Madeira Mondays: The Patriot (Part II)

Last week, we looked at Roland Emmerich’s film The Patriot (2000). This was one of my favorite films as a kid and, perhaps out of protective nostalgia or just out of fairness to the movie, I highlighted some of its positive qualities (which basically boiled down to: Jason Issacs, Health Ledger and the score by John Williams). But now we can get on to the fun part: all of the issues that I have with The Patriot. Plus a bit about the history behind this super silly (but fun!) movie.

If you’re joining for this second post, you might want to go back and have a look at Part I first, but if you’re all caught up, let’s go ahead and dive in.

heath ledger

Gabriel Martin (Heath Ledger) in The Patriot

Stuff that doesn’t work in The Patriot

1 – The main character

Screenwriter Robert Rodat had an interesting idea for the main character of Benjamin Martin. Martin is based in part on Francis ‘Swamp Fox’ Marion, the American militia man famous for his guerilla warfare tactics against the British army in South Carolina, and in part on General Andrew Pickens who had his estate torched and lost a son before he went back into action and led the American militia forces at Cowpens. So Martin is a sort of composite character, inspired by several historical figures, which is a very common technique in historical fiction.

What I really like about this character however is his backstory. Basically Martin is a war veteran who is famous (or infamous) for the slaughter of French and Native American men, women and children during the French and Indian War. This slaughter was retribution, Martin explains, for an attack that the French and Native troops had committed on presumably British-American settlers. When he conveys this to his son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) we understand that Martin is a man who is deeply traumatized by his violent past. ‘I can still see their faces. I can still hear their screams. And not a day goes by that I do not ask God’s his forgiveness for what I have done,’ he says.

So Martin is a character who, at the outset of the movie, knows the reality of war and also knows both the allure of violence and the terrible personal cost of inflicting it. This is an interesting backstory and makes his reluctance to get involved in the Revolutionary War make sense.

But then, when he gets involved, the whole movie hinges on Martin seeking his revenge on Tavington for murdering his son at the start of the film, and climaxes with Martin killing Tavington. So Tavington’s violence is met with yet more violence and the ending is treated as unambiguously celebratory. We’re meant to be psyched that Tavington is dead. But this doesn’t work narratively due to Martin’s backstory. It doesn’t work because Martin has evidently learned nothing throughout the film. He has fallen into his old pattern of answering violence with more violence. It would have been a more powerful and effective ending for Martin to let Tavington live. They even hint that this might happen before Martin goes into the final battle and he is musing on what gives men the right to justify death.

If screenwriter Robert Rodat really wanted Tavington dead at the end of the film, so he’s no longer rampaging through the South Carolina countryside, he could have Tavington killed in an explosion or something during the final battle. That way, he’s no longer a threat, but Martin has still developed as a character: no longer someone who kills out of rage and revenge. It would be especially poignant because one of his sons who Tavington murdered, Gabriel, always advocated for justice and mercy. So I think they went in the wrong direction with this final scene and with Martin’s character in general. But that’s not the only issue with this movie by a long shot.

2 – Its depiction of slavery

‘We work this land…freemen.’

When Tavington arrives at Martin’s plantation, a group of African American men, in field worker clothes, tell him that they are not slaves but work the land…freedmen. The unlikelihood of this is staggering, that a wealthy white landowning man in South Carolina would have only free black men working on his plantation. Still, this isn’t the first film which makes their white lead anachronistically progressive and not racist, and it won’t be the last.

But even more confusing is when Tavington says that these men should join the British army because they will be granted freedom and then the men are basically forced into joining the army, when they visibly do not want to. In reality, the British army actually offered a very real opportunity for enslaved men and women to escape and sometimes people actually ran away to join the British. Even at the end of the war, in South Carolina where this story is set, many formerly enslaved people LEFT willingly with the British army and moved to England, where slavery was illegal – made so after the Somerset Case. It is a great irony that for many of the white colonists the British military presence signified ‘slavery’, but for many enslaved people, it meant a real chance for freedom.

3 – Thomas’ super cringeworthy slow motion death scene

As I spoke about last week, this is a melodramatic film and there is a lot of excessive emotionality to be had. The melodrama hits its peak towards the start of the film during the murder of Benjamin Martin’s son by Tavington. Right before young Thomas is killed, there is literally a slow mo shot of Mel Gibson running forward shouting: ‘Waitttt!’ Then Thomas is shot (still in slow mo) hits the ground (still slow mo here too) and looks up to the heavens. And then, in case we needed a confirmation that Tavington is a monster of a man, Tavington snidely remarks, ‘Stupid boy’, as the lifeless body of young, dead Thomas hangs limply in his father’s arms. I am able to write about this so nonchalantly because it is such an over the top and silly scene, with the British characters behaving in such monstrous and unmotivated ways, that you have to cringe here.

4 – Depiction of Loyalists

The only Loyalist we meet is South Carolinian Captain Wilkins who is weirdly harsh  and intense in his first scene, saying: ‘All those who stand against England deserve to die a traitor’s death.’ Remember that in real life Loyalists and Rebels were often in the same families. It’s unlikely/impossible that Wilkins doesn’t have some neighbors or probably family who support the rebellion. They all ‘deserve to die a traitor’s death’, Wilkins? Seriously?

