With a hotshot script, a nine-figure budget, and Mel Gibson’s star power, ‘The Patriot’ took on America’s War of Independence. The rest is history. Or is it?

By Fred Schruers
July 14, 2000 at 12:00 PM EDT
Andrew Cooper
  • Movie

Deep into the smoke-choked, blood-soaked Revolutionary War spectacle that is The Patriot, there arrives a pivotal sequence that would seem to mark the start of its third act–the act in which any sort of pussyfooting must always give way to payback. Militia leader Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), a widowed father of seven, has just entered the enemy’s fort under a white flag to cut a gentlemanly deal with Lord General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), commander of the British forces in the South.

On his way out of the compound, however, Martin encounters the dastardly Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs), who has already killed someone Martin held dear, and who threatens he’ll do worse. The British soldier tries to provoke a rash attack by taunting him with a reminder of that murder. Instead, with the incensed sincerity of a man who’s been crawling on psychic broken glass, Martin quietly replies: “Before this war is over, I’m going to kill you.”

That’s all the promise an audience needs. Who would hesitate to bet a year of free popcorn refills that the new Independence Day extravaganza by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the makers of Independence Day (from a script by Saving Private Ryan‘s Oscar-nominated Robert Rodat) will fulfill that pledge? Yet what happens next helps explain the difference between this film and a less passionately rendered piece of work.

“You have to remember, Tavington thinks he’s going to win the war,” says Isaacs, 36, a stage-seasoned Brit. “I went to [the filmmakers] and said, ‘This guy doesn’t cower from anybody. The villain can’t be scared of the hero halfway through the movie.’ And they’re so secure in their storytelling abilities that they said, ‘You’re right, let’s do something else.'”

As the conspirators cooked up Tavington’s response, they decided not to alert the movie’s star. “Mel’s happy to improvise, throw things back and forth,” says Isaacs. “He’s alive, he’s liquid, his nerve endings are open.” Martin’s vow was to be the scene’s last line. But when Isaacs shot back with “Why wait?” Gibson turned, his sky-blue eyes revealing wrath throttling down to restraint. Halting inches from his adversary’s face, he uttered just a single word: “Soon.”

One reason studios don’t flinch at paying Gibson $25 million, the richest fee of any actor, is such inventiveness. Adding a glimmer of madness, as he’s consistently done with his portrayal of Los Angeles detective Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series, has only drawn audiences closer to him. And that quality is precisely what The Patriot, a film whose magnetism for controversies was apparent even in its formative stages, needed. With Gibson on board, for example, Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group vice chairman Gareth Wigan finally had turnstile insurance for a two-hour-and-40-minute movie that seemed likely to draw an R rating for its violence. “We knew it was a film about a man with a dark secret, and could [be rated R],” Wigan says. “This is a film like Saving Private Ryan and Braveheart — each in its separate way is about violence. I think if you try to do that and PG-13 it, you may end up pleasing nobody.” Yes, Wigan says, July 4 is a family holiday, “but R-rated films have opened on Christmas Day.”

The level of mayhem remained an in-house concern up until screening time. The filmmakers watched uneasily as preview audiences greeted the film’s early scenes of violence with the hoots and cheers of typical action fans. But they sat back in relief when the crowds grew hushed as the film grew grislier. The massacre of approximately 20 redcoats carried out by Martin and his two young sons (Nathan, 11, and Samuel, 10), which occurs about a half hour into the movie, may well emerge as the film’s hot-button issue. But more disturbing to a country still mindful of the Oklahoma City bombing is the implication that armed bands — the word militia pops up in The Patriot constantly — are the best means of preserving freedom. Wigan doubts that present-day fringe groups could be inspired by the film. “The irony is that the militia in that day were good guys,” he says. “And you could hardly say that now.”

As for the other side, the British — or at least the easily inflamed Fleet Street newspapers — have been quick to slag The Patriot for another reason: its supposed historical inaccuracies. London’s Daily Express described “The Swamp Fox” Francis Marion, one of Rodat’s models for the fictitious Benjamin Martin, as a “racist, proslavery misogynist who hunted Indians for fun and regularly raped his female slaves.” The filmmakers have responded by reiterating that the Martin character was a composite of several guerrilla leaders from the era, and pointed out the care they’d taken — at the insistence of consulting Smithsonian Institution historians — to accurately portray black life in that era. Producer Devlin says that when their research showed “that the American Revolution was fought and won by an integrated army, that 7 to 8 percent of the army was black,” the filmmakers heightened the profile of black soldiers.

Self-proclaimed Anglophile Gibson isn’t seen as a Friend of Brits. Not long ago the Evening Standard described him as “allying himself with the hairy-kneed porridge-munchers in ludicrous travesty of British history” (that would be Braveheart‘s tale of a Scottish uprising). And some Brits, who regard him as a chauvinistic Aussie, haven’t forgotten his role in 1981’s Gallipoli, in which the poor judgment of British officers condemned many of their (mostly Aussie) troops to be slaughtered.

