The Patriot (2000)

D: Roland Emmerich
S: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs

Well-mounted historical epic set during the American War of Independence, the first major studio film to take it on since the ill-fated Revolution. Directed by German ex-pat Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla), and starring Australian-American superstar Mel Gibson (Payback, Ransom), it is an appropriately cross-cultural, multi-generic concoction, promising (and largely delivering) a combination of Braveheart and the classic American western filtered through the historical situation. The basic story is not far from a reworking of Unforgiven, with Gibson assuming the role of a peaceful man with a violent past thrust into conflict against his better judgment when his family's well-being is threatened. In this case the goal is less morally ambiguous though, as it quickly becomes clear that the character occupies the moral high ground in spite of his brutality. The opposition this time is the Imperial British army under General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), and our hero fights on the side of liberty and justice for all, so despite reflective moments where the character reluctantly elaborates upon his role in the French and Indian war and tries to teach Revolutionary son Heath Ledger the value of peace, it is a straightforward collapsing of the personal and the political which does not seriously challenge the ideology of violence itself. This is understandable in context, but nonetheless gives pause for thought on a deeper level, as it is not very far from a standard western revenge tale despite the veneer of history and politics which overlays it. This subject is tricky territory to navigate at the best of times, raising questions about the United States' historical relationship with violence and the mandate for armed rebellion enshrined in its societal psyche. The problem with this film is that its recourse to generic cliché, exaggeration, and penchant for sweeping, decisive conclusions means that it is unlikely to stimulate debate and analysis about such issues. Instead it comes off more like Independence Day; an efficient, manipulative button-pusher providing broad entertainment without enlightenment.

Like so many recent American films, its interpretation of history is also troubling, and one wonders if schoolchildren will lose interest in George Washington in favour of this figurative and literal 'Ghost' who seems to more or less singlehandedly rally the militia into winning the war (with a little help from the Continental Army and a few references to this Washington guy carrying on campaigns in the North...). This is a common problem with historical drama, of course. It is difficult to personalise history without some creative and dramatic inaccuracy. A conscious decision has been made by credited screenwriter Robert Rodat (Emmerich collaborator Dean Devlin seems to have been content with a producing role this time out) to focus the action on the fringes of the conflict, using the anchor of a young soldier's letters home to tie things in with the bigger picture, which leaves the film free to exemplify and symbolise rather than deal in historical specifics. It lionises the role of the militia, specifically the South Carolina militia in the years leading up to Cornwallis' eventual defeat. It therefore emphasises the grassroots nature of the revolution over the 'professional' Continental Army, and manages to limit the role of international troops to the presence of Tcheky Karyo (Dobermann) as a French advisor helping out with training. Some initial political debate about the causes of the war is quickly abandoned when evil British Colonel Jason Isaacs begins a scorched-earth campaign which establishes the moral imperative for Gibson's call to arms, and the film manages to gloss over tricky questions about the role of slaves with some vague references to freedom and equality which history would prove problematic to say the least.

In its favour, the film is fairly uncompromising in the portrayal of violence, however troubling the context in which it is placed. Like Gibson's own Braveheart the film is up-close-and-personal, featuring graphic injury and dismemberment which, as in Saving Private Ryan, reminds viewers of the cost in flesh and blood of any large-scale military conflict. Moreso than any film in recent memory (apart from, perhaps, Reservoir Dogs), the film demonstrates the power of even a single bullet, and there is a heart-wrenching warning in the scenes of old-style military engagements where lines of men face off without cover and simply try to kill each other as Generals watch from the distance. The first major action scene is an excellently-staged ambush by Gibson to rescue his captured son in which his ruthlessness, anger, and sense of personal pain is brought home through both direction and performance, and throughout the film the actor does his best to ensure that he does not fall easily into the category of square-jawed jingoist that the narrative lays out for him. Alas, he doesn't always succeed.

Much has been made of the comparison between Gibson here and Russell Crowe in Gladiator. The characters are not dissimilar though the performances are, and both emerge as icons for larger causes. Gibson has some good scenes in this film; good opportunities to demonstrate a range of characterisation wilfully abandoned in films like Payback. Freed from the demands of producing or directing, he is able to devote more time to fleshing out his performance, and this works out pretty well most of the time. But it is his star power which anchors the film though, and in the hands of a spectacularist like Emmerich, there is not really enough space for the kind of depth he is attempting. The result is that he is still mostly all presence, like Crowe, and it takes a bit more concentration than the film demands to appreciate his hard work. The supporting characters remain mostly that, with Isaacs making a splendid sneering baddie in the pantomime tradition and Wilkinson sometimes getting to explore some of the ambiguities of his real-life figure before being prematurely humiliated (the real-life Cornwallis was not held responsible for the failure at Yorktown, and in fact went on to a successful political career as Governor of India and Viceroy of Ireland afterward). Star-billed Joely Richardson is appropriately given little to do, and, in fact, attempts to turn Lisa Brenner into a kind of proto-feminist as Ledger's bride-to-be are misguided and faintly laughable. The female characters prove particularly troubling for Rodat, and the weakest dialogue scenes are those involving these two prominent characters. War, it seems, remains very much a masculine pursuit.

I suppose, sadly, most people will really only care whether or not the movie is entertaining, and it is. It is clichéd, as noted, but, as in Independence Day, this merely allows Emmerich the luxury of playing it as broad as possible for a wider audience. It is exciting, well put together in all respects, and entirely effective as a work of mainstream narrative film. Its relentless jingoism will antagonise international audiences though, and John Williams' score initially seems excessively celebratory and ennobling when not a lot is even happening on screen, contributing to a certain feeling of overkill. The slow-motion battle scenes actually work surprisingly well, but also tread on the borderline between affect and overstatement. For the most part though, casual audiences will find it an enjoyable spectacle, and though it still doesn't have the muscle to overpower Gladiator as the movie of the summer so far, it is still a better film than Mission: Impossible II.

In short, there is a wealth of talking points in this multi-million dollar historical epic, but whether people will avail of them and think more deeply about what it says and what this means remains to be seen. It is a popcorn-muncher in its current form, largely because of professional direction by Roland Emmerich and a good turn from its star, but one wonders if it might have been something more.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.