Even given that he’s trying to show off in front of Tavington, this is a pretty damn harsh thing to say. And then he doesn’t lift to finger to stop Tavington when Tavington burns an entire village alive in a church (more on that scene below). Maybe it’s just because I study Loyalists, but it’s important to remember that often they were the ones being persecuted and targeted by violence during the American Revolution! Those who supported the rebellion were constantly destroying Loyalists’ property, harassing them, chasing them out of town and sometimes even killing them. The term ‘lynching’ is actually from Col. Charles Lynch of Virginia who was famous for extra-legal executions of Tory sympathizers. Life wasn’t easy for those who remained loyal to the crown before, during or after the war. They were victims of violence, not just perpetrators of it.

5 – ‘Burn the Church’

I don’t even know where to start.

Perhaps the most famous scene from this film is when Tavington orders an entire town burned alive in a church for helping Benjamin Martin and his rebel militia.

I have never heard of anything like this happening in the Revolutionary War. War crimes were definitely committed, especially by regulars, but officers had to guard their reputations, to a certain extent. Tavington is a high ranking officer.

I’m not saying that some soldiers didn’t do bad things to civilians. For instance, for my novel research, I’ve recently been reading Richard Goodbeer’s book Sexual Revolution in Early America: Gender Relations and the American Experience, and in it he mentions how we know that there were many sexual assaults of American women by British soldiers. There was also looting and destruction of property and many other things I am sure.

But there was nothing on this scale or this public – as far as I’m aware. Does General Cornwallis know about this mass murder, Tavington? I don’t think the people back in England, many of whom were sympathetic to the colonists’ plight, would be too psyched to hear about their cousins in America being burned alive!!

And Tavington does say earlier in the film that if he uses brutal tactics on civilians that he can ‘never return to England with honor.’ Damn right you can’t, dude. These people shared a common heritage, common blood. They were considered English people at the time and that gave them certain priviledges. You can’t just go around murdering an entire village. Tavington’s whole plan is that he will continue to live in America after the British win the war as a landowner. So your plan is to live amongst the people who you’ve slaughtered?

Also, think about how the Patriot propagandists would have reacted if they heard that an entire village had been killed by a British officer. They would have had a field day with it! Do you recall the Boston Massacre? When five men were shot by British soldiers who shot only out of self-defense? Paul Revere calls it the ‘Boston Massacre’ and produces this famous (and highly misleading) engraving.

massacre-webbanner

From The Boston Massacre engraving by Paul Revere

There were parades commemorating The Boston Massacre and word of it spread in the colonies as evidence of British brutality. But in this scene in The Patriot, like fifty to one hundred people, including women and children, are burned alive! If this had happened during the Revolutionary War, there would have been hundreds of poems published and pictures of churches embroidered on to flags, and all kinds of stuff to remember this atrocity. It just did not happen.

Apparently this ‘Burn the church’ scene was actually based on something the Nazis did to a group of French villagers during WWII. There was no reason that they needed to make the British characters in this as bad as Nazis. It is enough that Tavington shot a young boy for almost no reason in an earlier scene. We get that he’s a bad guy. But this scale of mass murder just isn’t believable at all.

church scene

The British soldiers march out of town as the church in Pembroke burns (with the entire village inside).

It is also important to note that the character of Tavington is based on Banastre Tarleton, a British officer who came to symbolize British brutality on the battlefield, after the Battle of Waxhaws. At Waxhaws, American forces wanted to surrender but it is said that Tarleton had them killed anyway. ‘Tarleton’s quarter’ was a phrase used to mean no quarter at all. It was apparently true that Tarleton practiced total war – aka burning houses, destroying crops, not keeping the war confined to the battle field – but he did not murder tons of people like this.

Banastre-Tarleton-by-Joshua-Reynolds

Banastre Tarleton portrait by Joshua Reynolds

6 – Dates?

I am not a stickler for making sure the historical chronology lines up 100% but this one plays past and loose with dates. There’s a scene in 1776 and then they say in a V.O that two years have passed and Charles Town has fallen to the British. So two years…that’s 1778. But the British didn’t take Charles Town until 1780 (four years). Ah well. I actually think that’s the least of this film’s problems, but if you know about the key dates/battles of the Revolution then you’re likely to wince.

the patriot

Skye McCole Bartusiak (Susan Martin) weeps when her dad goes off to war. (And possibly about the inaccuracies within this film)

Those are just some of the problems I have with this film. At the end of the day, it’s important to keep in mind that The Patriot is not trying to educate, but to entertain. Yet the reality is that people watch films like this and often take it for granted that they are generally historically accurate. I remember meeting someone at a big academic conference for Early American History (I think he was a member of the public who had come in on the day, not an academic) and he told me that he loved The Patriot and it was the best depiction of the Revolution he had seen. I was so surprised I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just nodded.

If you watch and enjoy The Patriot, just go into it as you would with any work of historical fiction: with the knowledge that this is a work of fiction. Films have their own aesthetic and commercial goals. In this case, the goal I think was to make a blockbuster historical film, like Braveheart, that would make the studio a lot of money. They’re not interested in telling a holistic or even a particularly accurate depiction of the American Revolution. So if you’re gonna enjoy it, pop some popcorn, grab a drink and keep in mind that this isn’t really an exploration of what it might have been like to be alive at this period of history. This is a melodrama about one man bent on revenge. He just happens to wear a tricorne hat.

Recommended Reading

  • Caroline Gilman (editor), Letters of Eliza Wilkinson During the Invasion and Posession of Charleston, SC. By the British in the Revolutionary War. New York: Forgotten Book, 2015. NB This is a very readable first person account of the war in South Carolina.
  • Fraser, Walter J. Charleston! Charleston!: The History of a Southern City. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
  • Lambert, Robert Stansbury. South Carolina Loyalists in the American Revolution. Clemson, SC: Clemson University Digital Press, 2011.
  • Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

‘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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