By casting him as a hero opposite another hissable Brit, The Patriot (following in the wake of U-571, which gave American submariners credit for a British espionage coup) has raised even more British ire: “HOLLYWOOD KNOWS WHAT LIMEYS ARE FOR,” read the headline for a June 18 Observer newspaper article that criticized the industry’s penchant for “sneering, smirking deliciously evil villains with British accents.” On June 29, Liverpool mayor Edwin Clein demanded a public apology for the film’s depiction of native son Banastre Tarleton — one of Rodat’s inspirations for William Tavington — who returned to the city in 1782 and went on to become a member of parliament. Others say Tavington’s character is scarily close to his real antecedent. British historian Christopher Hibbert (ironically, quoted by the Express as calling Francis Marion “very active in the persecution of Cherokee Indians and not at all the sort of chap who should be celebrated as a hero”) has written that “Bloody Ban” Tarleton was “none too scrupulous,” deserving the infamy showered on him by American papers of the period for his cruelty to horses and for his troops’ slaying of wounded rebel prisoners.

Still, an issue that seems likely to reverberate well beyond Fleet Street is the massacre of the redcoats and the involvement of Martin’s young sons in the bloodshed. To a country chilled by footage of a trench-coated Leonardo DiCaprio in 1995’s The Basketball Diaries, launching an orgy of gun violence that frighteningly presaged the Columbine shootings, the sight of preteens killing with long rifles may play quite ominously. It’s true the Martins have the direst of motivations — to rescue brother Gabriel and avenge the death of one of their loved ones — and they appear suitably anguished during and after the ambush. Gibson defends the boys’ sniper attack as wholly justified. “It’s not wrong to kill if you’ve got a good reason,” says the actor, himself the father of seven. “I’ve never had to make those horrible kinds of choices. Benjamin’s a parent who’s got to take the 11-year-old on a man-killing trip. It’s that level of desperation.”

“Mel doesn’t play stuff heroic,” says director Emmerich, who for this sequence, perhaps the film’s most brutal, demanded that Gibson repeatedly tomahawk a downed British soldier. “He’s pretty nasty. But for me that was the crucial scene. I said, ‘This brings your character out more than anything we can do.'” Says Gibson: “The [Martin] kids were like, ‘Whoa, Dad’s lost it.’ And I’d understood in a general way about his demons and guilt, but I hadn’t understood he had to be on the other side of sanity in order to function in that manner.”

There was always a revenge story,” says Dean Devlin. “But it began to take on some complexities. It is a genre film, but it transcends that mainly through Mel’s willingness to take a character to some very dark places.”

NEXT: Heath Ledger’s terrible audition and terrifying first day on set

[pagebreak]Gibson had picked The Patriot over both Gladiator and The Perfect Storm as his next project in early 1999, after postponing a remake of Fahrenheit 451 he’d hoped to direct. Was the star eager to work with the German-born Emmerich, who’d blown up the White House in ID4, destroyed much of Manhattan in Godzilla, and now proposed to make amends by depicting the birth of this nation? “I didn’t see Godzilla,” Gibson admits, but claims that picture “wasn’t a story about a big reptile. Like [The Patriot], it was the story about people, and a really good one. I just liked the Patriot script, and I was excited by the fact that Roland gravitated to it. When I talked to him, I saw that he knew that it was kind of a hard film, understood the brutality of it…. I didn’t have to be cajoled or convinced.”

The budget was optimistically set for under $100 million. When Sony Pictures Entertainment chief John Calley signed Emmerich and Devlin’s Centropolis Entertainment to a deal in February 1998, after the $70 million ID4 (which opened on Fourth of July weekend in 1996) made a juicy $306 million domestically, he said, “They conceive of events that are affordable.”

The Centropolis idea of an event is not the teen fodder that’s shot quickly on Hollywood soundstages. “If you have the choice to do Cruel Intentions or The Patriot, it’s easier to make Cruel Intentions,” says producer Mark Gordon. “It costs less, there’s a supposed built-in audience for it. These are difficult movies; they have to be really good, with major actors. Consequently, the risk is much greater than a $20 million teen comedy.”

