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'The Patriot': Red, White and Kablooey

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 28, 2000


    'The Patriot' Mel Gibson stars in "The Patriot." (Sony)
Some wars are tragic but some are holy. Of the latter category we have fought but three, the most recent against the Germans and the Japanese, before that against ourselves, and before that against our British masters.

Of the three, the Revolutionary War hasn't produced many great movies. Maybe it is because the men wore buckles on their shoes, wigs on their heads and wooden teeth in their mouths. Who knows? But one thing is clear. With "The Patriot" it can now be said: The American Revolution still hasn't produced a great movie.

Written by Robert Rodat, who authored "Saving Private Ryan," starring the grave and mature Mel ("Braveheart") Gibson, and directed by Roland Emmerich, the mad German genius of "Independence Day," the movie is a strange combination of cartoon and diorama. It means to be simple and pure, but it is simplistic and pureed.

Of the three main personalities, it would seem to be Emmerich's that prevails: The movie turns the Brits into voracious space aliens and it builds, like "Independence Day," toward Big Visual Moments that are, nevertheless, somehow inert. It's a movie of things to see, not things to feel.

I don't mind being instructed to hate the British. They are so adored in our Anglo-obsessed media that maybe it's their turn to endure a few slings and arrows. And anything that upsets Tina Brown--as this movie is sure to do--is okay by me.

But still, did Lt. Col. Tavington, the movie's thinly fictionalized version of the British cad Banastre Tarleton, have to crowd women and children into a church and burn them? I know the war was bloody, brutal and felt endless, that hostages were hanged, that prisoners were murdered, towns put to the torch, yes--but were little girls really wantonly burned alive in churches?

Anyhow, the movie roughly traces the unknown part of the war. This is good; the war of the Revolution played out over a vast theater but we tend to think of it as centered in two neighborhoods in Boston where fops and wits exchanged quips along with cannonballs. No. Huge battles were fought in the Carolinas and won with bayonet work, and down there, the war was at its most brutal and total. "The Patriot" follows in general outline the year 1781, climaxing in a version of the Battle of the Cowpens, in North Carolina, which some regard as the turning point in the southern campaign and possibly the war. There's a coda at Yorktown and the final surrender.

It plays with two authentic figures: Francis Marion, an American partisan who roamed the Carolinas harassing and annoying the British, and "Bloody Ban" Tarleton, a brilliant if savage cavalry officer who was memorialized by the mocking phrase "Tarleton's Quarter," which was no quarter at all. He specialized in killing prisoners.

Marion is disguised as Benjamin Martin (Gibson), an idealized portrait of someone who was probably a very tough guy. As the movie has it, Martin is the perfect single dad, a kind of Ward Cleaver with a ponytail, living in a kind of idyllic serenity on a beautiful but oh so conveniently slave-free plantation in South Carolina, near the Santee River, with a tribe of kids. A veteran (he served in the French and Indian War of 20 years earlier), he is a reluctant patriot, loath to get involved in his radical neighbors' revolutionary fervor. But his sons--he has four--are children of their time, and the oldest (played by hunky Heath Ledger) is pining to join the rebels, finally doing so without his father's permission.

Meanwhile the savage Tavington (played by British actor Jason Isaacs, a fellow with the dead, glittery eyes of a very dangerous snake) is roaming the land with his horsemen, laying waste wherever he can. Circumstances bring Tavington to Martin's plantation, where the oldest son is recuperating from a wound. He orders that the boy be hanged; another of Martin's sons tries to intercede and is shot by Tavington.

The next sequence elevates the movie to a status of "talker." Everybody will have a position on it. Mine is that in time of war, people do what they have to--by the lights of their times, and not by ours. But even saying that, I didn't quite believe it. Martin grabs a brace of flintlock rifles from his burning mansion and takes his youngest boys--roughly 10 and 12--on a quick ambush mission to intercept the British squad and free the oldest son. Do you not like to see children with guns shooting people? Put more generally, do kids and guns make you think of the teenagers of Columbine or the teenagers of Iwo Jima? Your answer will almost certainly determine your policy. (I do note, however, that the movie doesn't focus on the guns, turning them into fetish items or objects of romantic worship; it sees them strictly as tools.)

Following that bloody episode, Martin recruits troops, obtains a commission and begins his guerrilla war, and the movie becomes a chronicle of missions, ambushes, counter-ambushes, ruses and traps, in which the clever Swamp Fox (as Marion was called) continually outthinks the Brits, who are represented by Tom Wilkinson (of "The Full Monty") as a Cornwallis so arch and prissy you doubt he got out of that wig even to sleep.

The Brits offer irony and musketry, the American counter with earnestness and riflery. We shoot straighter (the important revolution was the revolution of the ball in the barrel). It goes on and on and on, for nearly three hours, epic in length but somehow not in content.

At last, frustrated, Gen. Cornwallis looses Tavington to "do it his way," which seems to prefigure the SS Totenkopf Division's anti-partisan activities near Demyansk in 1942: He simply kills everybody and burns everything.

The film is therefore contrived as a lot of tit-for-tat nastiness between Martin and Tavington; clearly, for these two, it's not about politics. This has its downside. In the Cowpens battle (a battle that, for the record, the real Tarleton commanded and, ha ha, lost) a Hollywood cliche occurs: The two opponents find each other in the busy battlefield and have a nice personal duel amid the more general slaughter. All troops cooperate by clearing an empty space in the middle of the long day's dying. It's that sense of Hollywood artifice that continually robs the film of vigor and sucks the juice from what should be the world's greatest story of empowerment.

And so much of it is--no other word will do--corny.

Gibson melts his dead son's lead soldiers into balls for his pistols. Oh, please. At a key battle--Cowpens again--he pulls out the flag another dead son was slowing mending ("building the nation"--duh! I get it!) to rally the troops and the camera turns him into a heroic statue, a painting hanging in a state house, a stamp.

It's not that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel and the overrated director. It's that for this primal impulse to apply, you somehow have to believe. It has to come from inside, which is the one part of the war "The Patriot" studiously avoids. There's no majesty, no tragedy, no feeling here; it's all FX and costuming and casting directors.

Michael Mann's "Last of the Mohicans" still strikes me in every way as a better film of roughly the same period. Besides being somehow more authentic, it has something that "The Patriot" doesn't.

That is the sense that as brutal and violent as the course was, for these people in this time, freedom was worth dying for. It was worth being massacred for, losing your children for, being tortured for. To earn it, they had to soak the land in blood, largely their own. But in "The Patriot," freedom's just another word.

THE PATRIOT (160 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence and gore--cannonballs blowing off heads and stuff like that.


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