This week I thought I'd revisit the 2000 Mel Gibson historical epic The Patriot, directed by Roland Emmerich (of Independence Day fame) and co-starring the late Heath Ledger.
The Patriot tells the story of Benjamin Martin, a widower and veteran of the French-Indian War who has retired to his home in Charleston, SC with his seven children. As tensions mount between the American colonies and Great Britain, Martin is called upon to vote on the formation of a Continental Army. He refuses to support such a measure, fearing no good will come of a war with England, but the Army is approved regardless, and his eldest son Gabriel enlists. From there the Revolutionary War escalates, and after the ruthless English Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs) kills Martin's son Thomas, Martin finds himself fully embroiled in the War and becomes one of the Americans' most skillful military leaders. What follows is a dramatic, action-oriented historical piece covering Martin's exploits as a guerrilla fighter who vexes General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) at every turn, while Colonel Tavington counters with particularly cruel tactics.
So what worked and what didn't? Well let's take a look....
As always, Gibson turns in a compelling, dynamic performance, blending his proficiency as an action-hero with his more nuanced dramatic chops to create a convincingly human protagonist. Despite being praised as a war hero, Martin has a much more realist view of himself as a man who has done things for which he is ashamed, and who, as a single father, can no longer afford to be the idealist he once was. This establishes a captivating friction, both between Martin and his superiors, and between Martin and Gabriel, who wants to contribute to the war effort despite his father's objections. During the later parts of the film the evils of battle take their toll on Martin and he feels the loss of his own humanity. Gibson conveys all this superbly and is completely believable in the role (Again, the man's a sick asshole in real life but I'll be damned if he wasn't one of the best actors out there for a while).
|Oddly this is his mugshot from that 2004 DUI.|
English actor Jason Isaacs has been typecast for many years as icy, pitiless villains, and he's square in the middle of his wheelhouse in The Patriot. Colonel Tavington, while a pretty over-the-top heinous bastard, is nonetheless brought to life with understated expertise by the talented Isaacs.
|Those Brits sure know how to act like jerks on film, don't they?|
Wilkinson is one of those actors whose work seems so effortless and who brings instant credibility and gravitas to any film. As General Cornwallis, he projects a classic pomposity as a bad guy we love to hate. Cornwallis fancies himself a consummate nobleman who is above this annoying assignment of fighting off peasant farmers. When Martin turns out to be a worthy adversary, Cornwallis is even more put out and can't understand why the colonists resort to hit-and-run tactics instead of the tried and true conventional battle tactics (i.e. standing in a straight line and taking turns shooting each other). Cornwallis at first insists that Tavington behave like a gentleman on the battlefield, but later reluctantly agrees to let him use harsher measures.
So many war epics feature confusing, rapid-cut, shaky-cam footage resulting in unintelligible battle scenes, but the action sequences in The Patriot are constructed in such a way that they're easy to follow and exhilarating without celebrating the violence. The audience can identify with the protagonists' mission while still being aware how regrettable are the methods they're forced to use. Much like Benjamin Martin himself, we adopt a "means to an end" philosophy when watching the heroic characters do decidedly unheroic things in the name of the greater good.
This one's gonna be controversial given what a truly gifted actor Ledger became. But let's be honest, this performance is not at all indicative of his work. Ledger is quite wooden as Gabriel Martin, and even when the script calls for vengeful rage, he's not all that convincing. It doesn't help that most of his screen time is devoted to trite, hackneyed moments of either romance or comedy, but I still couldn't get past what a journeyman performance this was from a future prodigy.
|Hard to believe this guy would go on to play one of the all-time great villains.|
The filmmakers apparently weren't comfortable making a heavy, true-to-life war epic, so they sprinkled a lot of light comedy into the film. A lot. And most of it sucks. Almost the entire romance between Gabriel and his childhood sweetheart Anne is farcical, paint-by-numbers dreck and her parents are presented as the typical old-fashioned divided couple; for the dad no one's good enough for his daughter (Anne's father is a clown and not in the least bit intimidating but we're supposed to believe Gabriel is sorta scared of him), while the mom sees what a decent boy Gabriel is deep down. This whole subplot is so tedious and unoriginal, and they build up to a hastily-performed wedding only for both characters to be killed off in the third act. Aside from that there's the uneasy alliance between Martin's militia and a French Major, who is portrayed as a cartoonish fop. Because who doesn't like to laugh at French people? And of course there's Martin's neighbor John Billings (Leon Rippy), a stereotypical redneck character (Did rednecks even exist in 1780?) who I can only assume was inserted into this film to attract the country music crowd.
|Oh, they're such a cute couple I could shit.|
All this tired comedy detracts from what is an otherwise well-made film. As it is, several of Martin's strategic ploys generate humor that's actually subtle and amusing, such as the prisoner exchange sequence, where Martin tells Cornwallis he's captured a dozen British officers. Cornwallis sees them through a telescope off in the distance, but what he's unwittingly looking at are twelve scarecrows dressed in stolen British uniforms. The Patriot has enough humor without a bunch of unfunny shit being shoehorned in.
