I hoped The Patriot would do for the Revolution what Saving Private Ryan did for D-Day. Alas, The Patriot suffers from a terminal lack of seriousness. It’s typical summer fare, with cameo scenes by cute dogs and cheesy Lethal Weapon-style repartee between gun-toting characters. It is also about an hour too long, with the excess length consisting almost entirely of slow, sentimental scenes during which The Patriot sags of its own cartoonish weight.
But, then again, this is a movie that had an audience at a preview screening on the Upper West side of Manhattan cheering lustily whenever Mel Gibson shot or brained a British Redcoat. And that is no small thing — most Upper West Siders probably haven’t even seen an American flag in years. So, The Patriot is — not surprisingly — patriotic schlock, but in today’s culture we should be grateful for patriotic anything.
The Patriot certainly has its charms. Gibson plays a South Carolina plantation owner named Benjamin Martin who is a veteran of the French and Indian war, but has seen enough combat and hopes the colonists’ dispute with the British can be resolved peacefully. His oldest son Gabriel, however, is spoiling for a fight and signs up for the Continental Army. Through a (rather implausible) set of circumstances, another of Martin’s sons ends up getting shot by the Redcoats, and his plantation is torched.
This sets up one of the film’s more effective sequences. A certain set of sociologists argue that in TV and movies, the images are everything, trumping plot, dialogue, etc. Let’s hope it’s true in the case of the gorgeously shot Patriot.
After setting Martin’s house ablaze, the cruel, almost campy — you half expect him to suck his pinky like Dr. Evil — British cavalry officer William Tavington rides off with his troops. Their stark red uniforms and the dark flesh of their horses make for an awesome distillation of military might, as the smoke from the plantation rises in the background, thick and black, a symbol of the British trespass and the colonial grievance.
It is impossible to watch this scene and not bray for vengeance. Gibson dashes back into the burning house — and grabs his muskets. Oh, what a welcome sight the muskets are in The Patriot! They are the great equalizer! They are the check on imperial arrogance! They are the necessary instrument of republican power!
What happens next is what has liberals up in arms. Gibson hands a musket each to his two young sons, tells them to remember what he taught them about shooting (“aim small, miss small”), and runs off with them to hit back at the Redcoats (and eventually his sneering nemesis Tavington).
Gibson running is one of the best parts of the film — watching him go is always stirring (a musket or American flag usually in hand) and always means something good is about to happen. In this case, it’s an ambush that for the Left must be worse than child pornography — kids on film shooting people! — but will be stand-and-cheer entertainment for anyone who has not yet had all their red blood sucked from them by effete contemporary American culture.
The combat scenes in The Patriot are quite good — and terrifying. The Patriot conveys the rumbling anticipation of battle — like a T-Rex approaching in Jurassic Park. You get a sense of the courage it took to face down the British Empire, its troops fearsome-looking in their Redcoats, marching in strict formation, like a giant red machine, toward its enemy. The actual engagements are as much duels as battles, with lines of men standing and loading their rifles in full view of one another. Just to stand in one of these lines, let alone operate effectively, must have been a harrowing act of bravery.
Of course, there’s much that is ahistorical in The Patriot. If all the British were as nasty and determined as Tavington, they probably would have won the war. Also, it was Carolinians who essentially invented large-scale slavery in America, so Gibson’s enlightened views on race are highly implausible. But after so many films exaggerating the racism of America, it’s nice to have one that tweaks the record the other way in the cause of creating a patriotic story easily accessible to everyone.
So, The Patriot isn’t great art, by any means. But it is worth seeing, if only to marvel at Gibson’s co-stars, those muskets and one very tattered, but well looked-after Stars and Stripes. Ultimately, all The Patriot’s glory belongs to it.