You’re the director of one of the biggest blockbusters in recent memory. Your latest project premiers Fourth of July weekend: an American Revolution epic, headlined by one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. What could go wrong?
In 2000, Roland Emmerich did everything right with The Patriot. Robert Rodat, a veteran of Saving Private Ryan, wrote the script. The Smithsonian Institute consulted on historical accuracy. Mel Gibson, who had led the charge in Braveheart, was the star. He was also People’s ‘Sexiest Man Alive’.
‘The problem I have is people love me so much, they never criticize me,’ Gibson lamented in a cameo on The Simpsons in 1999. ‘It’s hell being Mel.’ Cinematic hell is where The Patriot remains. Emmerich had directed 1998’s Godzilla remake. David Hackett Fischer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Albion’s Seed, condemned The Patriot as being ‘to history as Godzilla was to biology’.
Yet The Patriot has recouped nearly double its budget and is still watched on cable and Netflix. The Patriot is entertaining, but there’s more to it than that. The Revolution is essential to America, but Hollywood doesn’t make many movies about it.
The Patriot is a beautifully filmed and scored tale of revenge. South Carolina planter and single dad Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) reluctantly joins the rebels after his son is killed by the extravagantly villainous British colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs). Haunted by the atrocities he committed in the French and Indian War, Martin hopes for redemption. No one plays tortured like Gibson: his Hamlet for Zeffirelli is perhaps the most underrated of all cinematic shots at the dismal Dane. Here, Gibson achieves peace of mind by dismembering a redcoat with a hatchet, melting his dead son’s lead toy soldiers into bullets and impaling a horse on an American flag.
‘Would you like a lesson, sir, on the rules of war?’ Tavington asks. The Patriot captures the fear and brutality of 18th-century combat: cannon fire, musket volleys, hand-to-hand fighting. It highlights questions of honor and morality, and it debates the meaning of civilized warfare and patriotism — discussions that have never faded from our politics. Among the thud and blunder, it depicts nuances of motivation among patriots, loyalists and neutrals with considerable subtlety.
In the movie, a church and its parishioners go up in flames. Jonathan Foreman, the British-born critic for the New York Post, gave no quarter, accusing the movie of making redcoats ‘cartoonish paragons of evil who commit one monstrous (but wholly invented) atrocity after another’ as if they were the ‘18th century equivalent of the Nazi SS’. Emmerich and Devlin pled ‘artistic license’. But was it?
Historian Benjamin Carp recently uncovered evidence that in South Carolina, British major James Wemyss attempted to burn a woman and child alive inside their home. Elsewhere in South Carolina, according to local lore that was written down in 1870, soldiers under captain Christian Huck threatened ‘to burn both the church, and people’ to frighten ‘disturbers of the king’s peace’.
This wasn’t the only historical objection. ‘The Patriot dodged around, skirted about or completely ignored slavery,’ raged director Spike Lee. He was right. Slavery is peripheral in the movie, but it was pervasive in Southern society. Martin’s plantation of freemen? Unimaginable.
The Patriot is derided as historically inaccurate and cornily patriotic. But even Gibson admitted that The Patriot was ‘sheer fantasy’. Perhaps the movie caught some shrapnel when Gibson’s attempt at a historically accurate Jesus, The Passion of the Christ, was criticized as racist and sexist, with further collateral damage after Gibson’s DUI tirade of 2006. But Gibson is now sprung from the sin bin with family comedies like Daddy’s Home 2 and an Oscar nomination for Hacksaw Ridge. Should we rehabilitate The Patriot?
The biggest problem with The Patriot is simply that it isn’t Braveheart or Gladiator. The solution? More movies about the American Revolution. Since The Patriot, there have been TV shows (John Adams), musicals (Hamilton) and video games — but no movies. The nation’s hopes now rest with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s rumored adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill. America waits to see the whites of their eyes.
This article is in The Spectator’s July 2020 US edition.