Screenplay : Robert Rodat
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Mel Gibson (Benjamin Martin), Heath Ledger (Gabriel Martin), Joely Richardson (Charlotte Selton), Jason Isaacs (Col. William Tavington), Chris Cooper (Col. Harry Burwell), Tchéky Karyo (Jean Villeneuve), Rene Auberjonois (Reverend Oliver), Lisa Brenner (Anne Howard), Tom Wilkinson (General Cornwallis)
In a scene late in "The Patriot," Mel Gibson's character stands huddled over his dead son, the second of his seven children to have been killed before his eyes. His face wrinkled in agony, his eyes shut tight, he whispers in a choked voice, "God help me, God help me." Coming from someone else, this might be interpreted as a man pleading for God to help him in his pain. Coming from Gibson, it is more like a man pleading that God help him stay under control before he explodes in a fountain of murderous fury. "God, control me because I can't."
There is probably no other actor currently working in film today who is better at projecting tragic rage than Mel Gibson. Although he has worked in a wide variety of films in his 23-year career, the most consistent character he plays is one who loses a loved one early in the story and spends the rest of the film exorcising his inner pain through outward violence. "Mad Max" (1979), "Lethal Weapon" (1987), "Braveheart" (1995)--the drama in all of these films is fueled specifically by anguish and vengeance.
The reason Gibson is constantly cast in these roles is simple: He's good at it. Few will admit it, but who can deny the raw power of his performance in the original "Lethal Weapon," particularly the scene where he is sitting on his couch watching TV, holding a loaded 9-mm in his hand while tearfully contemplating suicide? Yet, when Mel Gibson cries, it does not have the same weakening effect as it does on so many other actors. Instead, it is as if his insides are boiling with such turmoil that something must leak out.
Needless to say, Gibson gets to express a great deal of tragic rage in "The Patriot," an ambitious, two-hour-and-forty-minute Revolutionary War epic about Benjamin Martin, a character loosely based on a number of actual men who fought guerilla-style in the American Revolution. When the film opens in 1776, Martin is a South Carolina plantation owner who is staunchly against the revolutionary war (although he is not against the colonies seceding from England). Having already seen and taken part in vicious bloodshed in the French and Indian War, Martin just wants to play the part of the good widower, taking care of his seven children and tending his plot of land.
His oldest son, 18-year-old Gabriel (Heath Ledger), has a little too much of his father's old spirit in him, and he enlists in the colonial army against his father's wishes. Martin manages to stay out of battle for two years until the war arrives at his doorstep in the form of the particularly malicious British Col. William Tavington (Jason Isaacs), who not only burns down Martin's home, but shoots one of his young sons in the back. Tavington is a character molded in every facet to be hated, and Isaacs plays him with simple, wicked glee.
At this point, there is no way Martin can't enter the revolution, although it remains unclear whether his chief motivation to do so is the cause of freedom, his desire for vengeance, or some twisted combination of the two. In this way, Martin is never a clearly defined hero, and the title "The Patriot" becomes somewhat questionable. Is he really a noble patriot fighting for a greater American cause, or is he just an angry man who sees the war as a convenient means for him to avenge the damage inflicted on his family? Is the scene that depicts Martin angrily hacking away at an already dead body with his tomahawk an indication of his anger at seeing his son die or a suggestion that he is somewhat psychotic? The fact that these questions are never clearly answered is, in some ways, what makes the film interesting because the ambiguity of Gibson's character opens the door for multiple readings, something that is quite rare in most summer blockbusters.
Martin gathers himself a small army of dedicated men, most of whom are roughnecks and bar brawlers. Understanding that there is no way the American army can successfully fight the British Redcoats face-to-face in open battle, he initiates his own war of guerilla tactics in which he attacks supply lines and targets British officers. This, of course, goes against the formalized rules of battle so cherished by the vain General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), but no matter. One of the goals of the film seems to be pointing out the silliness of trying to graft civility onto something so inherently uncivil as war. Even though he clings to the surface rules, Cornwallis is apparently not above sending Tavington out to hunt down Martin, in the process allowing him to massacre helpless villagers.
"The Patriot" was written by Robert Rodat ("Saving Private Ryan") and brought to the screen by the director-producer team of Roland Emmerich, and Dean Devlin (they collaborated on "Independence Day" and the recent re-make of "Godzilla"). This makes for an unlikely, but generally fruitful pairing. True, some of Rodat's modern revisionist tendencies, such as laboriously showing how a bigoted white soldier learns to feel honored fighting next to a freed slave, push the narrative further than it can go. Overall, though, he has crafted a good script that allows for the strengths of all involved to be flexed: Gibson gets to play up his tragic rage and Emmerich gets to stage huge, special-effects-laden battle sequences that are filled with the kind of blood and gore that was only implied in his less-serious disaster movies.
If the film runs a tad long, Emmerich makes up for it by maintaining a good pace. He alternates constantly between melodrama and visceral violence, which keeps the film moving, but never allows it to really find its footing. If there's a weakness, the film feels slightly off-balance. There is rarely a moment during the whole running time when the audience is not meant to be in some kind of emotional upheaval, whether that be sadness or vicarious exhilaration.
Being a war film, "The Patriot" has its share of vicious bloodshed--a soldier's head being torn off by a cannonball, lines of soldiers dropping like flies as they move in regimented suicide toward blazing muskets, an entire village being burned alive inside a locked church. After all, working with Rodat and Gibson, Emmerich is essentially forced into the position of competing with the undeniable physical impact of both "Braveheart" and "Saving Private Ryan," two movies that literally hit you at gut level. And, while Emmerich comes nowhere close to matching the effectiveness of either one of those two magnificent films, the success of "The Patriot" is almost enough to atone for "Godzilla."
©2000 James Kendrick