The Patriot is not a movie about founding fathers, quill-pen declarations, or Boston tea parties. It’s a death-wish revenge thriller posing as a lavishly pastoral historical epic. Mel Gibson plays Benjamin Martin, a South Carolina widower with seven children who organizes a scruffy, underground rebel militia to fight the British.
Martin, a veteran of the French and Indian War, thinks of himself as a battle-weary peacenik (his eldest son joins the army against his wishes), but if he believes in liberating the colonies from the tyranny of King George III, he believes even more fervently in smiting the holy bejesus out of the soldiers who have torn his family apart. That these aristocratic oppressors happen to be the same redcoats who are fighting to quash the American Revolution is, shall we say, a matter of the highest moral convenience.
Written by Robert Rodat (”Saving Private Ryan”) and directed by the heavy-tromping blockbuster maestro Roland Emmerich (”Independence Day,” ”Godzilla”), ”The Patriot” is set in fields, forests, homes, and backwaters, and there’s something at once canny and reductive about the way that it personalizes the bloody birth of a nation. The filmmakers know that the last thing contemporary audiences need is another square-shouldered Classics Illustrated lecture that regurgitates the righteous and idealistic mythology of Why We Fought the British. At the same time, I’m not sure that I want my history dragged into the colonial trenches by a filmmaker like Roland Emmerich. ”The Patriot” has some fierce and exciting moments, and it’s held together by Gibson’s haggard slow-burn charisma (he talks in his ”low” voice), but the movie is also demagogic and crude. It’s a fife-and-drum ”Gladiator” without elegance — the Revolutionary War turned into a big, hammerheaded spectacle of getting even.
The film’s most irresistible aspect is its clever populist notion of how, exactly, the colonists defeated the British. At first, the opposing armies, in their red and blue uniforms, line up in stately rows, absurdly organized, like marching bands with muskets. As the guns crack and the soldiers fall, the battles become a stately ritual of mass suicide. The revolutionary forces are the underdogs, ragged and barely equipped. It’s Martin who has the idea of uniting a militia to stage pinpoint ambushes in the woods. Attacking by stealth, he becomes a fearsome legend, a ghost of a fighter. In one juicy scene, he sneaks out of hiding for an impromptu negotiation with Lord General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), who leads the British troops in the South. Cornwallis is actually an honorable fellow, and that’s his problem. He approaches armed conflict like a gentleman; he believes in war as a civilized assertion of Empire. What he can’t wrap his mind around, because it has barely existed before, is the notion of a soldier who fights as an individual, without rules.
As long as it stays on the battlefield, ”The Patriot” is a brutishly compelling broad-canvas entertainment. But the movie is also inflated with clichés from the screenwriter’s manual. There’s the motley crew of loutish ”colorful” proles who join Martin’s militia, the squeaky-clean romance between Martin’s soldier son (Heath Ledger) and a local lass (Lisa Brenner), the vacuously noble slave-turned-soldier (Jay Arlen Jones) who counts down the months before he’s freed from servitude, and, of course, the eminently hissable villain — though Jason Isaacs, it must be said, plays this overripe role to contemptuous perfection. Inevitably, he receives the gaudiest of send- offs, administered by Mel at his maddest. In ”The Patriot,” freedom is a cause, but it’s also an excuse: slaughter enshrined by nobility.