A Year of ‘Madeira Mondays’!

Exactly one year ago, I sat down to write my first ‘Madeira Mondays’ post. My initial idea for this series was that it would look at early American history and historical fiction. I have always been passionate about early American history, from a surprisingly young age. See (rather grainy) photographic evidence below of me in high school alongside some of my history teachers. We dressed up in 18th century garb when a Declaration of Independence broadside came to the school. Our job was to educate the public about the document and, oh boy, was I thrilled to do it!

When I began ‘Madeira Mondays’, I had just finished up my PhD, a Doctorate of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow, and my research there had focused on how creative writers access and represent the American Revolution specifically. Part of my doctorate had also involved writing a full-length historical fiction novel set during the American Revolution. So my life, for three years, had effectively been all 18th century, all the time. And I really wanted to communicate some of that knowledge (and enthusiasm!) to the wider community somehow, and to make friends online who were similarly interested in history, books, and generally learning and chatting about the past. (My friends and family in life are brilliant as well, don’t get me wrong! And many of them do follow the blog – hello!).

I named the series ‘Madeira Mondays’ after the fortified Portuguese wine that was popular in 18th century America (there’s a great article here from a historian about the history of Madeira). Wine is something drunk socially at gatherings and I wanted this blog to be a gathering, of sorts, and a place to share.

‘Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam’ by John Greenwood, c. 1752-58. Located at the St Louis Art Museum. Looks like those guys are enjoying a LOT of Madeira!

Gradually the series widened out, so now I focus not just on early American history, but 18th century history more generally. I do live in Scotland after all, and there’s so much brilliant history here from that time period!

Today marks the official one year anniversary of ‘Madeira Mondays’, which means I’ve written over fifty posts about everything from 18th century swear words to the surprisingly interesting history of ketchup. There have been tons of historical film and book reviews, as well as a look at the links between 18th century fashion and RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’ve talked about my experience as a reenactor, and my writing process for writing some of the historical poems in my new poetry pamphlet. I’ve cooked recipes, attended conferences and visited historic sites here in Scotland and further afield. I’m proud of myself for sticking with it and can’t quite believe it’s been a year of ‘Madeira Mondays’!

I think the most fulfilling thing though has been connecting with people online – you! Many of you who follow this blog and enjoy ‘Madeira Mondays’ have blogs of your own, which I’ve loved reading and discovering. Your thoughtful and enthusiastic comments and suggestions here have been a real joy for me, encouraging me to keep this series going and also, quite honestly, making me feel more globally connected during this time of isolation. Writing is always a solitary endeavor, so this blog has been a way for me to balance that, to share and look outwards.

Also – and fellow creative writers I’m sure can relate to this – there is something very satisfying about writing a blog post, when you’re in the midst of working on a long-form creative project like a novel. A blog post is short and sweet and FINISHED within an hour or two. Whereas a novel can take months or, more likely, years.

What I’m trying to say is: thank you for reading this series! I hope that it has been engaging and that you’ve taken something from it. To celebrate ‘A Year of Madeira Mondays’, I’ve picked out five of my favorite ‘Madeira Mondays’ posts from the last year. I’ve picked a couple from the start of the project, since quite a few of you are more newly subscribed, in case you wanted to get a glimpse of the ‘back catalogue’. (They’re also a good place to start if you’re totally new to ‘Madeira Mondays’ and want a sample of what I cover on the blog).

My favorite posts from October 2019-October 2020

  1. The John Adams Miniseries (TV Show Review)

This was one of the first posts I wrote and I think it’s one of the best. It analyzes the HBO series John Adams, about the life of America’s 2nd President. Part of my PhD looked at representations of John Adams specifically in popular culture, and this post was in conjunction with a talk I gave at the Trinity College Dublin as part of their History Conference 2019.

Me dressed up as John Adams to deliver my paper at Trinity College Dublin. The conference was free, fun and open to the public and the organizers said ‘costumes are encouraged.’ As you know from the start of this post, I need no encouragement.

2. The Witch (Movie Review)

This post looks at one of my favorite movies set in early America – The Witch by Robert Eggers! A spooky and cleverly made film set in Puritan New England. It’s about an evil witch who lives in the woods…or is it?

3. A Forgotten 18th Century Drink (‘Flip’)

This is one of my favorite posts because my attempt to make this 18th century drink went so horribly wrong. It was one of the nastiest things I’ve ever (tried) to drink and this hilarious failure sticks in my mind.

4. The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

I’m really proud of this post which showcases the life and writing of one of America’s first poets: Phillis Wheatley. She was internationally famous in her day for her poetry, respected and admired for her work, which is remarkable considering that she was not only a young woman but also a former slave. Her life is interesting but also tragic. Have a read!

This is an original copy of one of Wheatley’s books, which I saw at The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, in October 2019.

