“The Patriot” at 20: Yankee Doodle Dreary

The Patriot Mel Gibson in The Patriot. (Sony)

20 years later, Roland Emmerich’s Revolutionary War drama skewers U.S. history and Mel Gibson’s persona without trying to—or realizing it.

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Some movies are timeless. Looking past their special effects or their actors, they connect with as many themes now as the day they were released. Other movies feel so strangely outside of time, so counter to the moment, it can be impossible to believe they were released in your life. The Patriot is definitely in the latter category. In a moment of widespread reconsideration of our history, it manages to be both somehow a clueless “U-S-A! U-S-A!” hagiography and a deeply cynical retcon of why the American Revolution was fought. It’s almost staggering how wrong the movie is both coming and going.

Released 20 years ago, The Patriot tells the story of the American Revolution as filtered through the experiences of the Martin family, especially patriarch Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson). Put less charitably but perhaps more accurate, The Patriot is the story of how the American Revolution was actually about one guy who got pretty upset about the death of his son. 

Yes, only 15 minutes earlier, Martin had refused to vote for fighting for independence because he was a parent and that came first. And yes, while the death of a child is a tragedy, he still did have six other kids. However, he was mad now, so that justified teaching some of those kids to kill many people and to leave the rest in a field with vague instructions on how to find safety. Through the film’s myopic gaze, the future of this nation was only achieved by the efforts of a man disinterested in fighting for principles who was only catalyzed to action by his thirst for vengeance.

In this way, it fits well into Gibson’s filmography. Increasingly, his action films seemed dominated more by torture, violence, and rage than any kind of redemption or hope. Even as his original iconic version of such a character, Lethal Weapon’s Martin Riggs, grew increasingly silly and soft with each sequel, several other film efforts began to feel more dominated by this worldview.

Take Braveheart, for instance, a film The Patriot feels like a kind of cousin to. Yes, William Wallace cut the dashing figure of a freedom fighter, but he was only pushed into the role after English soldiers sexually assaulted and murdered his wife. Almost 10 years later, Gibson would reach a crescendo of sorts with these obsessions by directing The Passion of the Christ. A religious film that felt far more interested in the bloodshed and torture of Jesus than his message of hope or resurrection, it was an apotheosis of this sort of unceasingly cruel vision. Yes, yes, Jesus died for our sins and all, and isn’t that great? But also, how badly would it have sucked if you were Him, right?

The Patriot falls almost equidistant between those two Gibson works. While not directed by Gibson—we’ll get to Roland Emmerich soon—Robert Rodat apparently wrote the script with the actor specifically in mind. He did this to such an extent that in one of the script’s 17 drafts, Martin became the father of seven, not six, because Gibson himself did the same. It’s no wonder then that it seems to reflect its star’s worldview.

Interestingly, perhaps, is that Martin’s tortures are largely not of the physical variety. Save for a final boss fight with the irredeemably evil but also status obsessed—in what seems like a choice to humanize but actually makes him more monstrous—Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs), Martin seems almost preternaturally able to avoid harm of any kind. Instead, Martin endures increasingly mean-spirited tragedy after tragedy. 

First, Tavington shoots Martin’s second son, Thomas (Gregory Smith), in the back. The movie posits this more or less as the moment England truly lost the War; it just took them a few more years to realize. Then Martin’s oldest son Gabriel’s (Heath Ledger) would-be bride, Anne (Lisa Brenner), is burned alive in a church along with the rest of her town. Soon after that, Gabriel himself is slain. These deaths only have resonance via how much distress they cause Martin himself. They died so as to motivate him to win the American Revolution. 

As mentioned above, it makes the Revolution both incredibly morally simplistic and darkly cynical. It is a Great Man’s view of history in which a fictional bloodthirsty rage machine is given almost solo credit for the birth of the United States. “Screw freedom or democracy or even a desire to get richer without the King’s interference,” The Patriot seems to proclaim, “This man’s anger is really what America is all about.”

The movie’s racial politics are also a mess (and to be clear, they were a mess in 2000 as well).The Martin family lives in South Carolina in the late 1700s, Black men work their fields, and Black women look after their house. But don’t worry, they’re not slaves! They’re freemen who just happen to be in service of a white family that lives on a massive plot of land. 

That would strain credulity all by itself. However, the film refuses to not also capitalize on America’s original sin by including a slave character named Occam (Jay Arlen Jones) who joins up with Martin’s militia. Occam will win his freedom if he’s part of the group for a year, but he stays on longer because it’s about doing the right thing, not just getting something for himself.

One of the other members, Dan Scott (Donal Logue, in a thankless role), hassles Occam a little but, of course, ends up respecting him. And The Patriot treats this all as at least neutral, if not outright good. What could be problematic about a Black man who’s forced into military combat for his freedom and gets harassed while doing it if said man stays on longer because he loves his soon-to-be country? Nothing to see here, folks; all is just fine.

Emmerich, coming off years of success in writing, directing, and producing a range of sci-fi and disaster films like Independence DayStargate, and Universal Soldier, was making his first grab at a “serious” film. To his credit, he does seem to really have done the homework regarding munitions and battle tactics of the time. However, he can’t resist tossing that at times to deliver surprisingly bloody action sequences that involve Gibson butchering scores of Redcoats with musket balls, hatchets, and knives. 

Through the film’s myopic gaze, the future of this nation was only achieved by the efforts of a man disinterested in fighting for principles who was only catalyzed to action by his thirst for vengeance.

He also can’t tamp down his goofy PG-13 disaster movie jokes. There are runners about Martin’s quest for a good chair and Gabriel and Anne’s prank war that dates back to their childhood. These are mildly amusing and sometimes even sweet. However, the rest of the film is so unapologetically violent and grim that they clang hard against the dominant tone. How can I think a gag about a chair is funny when I saw people picking through rubble and charred bodies three minutes earlier?

Similarly, a moment involving Martin riding a horse hard while waving a battered American flag reads as empty, not emotional. We know he doesn’t care about that flag, the idea of a new nation, or, hell, most of the soldiers he’s stirring up. All he wants is to kill the guy who shot his kid. He’s essentially inspiring others to die for his grudge.

In the end, that’s the problem The Patriot can’t solve. It’s in love with much of what feels like the worst parts of America now: the unwillingness to wrestle with our racist history, our arrogance, the way we abandon principle for a quick hit of vengeance, our deep self-involvement. In 2000, it was a brutish film masquerading as historical epic. 20 years later, it feels like an accidental indictment of that which it’s built to celebrate.

The Patriot Trailer:

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