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Mel Gibson Gets His 'Braveheart' On in 'Patriot'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2000


    'The Patriot' Mel Gibson stars in "The Patriot." (Sony)
There's a sort of semaphore moment in "The Patriot," just after Mel Gibson has killed 20 Redcoats, with the help of his two young sons, an array of musketry and one vicious silver tomahawk. There he stands, a pacifist-turned-revolutionary, facing the enormity of what he has done. He looks at his sons with anguish. His lungs are still heaving from the ordeal. He's dressed in his shirt-sleeves. His long hair frames his face just right. His face is crimson with blood. And, of course, he's backlighted.

The unmistakable, flag-waving message for the audience: "I'm a "Braveheart" Doodle Dandy."

As in Gibson's Oscar-sweeping movie, in which Mel played William Wallace, the fearless leader of a proud, oppressed people who humiliates the British crown with little resources, derring-do, long hair and excellent face paint. The only difference in "Patriot": His face is red instead of blue.

As South Carolina pacifist Benjamin Martin, Gibson is once again the fearless leader of a proud, oppressed people – this time, it's the overtaxed folks from the American colonies. And he humiliates the British crown again. In this case, we're talking about mad King George III. Martin also has considerable fun at the expense of General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), the British commander who eventually lost everything to the colonists.

And like "Braveheart," the movie stokes its history with emotionally stirring moments that obviously never happened, but rev the audience's motors. Whether or not anyone could take care of 20 Redcoats with the help of two wet-behind-the ears kids is beside the point. This is about fighting for the pursuit of life, liberty and box office returns.

A former hero of the French and Indian War, Martin has given up his military career to raise a family. Being a family man is everything to him, so when a war with England becomes imminent, this father of seven – now widowed – refuses to join the rebellion.

He opposes the taxation without representation imposed by the British. But if he were to die, there would be no one to raise his children, except his late wife's sister, Charlotte (Joely Richardson). However, his oldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), joins the cause.

Martin's political stance disintegrates when English Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs) and his elite squad of Green Dragoons capture Gabriel, kill another of Martin's sons and burn Martin's home to the ground. Now Martin is fighting for his family. It won"t be long before he"s fighting for his country.

To this Redcoat reviewer, at least, "Patriot" can also be seen as a power-packed, American-accented "Robin Hood." Martin recruits a dedicated militia force to conduct guerrilla attacks against the British in the swamps. And his intelligent sorties make a fool of Cornwallis, a sort of Sheriff of Nottingham, who"s constantly chafing at Martin's tactics.

As for the brutish Tavington, he functions as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, the one hellbent on killing Martin. Charlotte, who takes care of Martin's surviving children and dreams of marrying the patriarch one day, waits chastely in the background like Maid Marian. And this movie even has a Friar Tuck, the Rev. Oliver (Rene Auberjonois), who shelves his Christian pacifism to point muskets at those English.

I can't place Tcheky Karyo anywhere in the Robin Hood scheme. He plays a French officer who tags along with Martin to train the militia. He seems to be in this story to attract European audiences as much as represent France's participation in the war.

The movie, directed by Roland ("Independence Day") Emmerich works entirely on the emotional level, goofiness be dammed.

When Gabriel's girlfriend implores every man in the local church to stand up, be counted, join the militia and essentially die, for instance, it's just a notch away from a Mel Brooks scene. ("Hey, I was only kidding," she'd say in the comic version, as the men trudge out of the church.)

Martin's charisma is so irresistible, he manages to charm Cornwallis's prize Great Danes away from their owner. Do England's elite dogs understand the moral appeal of the American Revolution or is Martin feeding them some sort of guilty-pleasure, 18th century Alpo? And the movie starts to get a little over-the-top when a rapturous Gabe starts talking to a soon-to-be-freed South Carolina slave who joins the militia about "a new world where all men are created equal under God."

"Equal sounds good," says the slave in a measured tone. At least it sounds like he knows how long that could take.

But in the dramatic momentum of this movie, even the hokey things work fine. Mostly, the movie is riveting, well-done fare – the stuff of Hollywood epic adventure. This being summer time, "Patriot" also takes you to some superb skirmishes, drawn from real Revolutionary battles at Camden and Cowpens. And Gibson (his character an amalgam of several real Revolutionary heroes, including Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens, Daniel Morgan and Elijah Clark) is always compelling, whether he"s hacking holes into the backs of English heads, speaking stoically in church or waiting for that moment of truth.

You know what I'm talking about – the final showdown between Martin and the vicious Tavington, a man who will induce hissing from the audience. Even though there's a war going on, involving several nations and issues of state freedom, let's get to the important stuff: serious payback time.

THE PATRIOT (R, 165 minutes) – Contains brutal violence, including decapitation, grisly shots of amputated limbs and emotionally distressing material.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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