Deep into the smoke-choked, blood-soaked Revolutionary War spectacle that is The Patriot, there arrives a pivotal sequence that would seem to mark the start of its third act–the act in which any sort of pussyfooting must always give way to payback. Militia leader Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), a widowed father of seven, has just entered the enemy’s fort under a white flag to cut a gentlemanly deal with Lord General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), commander of the British forces in the South.
On his way out of the compound, however, Martin encounters the dastardly Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs), who has already killed someone Martin held dear, and who threatens he’ll do worse. The British soldier tries to provoke a rash attack by taunting him with a reminder of that murder. Instead, with the incensed sincerity of a man who’s been crawling on psychic broken glass, Martin quietly replies: “Before this war is over, I’m going to kill you.”
That’s all the promise an audience needs. Who would hesitate to bet a year of free popcorn refills that the new Independence Day extravaganza by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the makers of Independence Day (from a script by Saving Private Ryan’s Oscar-nominated Robert Rodat) will fulfill that pledge? Yet what happens next helps explain the difference between this film and a less passionately rendered piece of work.
“You have to remember, Tavington thinks he’s going to win the war,” says Isaacs, 36, a stage-seasoned Brit. “I went to [the filmmakers] and said, ‘This guy doesn’t cower from anybody. The villain can’t be scared of the hero halfway through the movie.’ And they’re so secure in their storytelling abilities that they said, ‘You’re right, let’s do something else.’”
As the conspirators cooked up Tavington’s response, they decided not to alert the movie’s star. “Mel’s happy to improvise, throw things back and forth,” says Isaacs. “He’s alive, he’s liquid, his nerve endings are open.” Martin’s vow was to be the scene’s last line. But when Isaacs shot back with “Why wait?” Gibson turned, his sky-blue eyes revealing wrath throttling down to restraint. Halting inches from his adversary’s face, he uttered just a single word: “Soon.”
One reason studios don’t flinch at paying Gibson $25 million, the richest fee of any actor, is such inventiveness. Adding a glimmer of madness, as he’s consistently done with his portrayal of Los Angeles detective Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series, has only drawn audiences closer to him. And that quality is precisely what The Patriot, a film whose magnetism for controversies was apparent even in its formative stages, needed. With Gibson on board, for example, Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group vice chairman Gareth Wigan finally had turnstile insurance for a two-hour-and-40-minute movie that seemed likely to draw an R rating for its violence. “We knew it was a film about a man with a dark secret, and could [be rated R],” Wigan says. “This is a film like Saving Private Ryan and Braveheart — each in its separate way is about violence. I think if you try to do that and PG-13 it, you may end up pleasing nobody.” Yes, Wigan says, July 4 is a family holiday, “but R-rated films have opened on Christmas Day.”
The level of mayhem remained an in-house concern up until screening time. The filmmakers watched uneasily as preview audiences greeted the film’s early scenes of violence with the hoots and cheers of typical action fans. But they sat back in relief when the crowds grew hushed as the film grew grislier. The massacre of approximately 20 redcoats carried out by Martin and his two young sons (Nathan, 11, and Samuel, 10), which occurs about a half hour into the movie, may well emerge as the film’s hot-button issue. But more disturbing to a country still mindful of the Oklahoma City bombing is the implication that armed bands — the word militia pops up in The Patriot constantly — are the best means of preserving freedom. Wigan doubts that present-day fringe groups could be inspired by the film. “The irony is that the militia in that day were good guys,” he says. “And you could hardly say that now.”
As for the other side, the British — or at least the easily inflamed Fleet Street newspapers — have been quick to slag The Patriot for another reason: its supposed historical inaccuracies. London’s Daily Express described “The Swamp Fox” Francis Marion, one of Rodat’s models for the fictitious Benjamin Martin, as a “racist, proslavery misogynist who hunted Indians for fun and regularly raped his female slaves.” The filmmakers have responded by reiterating that the Martin character was a composite of several guerrilla leaders from the era, and pointed out the care they’d taken — at the insistence of consulting Smithsonian Institution historians — to accurately portray black life in that era. Producer Devlin says that when their research showed “that the American Revolution was fought and won by an integrated army, that 7 to 8 percent of the army was black,” the filmmakers heightened the profile of black soldiers.
Self-proclaimed Anglophile Gibson isn’t seen as a Friend of Brits. Not long ago the Evening Standard described him as “allying himself with the hairy-kneed porridge-munchers in ludicrous travesty of British history” (that would be Braveheart’s tale of a Scottish uprising). And some Brits, who regard him as a chauvinistic Aussie, haven’t forgotten his role in 1981’s Gallipoli, in which the poor judgment of British officers condemned many of their (mostly Aussie) troops to be slaughtered.
By casting him as a hero opposite another hissable Brit, The Patriot (following in the wake of U-571, which gave American submariners credit for a British espionage coup) has raised even more British ire: “HOLLYWOOD KNOWS WHAT LIMEYS ARE FOR,” read the headline for a June 18 Observer newspaper article that criticized the industry’s penchant for “sneering, smirking deliciously evil villains with British accents.” On June 29, Liverpool mayor Edwin Clein demanded a public apology for the film’s depiction of native son Banastre Tarleton — one of Rodat’s inspirations for William Tavington — who returned to the city in 1782 and went on to become a member of parliament. Others say Tavington’s character is scarily close to his real antecedent. British historian Christopher Hibbert (ironically, quoted by the Express as calling Francis Marion “very active in the persecution of Cherokee Indians and not at all the sort of chap who should be celebrated as a hero”) has written that “Bloody Ban” Tarleton was “none too scrupulous,” deserving the infamy showered on him by American papers of the period for his cruelty to horses and for his troops’ slaying of wounded rebel prisoners.
Still, an issue that seems likely to reverberate well beyond Fleet Street is the massacre of the redcoats and the involvement of Martin’s young sons in the bloodshed. To a country chilled by footage of a trench-coated Leonardo DiCaprio in 1995’s The Basketball Diaries, launching an orgy of gun violence that frighteningly presaged the Columbine shootings, the sight of preteens killing with long rifles may play quite ominously. It’s true the Martins have the direst of motivations — to rescue brother Gabriel and avenge the death of one of their loved ones — and they appear suitably anguished during and after the ambush. Gibson defends the boys’ sniper attack as wholly justified. “It’s not wrong to kill if you’ve got a good reason,” says the actor, himself the father of seven. “I’ve never had to make those horrible kinds of choices. Benjamin’s a parent who’s got to take the 11-year-old on a man-killing trip. It’s that level of desperation.”
“Mel doesn’t play stuff heroic,” says director Emmerich, who for this sequence, perhaps the film’s most brutal, demanded that Gibson repeatedly tomahawk a downed British soldier. “He’s pretty nasty. But for me that was the crucial scene. I said, ‘This brings your character out more than anything we can do.’” Says Gibson: “The [Martin] kids were like, ‘Whoa, Dad’s lost it.’ And I’d understood in a general way about his demons and guilt, but I hadn’t understood he had to be on the other side of sanity in order to function in that manner.”
There was always a revenge story,” says Dean Devlin. “But it began to take on some complexities. It is a genre film, but it transcends that mainly through Mel’s willingness to take a character to some very dark places.”
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