Just in time for the American 4th of July holiday comes "The Patriot", a big-budget treatment of the American Revolutionary War, a bloody six-year conflict from which the United States of America earned its nationhood. However, despite the film's epic take on this pivotal moment in history, brought to life by "Saving Private Ryan" scribe Robert Rodat, "The Patriot" falls firmly into 'popcorn movie' territory. Better known for their big-budget effects-heavy films such as 1998's "Godzilla", the directing/producing team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin have crafted an entertaining mix of action, pathos, and ample amounts of jingoistic chest-thumping to create an engrossing though historically-challenged view of the War in the South. It may not be perfect, but as far as entertainment value goes, it should put a lump in the throat of any red, white, and blue-blooded American.
The film starts off in the year 1776, not long after the Continental Congress has ordered publication of its Declaration of Independence, declaring the American colonies free and independent from the rule of King George. While war is waging in the north, a massive recruiting drive for volunteers for the growing Continental Army is underway in South Carolina. Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson, heard recently in "Chicken Run"), a battle-scarred yet decorated veteran of the French and Indian Wars, publicly makes his objections to the coming revolution, fearing for the safety of his seven children, whom he has raised alone since the death of his wife. However, his eldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger of "10 Things I Hate About You") does not share the same opinion, and he enthusiastically joins the Continental Army at the first opportunity.
Unfortunately, events soon conspire against Benjamin, forever pushing him off the sidelines. After a battle between Colonial and British troops tears through the Martin farm, Benjamin opens his home for the treatment of wounded to both sides. Unfortunately, this act of compassion is viewed as traitorous by the ruthless Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs of "Soldier"), who promptly orders Benjamin's farm to be burned to the ground, and for Gabriel to be arrested and hanged for treason. Not willing to let his son die at the hands of his newfound enemy, Benjamin almost single-handedly wipes out twenty British soldiers to rescue his son, earning him the legendary moniker of 'The Ghost'.
Deciding that his pacifistic sentiments are misplaced, Benjamin leaves his children in the care of his late wife's sister (Joely Richardson of "Return to Me") and accepts a command from his old friend Colonel Harry Burwell (Chris Cooper of "Me, Myself, and Irene"). With the help of his son Gabriel, Benjamin creates a local militia that quickly becomes a thorn in the side of the British with its hit-and-run guerilla warfare tactics. Unfortunately, Benjamin's victories come at a price-- British General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson of "Shakespeare in Love"), fed up with Colonial victories, orders Tavington to use any means necessary to stop Benjamin's band of rabble-rousers, even if it means committing acts of barbarity unbecoming of the King's army.
Mel Gibson's character in "The Patriot" was originally named after real-life Revolutionary War figure Brigadier General Francis Marion, whose trademark use of swamps to evade capture earned him the nickname of 'The Swamp Fox'. Unfortunately, when historians pointed out that Marion was an avowed racist (in addition to hunting Native Americans for sport, he was also guilty of raping his slaves), Emmerich and Devlin quickly renamed their protagonist to avoid controversy. Unfortunately, this 'whitewashing' of historical record is pervasive throughout "The Patriot", betraying the film's preference of entertainment over education.
Throughout the film, the American characters are typically shown as being heroic and noble, while their British counterparts are inhumanely cruel while ridiculously encumbered with protocol and etiquette. Unfortunately, like any page from history, the truth is probably closer to the middle of these two extremes. While the British were known for their use of heavy-handed tactics, such as the Boston Massacre which saw British troops open fire on an unruly mob, elements of the Colonial forces were also known for their brutality, such as when American troops laid siege to Montreal between 1775 and 1776, and the harsh treatment afforded to British Loyalists following the end of hostilities (who ended up fleeing north to lay the foundation for Canada). And in the spirit of political correctness, story elements have been infused with a Nineties sense of morality-- none of the blacks working on Benjamin's farm are slaves (which was far from the norm in eighteenth-century South Carolina), and instead of being relegated to second-class status, the women in the story are fiercely independent and outspoken.
Thus, to view "The Patriot" as a factual representation of history requires a healthy dose of skepticism. However, in terms of big-screen entertainment, "The Patriot" certainly makes up for its lack of historical accuracy by employing the formula used with great success by Emmerich and Devlin in 1996's "Independence Day". With its stock characters (including a noble slave played by Shan Omar Huey and a preacher in arms played by Rene Auberjonois of "Deep Space 9" fame), war movie clichés, plenty of reverent flag-waving, sweeping battle scenes, and John Williams' ("Star Wars") moving score, "The Patriot" pushes all the right buttons for the undiscriminating viewer. This is helped in part by Gibson's effective and moving performance as the film's reluctant hero, which will easily call to mind his memorable performance from "Braveheart", and Ledger, who acquits himself quite well as Benjamin's rebellious son.
On the surface, "The Patriot" seems to be a marked departure for the Emmerich and Devlin filmmaking team-- a historical epic from the duo who are better known for genre offerings such as "Stargate" and "Godzilla". However, underneath the trappings of historical drama is your quintessential summer popcorn movie. If you enjoyed "Gladiator", then "The Patriot" will certainly fit the bill-- it's not as captivating as the Russell Crowe actioner, but it certainly comes close enough. For some rousing summer night's entertainment, you can't go wrong with "The Patriot"-- just don't take it too seriously.