9 March 2007 | JamesHitchcock
Heroes and Villains
"The Patriot", the story of an American farmer who fights in the War of Independence, is sometimes used, together with "Braveheart", as evidence of a supposed anti-British prejudice on the part of Mel Gibson. This is perhaps unfair to Gibson, who has gone on record as supporting the ties between Australia and the British monarchy (hardly the stance of a Brit-hating bigot). Although "Braveheart", which he produced and directed, was very much Gibson's own pet project, he was neither the producer, director or scriptwriter of "The Patriot". Indeed, he was not even first choice to play the lead. The producers originally wanted Harrison Ford who turned the part down, reportedly because he felt that the script turned the American Revolution into the story of one man's quest for revenge.
Because of its anti-British stance, the film was badly received in Britain. One newspaper accused it of blackening the character of the British officer Banastre Tarleton who served as the inspiration for the villainous Colonel Tavington. One commentator went so far as to say that it was the sort of film that the Nazis might have made about the American Revolution had they won World War II. Unlike some of my fellow-countrymen, I was not too worried about this aspect of the film. The total death toll in the American War of Independence was remarkably low, not only by modern standards but even by the standards of other wars of this era, such as the Napoleonic War. Nevertheless, in every war ever fought there have been crimes on both sides, and the War of Independence was no exception. (The rebels could be as ruthless as the British, but none of their atrocities are shown in this film). Some of the deeds attributed to Tavington may be fictitious, such as the church-burning scene, but in real life Tarleton had a well-deserved reputation for brutality, and was not only loathed by the American colonists but also distrusted by his own side. In the film the British commander Lord Cornwallis is shown as outwardly gentlemanly and honourable, but prepared secretly to countenance Tavington's methods. In reality, Cornwallis wanted to have Tarleton court-martialled; Tarleton was only saved by his influential connections.
I did, however, have some reservations about the way these events were portrayed. It was originally intended to make the film about Francis Marion, a real-life figure. Unfortunately Marion, although undoubtedly courageous and a skilled guerrilla leader, was also a slave-owner (as any landowner of substance in 1770s South Carolina would have been) and was therefore deemed unworthy to be the hero of a modern blockbuster (even though a TV series about him was made in the fifties). His exploits, therefore, are credited to a fictitious "Benjamin Martin". The slavery issue could have been avoided by moving the action to, say, New England, but instead the film gives us a wholly unrealistic picture of race relations in the period. The black workers on Martin's land are all free men, and black and white live together in harmony, with black soldiers willingly fighting alongside whites in the Continental Army. This sort of dishonest, idealised portrayal of slavery was at one time common in films like "Gone with the Wind", but I thought that it had died out with the growth of the Civil Rights movement.
(Incidentally, a reason why so many Southerners supported the revolutionaries was that slavery had been declared illegal in Britain itself in 1771 and they feared that the British Parliament would eventually legislate to ban it in the colonies. Needless to say, there is no mention of this attitude in the film. In later life Tarleton became MP for Liverpool, and a vehement defender of slavery. In this, if in nothing else, he and Marion had something in common).
My other reservation about the film's political stance is similar to Ford's. The film probably concentrated so heavily on British brutality because it is difficult to interest a modern audience, even an American audience, in the actual reasons why the war was fought. It is easy to make out an intellectual case for the principle of "no taxation without representation", which had been part of British constitutional thought since at least the Civil War in the 1640s. It is much less easy to justify the spilling of blood in defence of that principle, and Martin, scarred by his experiences in the French and Indian Wars, is originally shown as a pacifist, unwilling to fight or to support the Declaration of Independence which he believes will lead to war. His son Gabriel, however, joins the Continental Army, but is wrongly accused of being a spy and threatened with execution. Tavington, believing Martin to be a rebel sympathiser, burns down his home and murders another son, Thomas. Martin is forced to take up arms to defend his family and then forms a guerrilla band which he leads against the British. Despite the title of the film, however, Martin is not really motivated by patriotism; he seems less a patriot than a pacifist who has abandoned his principles in order to seek revenge.
The film is attractively photographed, although I felt that it sometimes showed a sanitised, prettified version of eighteenth-century life. In some ways it reminded me of "The Last Samurai", another visually attractive epic flawed by a dishonest approach to history and by excessive length, although I would rate it slightly higher, largely because Gibson makes a more commanding and impressive epic hero than does Tom Cruise. From the viewpoint of anyone without patriotic preconceptions, it can be seen simply as an exciting (if overlong) adventure film- my wife, who is not British by birth, was cheering on Martin and booing Tavington. Nevertheless, its approach to history never gets beyond a simplified story of heroes and villains. 6/10