War Is Mel

ID4 II--The Prequel: Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger in Roland Emmerich's The Patriot

These have to be end times, of some kind. Not of the world, necessarily (although the millennium hasn't officially turned yet, right?). Still, if you count up all the "lasts" in our current cinema--as in, "I'm a retiring soldier/general/car thief/fisherman, but I'm being forced into one last battle/campaign/theft/boat ride"--you gotta think something is on its final legs, if not this overused story line. Maybe what is dying--or feared to be dying--is a certain species of heroic male action figure (no women characters seem to be doing anything heroic for the last time, not even diapers). And on their way out, they're demanding one last chance to strut their stuff--to the tune of "You're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone."

So here we go again with The Patriot, Mel Gibson's fifth trip to the celluloid battlefront, albeit his first as a decorated veteran sickened by war's brutality but more interested in protecting his seven children (an autobiographical journey?). This Revolutionary War story was scripted by Saving Private Ryan writer Robert Rodat, so you know the protagonist will be torn between a proclivity for peaceful child rearing (Tom Hanks's captain was a schoolteacher, remember) and The Principle of the Thing. It's 1776 and South Carolina is deciding whether to join the surging rebellion against England. Gibson's Benjamin Martin, guerrilla hero of the French and Indian War, agrees with the cause, but he won't join up. "I'm a parent," the widower declares to the Charleston Assembly. "I haven't got the luxury of principles." The Assembly votes to fight, the invading British threaten Benjamin's children, and you can guess the rest.

The Patriot is a fine film, well told. An understated Gibson makes this father's horror and anger all the more convincing--although I was more moved by his wary line readings than by the too-familiar creasings of that face. As Benjamin's stubbornly principled son Gabriel, Heath Ledger conveys youthful grace and giddiness, while Jason Isaacs makes the foxy, cruel British Col. Tavington absolutely easy to hate. Even those playing marginal militia characters hit their one or two lines of dialogue hard (which isn't that miraculous unless you've seen The Perfect Storm). And the constant threat to the fighters' families and communities in an at-home war kept this viewer's body in a pretzel.

Director Roland Emmerich, of Independence Day fame, allows the film to sag some in the middle, but it's the rare near-three-hour butt-burner that does not. For all their 18th-century bent, the combat scenes bear the stylish influence of Spielberg and Woo, with emphatic slo-mo and the abrupt muting of volume (and the curious passivity of any enemy with the bad luck to fight the hero). The carnage is gruesomely detailed. The way battles were (mis)directed then--with lines of men standing shoulder to shoulder against rounds of musket fire--hardly softens this view of war's ugliness. Still, one special effect threw me, squeaking, back into my chair (cool!)--and who couldn't help but admire Benjamin's lethal hand on the hatchet? Like Saving Private Ryan, The Patriot simultaneously entertains and disgusts. Is that the best a war movie can do?

"Why do men feel they can justify death?" cries Benjamin, in the film's richest scene. "Is it arrogance?" Yes--along with box office and, uh, patriotism. As Benjamin learns, and the viewer is reminded, this bloody war was essential, the first step to an improved America for those children of Benjamin's. And hey, I'm down with that; I'm grateful to be living in a proximate democracy, as opposed to, say, Afghanistan. But The Patriot's rush to justify its hard deaths makes me nervous--and leaves me with a number of questions. Strings swell when South Carolinian Gabriel tells a slave that the Revolution will lead to equality for all--which isn't exactly a lie, although I can't resist pointing out that England outlawed slavery in 1833, some 30 years before the South was forced to do likewise. This same slave, freed by his military service, shows up to help rebuild the Martins' torched plantation: Precisely why is this supposed to make the audience feel all warm inside?

Benjamin is meant to be an ordinary white Southerner. But we're told, without further explanation, that the black people who work his fields and care for his children aren't slaves. Francis Marion, one of the real-life revolutionaries the filmmakers based Benjamin upon, reportedly killed Indians for fun and raped his slaves. Now that was an ordinary white plantation owner of his times. Benjamin admits to similar doings as anomalous, vengeful acts of the French and Indian war, but he's a reformed man. Why is it that American movies cannot grapple with the fact that average Americans have been day-to-day racists, rapists, and worse? Why must the complicated past be prettied up so viewers--some viewers--can cheer without guilt? The Patriot finally makes it look like the only racists of colonial America were hillbillies, a portrait that so disguises the hierarchies of money and power maintaining slavery that it's not just bad history but a willful falsification.

In their press kit, the filmmakers list five men from whom they stole bits to assemble Benjamin. The Patriot would have it that one guerrilla leader messed up the British northern advancement from Charleston and turned the tide of the battle of Cowpens. I know, I know, this is classic Western-culture storytelling going back past Homer. But when a film about the birth of American democracy comes down to two godlike men going mano a mano, something's wrong. Much as my body chills and thrills to the thrust and parry of this battle, my brain is utterly exhausted with the Great Man story model. For what is it that our precious children, the ones we would protect at all costs, learn from The Patriot? They learn that ordinary Americans--the anonymous ones mowed down here without a father's tears--sacrificed lives, labor, and self-respect to keep a rich white guy housed in ivory-pillared luxury. That may be true history, but it doesn't make me want to cheer.


The Patriot is playing at area theaters.

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