Mel Gibson wears a buckskin vest and a fashionable landed-gentry ponytail in The Patriot, but make no mistake: He’s playing a gladiator. As Benjamin Martin, a South Carolina widower with seven children who organizes a scruffy, underground rebel militia to fight the British, Gibson gets to inflict damage with just about every weapon available in 1776 — musket, dagger, tomahawk — and he does it with maximum savagery. In the course of two hours and 40 minutes, our hero fires, hacks, gouges, and slices. He doesn’t score a clean kill every time (nobody’s perfect), but when he wounds, he wounds harshly. At one point, Martin takes his tomahawk to a fallen enemy with such vicious relentlessness — he must give the body a dozen thwacks — that he emerges with his entire face drenched in blood. I’ve heard of serial slashers who made less of a mess.
Here, the movie says, is the real dawn of America: men who won their freedom by fighting freely — as lone-justice vigilantes. Martin, however, as ruthless as he is on the battlefield, is no military psycho; he’s a sensitive, caring, family-guy warrior. He starts out as a modest plantation owner, trying to build a better rocking chair, but when the British, led by the thin-lipped, snooty sadist Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs), murder his young son (Gregory Smith), Martin, choking back the tears, joins the revolt against England and begins to smelt the dead boy’s toy soldiers into musket balls.
The Patriot, as you may have gathered, is not a movie about founding fathers, quill-pen declarations, or Boston tea parties. It’s a death-wish revenge thriller posing as a lavishly pastoral historical epic. Martin, a veteran of the French and Indian War, thinks of himself as a battle-weary peacenik (his eldest son joins the army against his wishes), but if he believes in liberating the colonies from the tyranny of King George III, he believes even more fervently in smiting the holy bejesus out of the soldiers who have torn his family apart. That these aristocratic oppressors happen to be the same redcoats who are fighting to quash the American Revolution is, shall we say, a matter of the highest moral convenience.
Written by Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) and directed by the heavy-tromping blockbuster maestro Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla), The Patriot is set in fields, forests, homes, and backwaters, and there’s something at once canny and reductive about the way that it personalizes the bloody birth of a nation. The filmmakers know that the last thing contemporary audiences need is another square-shouldered Classics Illustrated lecture that regurgitates the righteous and idealistic mythology of Why We Fought the British. At the same time, I’m not sure that I want my history dragged into the colonial trenches by a filmmaker like Roland Emmerich. The Patriot has some fierce and exciting moments, and it’s held together by Gibson’s haggard slow-burn charisma (he talks in his low voice), but the movie is also demagogic and crude. It’s a fife-and-drum Gladiator without elegance — the Revolutionary War turned into a big, hammerheaded spectacle of getting even.
The film’s most irresistible aspect is its clever populist notion of how, exactly, the colonists defeated the British. At first, the opposing armies, in their red and blue uniforms, line up in stately rows, absurdly organized, like marching bands with muskets. As the guns crack and the soldiers fall, the battles become a stately ritual of mass suicide. The revolutionary forces are the underdogs, ragged and barely equipped. It’s Martin who has the idea of uniting a militia to stage pinpoint ambushes in the woods. Attacking by stealth, he becomes a fearsome legend, a ”ghost” of a fighter. In one juicy scene, he sneaks out of hiding for an impromptu negotiation with Lord General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), who leads the British troops in the South. Cornwallis is actually an honorable fellow, and that’s his problem. He approaches armed conflict like a gentleman; he believes in war as a civilized assertion of Empire. What he can’t wrap his mind around, because it has barely existed before, is the notion of a soldier who fights as an individual, without rules.
As long as it stays on the battlefield, The Patriot is a brutishly compelling broad-canvas entertainment. But the movie is also inflated with clichés from the screenwriter’s manual. There’s the motley crew of loutish ”colorful” proles who join Martin’s militia, the squeaky-clean romance between Martin’s soldier son (Heath Ledger) and a local lass (Lisa Brenner), the vacuously noble slave-turned-soldier (Jay Arlen Jones) who counts down the months before he’s freed from servitude, and, of course, the eminently hissable villain — though Jason Isaacs, it must be said, plays this overripe role to contemptuous perfection. Inevitably, he receives the gaudiest of send-offs, administered by Mel at his maddest. In The Patriot, freedom is a cause, but it’s also an excuse: slaughter enshrined by nobility. B-