The British Are Not Amused
In the words of Paul Revere, "The British are coming!" But this time theyíre after American filmmakers. I recall how the release of U-57l caused quite a stir in merry old England. In that exciting war movie, Americans took credit for recovering the Enigma code-breaking machine from the Germans --- a feat actually accomplished by the British navy in World War II. Now, adding insult to injury, one of the nastiest villains on screen is a British colonel in The Patriot, Hollywoodís bloody salute to the American Revolution. (Donít our British cousins realize allís fair in love, war, and the movies?)
Revenge takes center stage in this sweeping epic starring Mel Gibson, who plays another Braveheart-like role with his usual intensity. As Benjamin Martin, a former hero of the French and Indian War, Gibson convinces us of his hatred for the cruel Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs). Tavington, an ambitious British officer, takes great pleasure in shooting a young boy in front of his family. Witnessing that horrific event helps change Martin, now a peaceful farmer, back into a ferocious warrior. A committed family man, Martin had renounced fighting forever in order to raise his seven children after the death of his wife. Realizing that war with England would have to be fought on home ground, the loving father predicts, "Our children will learn of it through their own eyes." Martinís strong anti-war feelings are not shared by his eldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), who firmly believes the colonists should fight for independence from England.
After finally joining in the battle against the British, Martin displays remarkable expertise in using every 18th century weapon imaginable --- muskets, tomahawks, sabers, daggers, bayonets, pistols, rifles, etc. And, while pangs of conscience about his excessive brutality prick him at times, they are not painful enough to stop his vendetta against the evil Tavington. Because of Martinís lightning-fast attacks against the enemy, he becomes known as "The Ghost."
As war movies go, The Patriot is one of the best. Like Saving Private Ryan (written by the same screenwriter, Robert Rodat), its gory battle footage reminds us that "war is hell." The film also does an excellent job of highlighting differences between warfare tactics of the colonists and the British, with the former relying on guerilla fighting and the latter on more traditional military strategies. In addition, Martinís all-consuming rage against Tavington gives the movie a compelling personal theme. The filmís emphasis clearly lies on personal, not political, crises resulting from the birth of a new nation.
Under the direction of Ronald Emmerich (Independence Day), The Patriot excels in presentation of thrilling action sequences. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about its approach to family life. Heavy doses of sentimentality spoil these scenes, as do early lines from Martin such as "Iím a parent; I donít have the luxury of principles." Also, Martinís relationship with his classy sister-in-law (Joely Richardson) fails to arouse much interest. More romantic moments between these two could have livened things up a bit.
Ledger projects a nobility of character as the son whose patriotism never waivers. Making her film debut, lovely Lisa Brenner portrays Ledgerís outspoken love interest with impressive self-confidence. Her passionate speech for the cause of freedom is quite inspiring. Chris Cooper (Lone Star) as a dignified soldier/statesman, Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty) as the aristocratic General Cornwallis, and Tcheky Karyo (The Messenger) as a quarrelsome French officer round out The Patriotís fine supporting cast.
Photographic artistry by Caleb Deschanel (Fly Away Home) lends a wonderful painterly look to this film --- even in the midst of all its carnage. The prestigious Smithsonian Institute, serving for the first time ever as a filmís historical consultant, assisted in making sure costumes, sets, and other artifacts appear as accurate as possible for the America of 1776. Everything visual about the movie is first-rate. But, as a history lesson, this emotionally-charged film comes across more like shameless propaganda than as storytelling based on facts.
In reality, the British probably were not as bad as depicted in The Patriot. Still, they did force that dreadful Stamp Act and those unfair taxes on American colonists. Over two hundred years later, this very long movie (close to three hours) should help even the score.
(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated "R" for strong war violence.)