Donal Logue plays Dan Scott, one of Martin's soldiers, who in 1780 is the sole racist on the American side. But he's written like the filmmakers had no actual experience with racism so they just channeled stuff they saw on an after-school special. Most of Scott's screen time deals with his unwillingness to fight alongside a black soldier, whom he intimidates throughout the film until finally accepting him as a peer at the end. It's such a drippy depiction of an inhumane attitude that was (and to a certain extent still is) quite prevalent in the South, it feels like the filmmakers were hedging their bets. There's even a sappy, pedestrian speech by Heath Ledger about how someday all men will be treated equally. If you're going to include the issue of race in this movie, either go all the way with it so it realistically reflects how most southern white people probably were at the time, or leave it out.
It just seems like the filmmakers couldn't decide whether they wanted to make an historical epic or a popcorn film, so they split the difference. The result is a movie that about half the time feels like a serious character-driven piece about the unspeakable acts a good person must commit to fight evil and oppression, and the rest of the time feels like lame action-adventure fare populated with stock characters who only function as plot devices. It is possible to make a top-quality war epic that also appeals to a wide audience (see: Saving Private Ryan), but I'm not sure Roland Emmerich has the directorial aptitude to pull that off. So the populist aspects of this movie just seem like cheap attempts to appeal to summer patriotism when this could've been a serious exploration of themes like "What constitutes a hero?" or "How far can a man go in combating evil before becoming what he despises?"
-Early in the movie we see Martin painstakingly building a rocking chair, which looks perfectly sturdy and expertly assembled. He then sits in the thing and it collapses into a dozen pieces under his weight. What'd he forget the glue? What kind of wood did he use, particle board?
-During the scene where Martin and his two young sons Nathan and Samuel rescue the captured Gabriel, Martin hands them muskets and tells them, "aim small, miss small." But it's never explained what the hell this means. Upon looking it up I discovered it means that if you aim for a target's whole head you might miss him entirely, whereas if you aim for a much more precise target, like his nose, you could miss the precise target but still hit the man. It seems like maybe there was an excised earlier scene where this was explained, like the "aim small, miss small" was supposed to be a payoff for something.
-Gabriel's death scene is so utterly contrived it's infuriating. After shooting Tavington, who falls to the ground on his belly, Gabriel approaches him as excruciatingly slowly as possible, to deliver the final blow with a knife. This gives Tavington just under six HOURS to flip over and stab Gabriel to death. Say Gabe, how 'bout ya just pounce on the guy's back and stab him through the fucking neck? And keep stabbing him until his head falls off. For Chrissake.....
-How, in the name of all things holy, the FUCK do Martin and Tavington manage to find each other for a climactic tete-a-tete on a crowded, chaotic battlefield with hacked limbs flying about and cannonballs pulverizing everything in sight? What a fucking convenient turn of events.
-I know that this was just the way of doing things for a long time, but what kinda asshole military strategist would ever be satisfied with "Let's line up and march toward each other while taking turns shooting?" There's no strategy to that at all - whichever army is bigger is gonna win 9 times outta 10 as far as I can tell. How did it take until the Revolutionary War for these fools to figure out a better way to do battle?
|Guys, are we playin' chess or trying to take land? What's the story here?|
-This movie is called The Patriot, but that title isn't very fitting of Benjamin Martin. At the beginning of the film he makes it clear his own family's safety is more important to him than the liberation of the colonies, and only after the British kill one of his children does he join the war effort. So he's really driven by revenge more than patriotism. Maybe the title refers to Gabriel?
The Patriot is one of those movies I went into expecting to hate. From the trailers it looked like a much less substantial retread of Braveheart designed to shamelessly exploit the "America rules" attitude that's always rampant around the 4th of July. As it turned out, while there is some of that in this film, there are also some powerful performances and interesting characters and themes, even if the dime-store Hollywood window dressing often gets in the way. So while I wanted to dismiss The Patriot as manipulative junk, there was enough quality material included to elevate it to the pantheon of Awesomely Shitty Movies.
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