pretty good

The material world of The Patriot seems to have been created with attention and care. For instance, there is a sampler on the wall in one of the opening scenes, in the girls’ bedroom, which is a nice touch. And as far as I can tell, most of the material culture stuff is well done. The elite women are never wearing head coverings outside during the day (like a mob cap etc.) for modesty, but that’s not a huge deal. And everyone looks too clean, but, by and large, I felt this stuff was fine. Apparently the film was even supervised by The Smithsonian. Of course I’m by no means an expert, but anything glaringly obvious I probably would have picked up on so well done to the costume and set designers.

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Gabriel (Heath Ledger) and Benjamin Martin (Gibson) at war.

3 – Warfare

It conveys the gruesome brutality of 18th century warfare – where men stood in lines and shot at each other, before stabbing one another with bayonets. Sometimes I would argue it relishes the fighting a bit too much, like when the cannon ball flies directly towards the camera, but director Roland Emmerich seems interested in these details. Perhaps more interested in these details than he is in the characters themselves. As for me, I’m not very interested in military history or in how 18th century battles are fought, beyond the basics, but zooming in (literally) on this works to convey the sacrifices that men on both sides of the conflict made to serve their country. You come away thinking that war is a gruesome and terrible thing, which is true.

4 – Tom Wilkinson

This talented actor is having a lot of fun as the pompous General Cornwallis, saying lines like ‘These rustics are so inept. Nearly takes the honor out of victory. Nearly.’ Fun Fact: he also gets to play a jolly, folksy Ben Franklin in the John Adams Miniseries. In some ways the mirror opposite of Cornwallis. What fun!

5 – Jason Issacs

As far as I’m concerned, Jason Issacs is the hero of this movie and not just because I have always found him a really charismatic and good-looking actor (although that helps). He is a hero because this actor is given nothing to do besides being a complete sadistic murderer, but it somehow works because he commits to it 100%.

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Jason Issacs as Col. William Tavington

His character of Tavington is wholly one-dimensional and one level. Usually overtly evil characters like this are at least given one redeeming trait by the screenwriters – maybe they have a dog or a kid? Maybe they are seen enjoying a piece of music once? Basically, they are shown loving or appreciating something. Nope. Not Tavington. He basically just kills people or thinks about killing them. There is one brief moment of humanity when Tavington admits to Cornwallis that his father is a disgraced aristocrat and he has no inheritance. ‘I advance myself only through victory,’ Tavington says. It’s a thin and underdeveloped motivation for the levels of brutality that Tavington commits, but Issacs definitely nails this moment and we see a flicker of fragility in Tavington’s eyes. Still though, 98% of the time this character is written to be a cardboard cut-out of Evil. And yet. Issacs is a joy to watch. When you’re playing a role like this, you’ve just got to give it your all. And he does. No surprise that he later played Captain Hook in a remake of Peter Pan. He is basically already playing Captain Hook in The Patriot.

6 – Heath Ledger

Again. His character is non-existent. Like Issac’s Tavington, Ledger is given nothing to work with. His character of Gabriel Martin is just Earnest Young Hero Man. And yet. He’s not bland at all, but imbues Gabriel with a youthful exuberance, a quiet dignity, a curiosity for life, and a whole host of other traits that are not coming from the writing but the delivery. This was Ledger’s first big dramatic role and the career that he went on to have – Brokeback Mountain, The Dark Knight etc. – is not surprising at all, given his evident charm and likeable onscreen persona here. He also underplays some of the more dramatic moments, which is something this film desperately needs more of.

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Heath Ledger as Gabriel Martin

7 – ‘They had green eyes’

In a movie full of over-the-top emotions and epic battle sequences, perhaps the only moment that I found truly sad and human was a tiny one, when the proud French officer Villeneuve (Tchéky Karyo) finally opens up to Benjamin Martin about the loss of his daughters who were killed by the British army (because that’s what the British army does in this movie, kills civilians left and right). Martin asks him, as they are marching in to battle, presumably about to die: ‘How old were your daughters?’ Villeneuve answers: ‘Violette was 12 and Pauline 10. They had green eyes.’ Maybe it’s the actor’s understated, almost numbed, delivery. Or maybe it’s just this small touch of specificity in a movie that is usually broad strokes, but I found this moment between the men genuinely touching. Martin has just lost his son, Gabriel, and it is a sweet moment of connection and shared loss between them. The screenwriter Robert Rodat could have used a lot more moments like this.

In general, some of the banter between the men also works well and there are a lot of quippy one liners where the militiamen are teasing one another which I felt was sweet and made the overall tone less self-important.

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Tcheky Karyo as Villeneuve

So there you have it. Some things that I genuinely appreciated about The Patriot!

In next week’s post, we are going in-depth looking at what isn’t working so well in this film, as well as some of the history that inspired it. In the meantime, let me know if you’ve seen The Patriot. It’s currently streaming on UK Netflix, so maybe it’s time for a re-watch even if you saw it twenty years ago when it came out. I’d love to hear your thoughts. See you next Monday for Part II!

PS If you’re looking for some historical fiction which isn’t at all like The Patriot, but rather a spooky, Victorian ghost story about sisters and séances, then check out my story The Astonishing Rivers Sisters, published this week in Halfway Down the Stairs magazine!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

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