The Patriot does have an odd pedigree. It was conceived by Rodat and Saving Private Ryan producer Gordon, then entrusted to Devlin and Emmerich as the labor of love the team needed to shed the stigma of 1998’s Godzilla (which, despite its reputation as a box office flop, grossed $379 million worldwide). Rodat’s rewrites — mostly self-imposed — were already into the double digits when The Patriot managed to attract, and ultimately attach, Gibson. When the star’s Icon Productions made a bid to share in the distribution costs (and, of course, the profits), it got a cordial no thanks from Calley, who’s known for generally choosing not to make such deals. The star instead settled for that record $25 million payday, a kingly compensation for which Gibson makes no apologies. “What am I gonna do, not take it?” the 44-year-old actor says. “Look at all the people [the film industry] takes care of — it’s kept this town racing. And it keeps a lot of people fed.”

Gibson’s fee certainly sent the budget racing, toward what an insider says is more like $120-145 million. The film’s pastoral South Carolina locations, near actual Revolutionary War historic sites in and around Rock Hill and Charleston, were supplemented by models and 160 visual effects shots, but unusually inclement Southern weather led to costly delays. Gibson says he offered the filmmakers only one piece of advice born of his experience directing 1995’s similarly grand-scale Braveheart. When he heard that the shoot would last 85 days, the actor says he warned that they were optimistic by a good two weeks: “They looked at me and went [he goes bug-eyed]. It ended up at 102 shooting days.”

Heath Ledger feared he might not make it past day 1. The rangy 21-year-old Aussie (10 Things I Hate About You) plays Martin’s son Gabriel, a rebellious, battle-thirsty 18-year-old enlisted man who ends up riding on raids with his father and a ragtag band of fighters. Ledger says he prides himself on his self-reliance (he left home at 16 because “I was in such a hurry to experience life — to create a soul — and the only way to do that was to put myself out in the arena in the middle of a pack of lions”), but he began his experience on The Patriot certain that he had muffed his audition. Partway through it he announced, “I’m really embarrassed, but I have to leave because I’m wasting your time and I’m wasting my time,” and hurriedly left. “I guess they were curious,” he adds, “’cause they called back and said, ‘Come in, show us what you can really do.'”

For the film’s September 1999 start, he arrived to shoot his first scene in a state of subdued panic. “I hadn’t been in front of a camera in a year, and I’m facing Mel Gibson,” he says. “I went to Dean and said, ‘You’ve got to understand I’m freaked out.’ I was delusional. But after one day I saw that Mel was super-relaxed — then it was a walk in the park.”

The walk became a run, in fact many runs, through fields laced with detonation cord under a mixture of peat moss, black powder, and cork (which flies up nicely when a charge goes off). At one point, overheated extras in a battle scene were reportedly ready to quit — until Gibson roused them with a speech. Then, he notes, “even I took a breather. I said, ‘Let the stunt guy do it in the wide shot. He’s 10 years younger than I am.'”

Gibson’s such an easygoing prankster, it’s easy to forget his more serious side. He is, for example, a notorious conspiracy theorist (Oliver Stone’s JFK is one of his favorite movies). He’s also a fundamentalist who’s said he doesn’t believe in evolution.

His convincing workingman’s aura and his politics clearly owe much to his father, Hutton, 82, a railroad brakeman, who started a conservative group called the Alliance for Catholic Tradition. While recovering from an injury in 1968, the elder Gibson won $21,000 on Jeopardy! and with wife Ann moved his brood of 11 children from Peekskill, N.Y., to Sydney, Australia, in part to spare his sons from the Vietnam War draft. “What parent wants their kid to go off to a war? I know that [my father] didn’t think that it was a justified conflict. And many people agreed with him. Others still think it was the right thing to do,” says Gibson before blithely segueing into Stone territory. “A couple Kennedys died because they were going to pull out of there, you know.

“I think anybody who has any sense of family would understand that the main focal point of the film is the personal story,” he continues. “Other things grow out of that — personal freedoms. People may take it for granted here, but the people who live in countries where they don’t have that sure don’t. This country, with all its warts and imperfections and everything, it’s still the best place to live.”

Even as The Patriot turns manipulative for stretches, Gibson gives it a complex center. It was he who insisted the militia leader’s dark past, marked by battlefield atrocities in the French and Indian War, be made explicit in a talk Martin has with son Gabriel. “It’s interesting to me to find the flaws,” Gibson says. “In the big scheme, the guy’s doing the right thing, but there’s the other aspect…. War is a really scary thing to me. I often thank my lucky stars that I wasn’t born in some other era when you’d be shuffled off someplace to shoot at people — or even brain each other with objects.”

Gibson slowly tilts his head and raises an eyebrow, a gesture that seems to acknowledge the little vagaries of human nature. Aside from his one-word riposte to Tavington, he says he added just a single line to the screenplay, heard first in a voice-over during the film’s opening frames, then later in Martin’s deepest moment of despair: I have long feared that my sins would return to visit me. “That’s what I wanted that guy to be — tormented and scared and just waiting for karmic retribution to bite him on the ass,” the actor says. And it’s always fascinating to watch Gibson bite back.

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