5. The Patriot (Film Review)

This post looks at one of the most famous movies depicting the American Revolution, The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with this movie (it’s so ridiculous, but I’m fond of it because I enjoyed it so much as a kid). This post is a two-parter and is, effectively, a rant. ‘Historical accuracy’ is a complex topic, and, as a writer myself, I’m not usually one to care too much about small creative changes made in order to tell a better story. But if you really want to see me come down on a film for its egregious and nonsensical alterations to American history – this is the post for you!

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And that’s it! Five posts from my first year. I hope you enjoy them!

Which ‘Madeira Mondays’ posts have been your favorite ones, so far?

Thank you so much, as always, for joining me on this blogging journey. I publish a new ‘Madeira Mondays’ post every Monday, and if you’d like to subscribe and follow along, please do! I’ll see you next Monday.

Madeira Mondays: Yearly Wrap-Up

Three months ago, I started a series of blog posts all about early American history and historical fiction. I am currently researching and writing a novel set during the American Revolution and, as fiction writers out there will know, writing can be a bit of a lonely and solitary process. You spend a lot of time in your own brain and sometimes it’s nice to reach out and chat to actual people with similar interests! During the research process, you also stumble across all sorts of interesting historical tidbits that don’t really have a place in the book, but are fun to share and discuss!

So that is why I started this blog series. To connect with people who might also be interested in, for instance, the history of Christmas in America or how to make a whipped syllabub. Or people who love historical books and novels as much as I do and want to swap recommendations! I started it to meet those who already had an interest in 18th century America, but also to talk with people who just simply love learning and are curious to explore the past with me.

So thanks to everyone who has read any of these blog posts! I plan on continuing this series into the new year, so any recommendations would be most welcome. You can see a wrap-up below of the posts that I’ve done thus far, but if there’s a particular topic you’re curious about, do let me know! Would you like to see more recipes for early American food and drinks? More book and film reviews? I wrote part of my PhD on the musical Hamilton, so I’d be happy to talk about that! Or perhaps more about my experience as a re-enactor in Edinburgh? Anything to do with early American history or historical fiction, I’d be up for discussing.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading ‘Madeira Mondays’ thus far and have a wonderful start to 2020! x

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Me in costume at The Georgian House in Edinburgh. Photo by Melissa Stirling Reid.

Madeira Mondays 2019

Film and TV Reviews

The John Adams Miniseries Part I (This post goes into the reasons why I think you should watch HBO’s miniseries John Adams, based on the life of America’s 2nd president and his role in the American Revolution!)

The John Adams Miniseries Part II

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Photo from John Adams, featuring Laura Linney as Abigail Adams and Paul Giamatti as John Adams

The Witch Film Review (In this Halloween-themed post, I analyze the atmospheric horror film The Witch, which is about isolation, superstition and fear in colonial New England!)

The Patriot Film Review Part I (I discuss the good things in Roland Emmerich’s melodramatic but fun film about the Revolution in South Carolina.)

The Patriot Film Review Part II (I talk about the things which do not work in The Patriot! I have some issues with this movie…)

Book Reviews

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes Book Review (For this post, I revisited a childhood favorite book about a teenage spy in Revolutionary Boston! This book really withstood the test of time.)

Mistress by Chet’la Sebree (An analysis of a beautiful new poetry collection published this year and inspired by the life of Jefferson’s enslaved mistress, Sally Hemings. The collection was written by Chet’la Sebree, who was a Visiting Fellow the same year as me at Thomas Jefferson’s home: Monticello. This collection is perfect if you want to learn about this mysterious and fascinating woman from American history.)

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Recipes

Syllabub Recipe (Delicious recipe for a colonial era drink, basically like an alcoholic frappuccino!)

History

Christmas in a Georgian Townhouse (All about my experiences as a re-enactor in Scotland and how the Georgians celebrated Christmas.)

Christmas in Colonial America (A very brief history of how Christmas was celebrated in the colonies. Want to learn about the origins of Santa Claus? Or how many of our modern Christmas traditions came to be? This post is for you!)

Visits to Historic Sites or Events

A Visit to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, USA (My trip to the recently opened museum of the American Revolution and recommendations of what to see there if you visit!)

Trinity HistoryCon in Dublin, Ireland (A re-cap of an academic conference at Trinity College Dublin on the intersections of history and pop culture. I presented there on representations of John Adams in pop media!)

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Display of recreated 18th century objects you might find in a colonial shop, at The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia

Thanks for reading and see you next year! x

PS Why is it called ‘Madeira Mondays’?

Madeira is a fortified wine from Portugal and it was hugely popular with the American colonists. George Washington in particular really loved it, but it was also enjoyed by Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. AND it was the wine drunk by the Continental Congress to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Cheers!

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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!