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THE PATRIOT: an entertaining, if troubling, slice of jingoistic, historical fantasy (2000 in Film #25)

This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of June 30th, Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot

If we have seen American cinema across the year 2000 attempt in some way to reconcile America’s place in history as we enter a new millennium, The Patriot is heavily concerned in re-writing and re-conceptualising it.

The Patriot wasn’t actually the biggest box office hit of this weekend, coming in a little short (unexpectedly) of Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm. Though both are highly different movies playing in different eras with very different concepts, both do share a particular, definable ‘Americanism’ that even for Hollywood is powerful and potent. The Perfect Storm, telling the story of the Andrea Gail, a commercial fishing vessel out of Massachusetts that sank during the so-called ‘Perfect Storm’ of 1991, boasts a tremendous cast of character actors spearheaded by a grumpy George Clooney and hot-headed Mark Wahlberg but suffers under the weight of melodramatic exceptionalism, overblowing a far more tragic real life story for rousing, heroic and ultimately bittersweet Hollywood effect. Jaws by way of Twister and saccharine, Lifetime drama.

Both this and Roland Emmerich’s take on the American Revolutionary War share a dubious claim on historical accuracy in the same vein of U-571 earlier in the year, and to an extent Gladiator, except the latter looked more inside out on what American exceptionalism actually means at the turn of the 21st century than either of these two films. The Perfect Storm, which—in a very local side note—had its UK premiere at a recently opened Midlands entertainment centre called Star City, with Clooney and Wahlberg in attendance, is now remembered more for the nautical effects—particularly the gigantic wave that sinks the Andrea Gail—than the overwrought script and performances, which pitch these real-life sailors as reckless, masculine sea lovers who needlessly throw themselves into the eye of the storm not just for bounty but for male obsession. It may have performed more strongly at the box office but The Patriot lingers further in the minds’ eye, serving as the first significant Hollywood take in some years on America’s bloody, foundational history.

In truth, the timing of The Patriot, and what it brings to 2000’s ongoing exploration of America’s past and future, is especially timely.

Patriotism is a particular, and indeed peculiar, part of the American national psyche, and has been for centuries, especially since the events of The Patriot in which the assembled, nascent states born from rebel colonies overcame and kicked out their British Empirical oppressors following the Declaration of Independence.

The main character of Benjamin Martin, played here by Mel Gibson, sailing the slipstream of his huge success playing William Wallace—a similar character—in his far more successful Braveheart, is pitched as the titular ‘patriot’ as he begins loyal to the British, only to see them decimate his entire family, forcing him into supporting and essentially founding a local militia, becoming a rebel leader known as ‘The Ghost’, in a campaign against the colonial forces led by General Cornwallis (a growling, venal Tom Wilkinson). Robert Rodat’s script assumes Martin to only truly become ‘the patriot’ when he turns against British forces and supports the growing calls for republican rule, which as a local family man and father, following taking part in troubling actions as a soldier in the French and Indian War, simply wants to protect his flock. He is a classical reluctant hero until his son is martyred, pushing him into a role of noble rebel.

This is key. Martin is never anything but morally upstanding in how his rebels, formed of all kinds of swarthy characters and embittered ex-soldiers, behave in contrast to the vicious ruthlessness of the British, encapsulated in Jason Isaacs’ brutal Colonel Tavington. The British may slaughter civilians, kill captured soldiers, and in one particularly controversial scene, burn an entire village population inside their own church, but the rebel colonists won’t stoop to such atrocities. The truth Emmerich’s film refuses to acknowledge is that the reality of such guerrilla and total warfare would have been very different, and much more complex. Tavington was based on a fairly brutal real life figure named Banastre Tarleton, but there is no evidence he went to the same lengths. Martin, meanwhile, is a composite of Revolutionary War figures including Francis Marion, who the Guardian have described as “a serial rapist who hunted Red Indians for fun”.

Jonathan Foreman has previously taken particular issue with how the colonial British forces are depicted in The Patriot as sadistic figures:

The most disturbing thing about The Patriot is not just that German director Roland Emmerich (director of Independence Day) and his screenwriter Robert Rodat (who was criticized for excluding the roles played by British and other Allied troops in the Normandy landings from his script for Saving Private Ryan) depicted British troops as committing savage atrocities, but that those atrocities bear such a close resemblance to war crimes carried out by German troops—particularly the SS in World War II. It’s hard not to wonder if the filmmakers have some kind of subconscious agenda… They have made a film that will have the effect of inoculating audiences against the unique historical horror of Oradour—and implicitly rehabilitating the Nazis while making the British seem as evil as history’s worst monsters… So it’s no wonder that the British press sees this film as a kind of blood libel against the British people.

