' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...The Patriot

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Some Drivel On...The Patriot

Adam Gopnik went long on the American Revolution in a recent New Yorker piece by employing Justin du Rivage’s book “Revolution Against Empire” as a means to speculate how America could have become Canada. And while I did not necessarily agree with the overriding thesis, I was nonetheless enamored by some of its contentions, particularly how participants at the time viewed the war less as Rebellion v King and more as two political parties quarreling. But what really interested me was one of those infamous New Yorker parentheticals. It went: (Mel Gibson’s Revolutionary War movie, “The Patriot,” made this point, as his “The Passion of the Christ” did of Roman crucifixion; say what you will about his politics, Gibson is good at reminding us of the core violence in our favorite myths. Crosses and muskets really are lethal weapons.) The “point” to which Gopnik refers ties back to another book cited in the article, Holger Hoock’s “Scars of Independence”, which shows, Gopnik writes, that the war “was far more brutal than our usual memory of it allows.” I have not read Hoock’s book, but I have read John Buchanan’s “Road to Guilford Courthouse: The American Revolution in the Carolinas” which makes, amongst many others, the same point. “The Patriot” does indeed make space for this sort of violence, but, as it often is with Gibson, that violence is mostly just gruesome excess tangential to a hero’s preconceived coronation.


It is 1776. The revolution is piping hot. Gibson’s Benjamin Martin, however, has turned pacifist on account of his service in the French & Indian War, leaving him at odds with many of his fellow South Carolinians, including his own son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) who is raring to enlist. And while Gabriel is saddled with a woefully conceived and played love story, this character nevertheless is strikingly written as someone raring to join simply because it’s a war and that’s what you do, less patriotism and more proving your manhood and making a mark by picking off redcoats with a musket. This is what Benjamin has consciously rejected.

When he gives in, as he must, it is less by conscious choice than the frenzy of emotion. This happens when the redcoats turn up at his door, searching for Gabriel, an escaped prisoner, and Benjamin’s second son, Thomas (Gregory Smith), is shot trying to protect Gabriel by the requisitely sadistic chief villain Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs, shooting off sparks in a stock role). The ensuing scene, when Benjamin enlists his third and fourth sons to help him stalk and then annihilate Tavington’s regiment, rendered with the absence of music to give it a wickedly visceral kick, capped by a shot of Benjamin hacking away with his hatchet at an already dead body while his trembling sons look on, truly and viciously illuminating the violence in our favorite myths that Gopnik mentions in his New Yorker piece, is the movie’s high point.

Alas, in the face of that backroad massacre, the movie itself recoils from such monstrous violence, where even a later cannonball beheading is designed more for banal shock value than any kind of grisly psychology. No, “The Patriot”, which was directed by Roland Emmerich, not Gibson, orders a retreat into more commercially comfortable confines, where Benjamin’s small band of swamp rats, loosely based on Francis Marion’s, stand up to their oppressors through a variety of confrontations that can, frankly, skew just as comic as heart-racing. But looming over all of it, driving the narrative, is the bad blood between Benjamin and Tavington, made even badder when, sure enough, Tavington offs Gabriel and Gabriel’s bride. In that way, the conclusion, set at Yorktown, where the Revolution was, for all intents and purposes won, becomes less about the cause than these two getting it on, brought home in Benjamin, on the battlefield, a coninental army of one, taking up the flag and essentially co-opting the cause in the name of a single man’s revenge.

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