Oradour references the infamous Oradour-sur-Glane massacre in Nazi occupied France in June 1944 when SS troops massacred 642 men, women and children and burned the village to the ground. Whereas this was a recognised atrocity committed by Nazi forces, no evidence suggests the British committed anything close to what we see Tavington action in the Revolutionary War, and for a film built on the historical record, it seriously distorts our view of a period of history fast receding from view, and is particularly interesting in line with Gladiator, which just a few weeks earlier actively draws a line between populist leadership and Nazi iconography. That film worries about Nazi connotations in America’s evocation of the Roman Empire. This film treats America’s greatest allies since the war against fascism *as* heinous fascists.

Don’t get me wrong, Isaacs is a tremendous villain, his every word spoken with cut glass, venomous disdain (this must have sealed him for the role of Lucius Malfoy) and in that sense he stands as one of the best examples of British villainy in American cinema of recent years, perhaps the best since Alan Rickman’s immortal Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. In some sense, those two films share a common DNA, in that The Patriot ultimately is no more realistic in how it portrays American history as Prince of Thieves is in depicting the myth of medieval peasantry. Both are fantasy. The Patriot wishes to suggest Benjamin Martin as a defender of key, pastoral American values against lethal, empirical overlords. It reinforces the republican mission statement of America and the sense of its manifest destiny. It is less history, and more propaganda for the vanguard of American society who believe in freedom above all.

While on the one hand a perfectly entertaining piece of blockbuster nonsense, on the other The Patriot and films like it are quite dangerous, especially to the world of 2020 in which patriotic nationalism has gained significant strength on the right of the American psyche. As I write this, armed militia—men not dissimilar from those who rise up with Martin against the British yolk—are being actively encouraged by a sitting President to ignore the doctrine of their own local governors in insisting they curtail their own freedoms to help prevent the Covid-19 pandemic worsening, and are out on the streets in force in certain states. They consider themselves ‘patriots’, true to the word of the American Constitution, and defending their individual right to liberty. 

Patriotism is a double edged sword. Samuel Johnson and Voltaire were concerned and suspicious of it. George Orwell wrote of it, in his essay Notes on Nationalism, that:

By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

Is that what distinguishes Benjamin Martin as a patriot rather than a nationalist? Possibly. He surrenders his individualism to fight the corner of the revolutionary forces but his entire motivation is driven by a will to both protect his headstrong son Gabriel (a fresh faced Heath Ledger), intending on serving in the Continental Army against his father’s wishes, and avenge Tavington’s slaughter of his youngest son after shooting him dead in cold blood. Martin’s actions help fuel a broader revolution and free America from the yolk of oppression, but they are fuelled by entirely personal motivations, with the spine of Rodat’s script revolving around his inevitable confrontation with Tavington amidst the battlefield for a new America.

In that sense, The Patriot is pure hokum. It distills these broad, overarching themes about the American experience, and American history, into the tragic story of a father who loses part of his family and is called to war, as we see The Perfect Storm spin a pragmatic, unintentional tragedy into the forced heroic tale of restless fishermen called to prove their mettle against the sea. Emmerich’s film is no historical document, but it is relentlessly jingoistic at a point American cinema is trying to define the nation’s place as leaders of the free world, having overcome centuries of adversity to take civilisation into a bold new future. One scene literally has Gibson, in slow motion, set to one of John Williams’ least memorable scores, charging at the evil Brit-villain intending to impale him on the end of the American flag.

Ultimately, The Patriot also hasn’t found the same cultural traction as Braveheart, or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, or even a film like Dances With Wolves. Emmerich is still best known for his disaster movies (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow) or his disastrous ones (Godzilla, 2012). Gibson’s star, coloured by his personal life, has significantly waned into the present day 2020’s. Nobody really talks about this one at length and that is just as maybe. For while a film such as U-571 may annoy in how it suggests America took strides actually achieved by the British, The Patriot revises history to actually make the British far more scurrilous than even its morally questionable (to say the least) Empire deserves, not to mention reducing Revolutionary War slavery and the black influence on these major events to a token footnote.

There is a danger in taking The Patriot seriously. So let’s collectively make sure we always consider it as great a fantasy as William Wallace sounding like Mel Gibson with a Scottish accent, shall we?

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

8 – Wonder Boys

9 – The Next Best Thing

10 – Mission to Mars

11 – Erin Brockovich

12 – Romeo Must Die

13 – The Road to El Dorado

14 – Rules of Engagement

15 – 28 Days

16 – U-571

17 – Frequency

18 – Gladiator

19 – Battlefield Earth

20 – Road Trip

21 – Mission Impossible II

22 – Shanghai Noon

23 – Titan A.E

24 – Shaft

25 – Chicken Run

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