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The Patriot

Rated [R], 165 minutes
Starring Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger and Tom Wilkinson
Screenplay by Robert Rodat
Directed by Roland Emmerich

Review by Paul Fischer. Cranky's review here.

Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the director/producer team responsible for such sci-fi blockbusters as Independence Day, Stargate, and Godzilla, take a step back in time with this drama set during the American Revolution. Farmer Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) was born and raised in South Carolina but retains a fierce pride in his heritage as a French Huguenot. Martin fought bravely during the French-Indian wars, but, since he lost his wife in the war, he has renounced violence and quietly tends his crops with his second wife, Charlotte (Joely Richardson) and his eight children. But when one of Martin's children dies in a revolutionary skirmish, he sets aside his vow of pacifism and, with his oldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger), forms a regiment of Carolina patriots whose cunning and ruthlessness make them heroes among the colonists - and wanted men by British troops. Loosely adapted from the true story of Francis Marion and filmed in various locations in South Carolina.

There's much to admire about The Patriot, yet one has the distinct feeling that somewhere in this often-dark cinematic vision, lay a great film just itching its way out into the open. The trouble is, director Emmerich is conditioned by Hollywood expectations, so this, being a Hollywood summer flick, contains elements that reduce history to simplistic ideologies. Now while it is fair to say that Patriot is a very flawed film, it has enough to it to make it enticing. One thing is clear: Americans, for the most part, have no idea how their country was borne. If one can forget (and forgive) the incessant flag waving and a tendency to trivialise nationalism as represented by lead character Benjamin Martin, there are enough lessons to be gained here. As audiences and history students, we tend to be conditioned by our distant past. We know that war is hell; we are also used to seeing modern technology often tearing us apart - literally. The Patriot serves as a reminder that war has been hell for centuries, and that, at a time when a nation was being forged out of violence and anarchy, the battle lines were of a different nature. So it is not surprising that its sheer brutality, as depicted in this film, will cause both horror and unexpected laughter. This is a very violent piece, but then this is a film that chronicles an episode that remains one of the most violent and aggressive in American history.

The Patriot does remain a film of overwhelming visual power, beautifully shot and executed, with the battle scenes a reminder of the grandeur of cinema. Yet, this is a film that is also contradictory. It's a story we've seen before, from James Stewart in Shenandoah to revenge genre pieces such as Death Wish: The placid family man who resorts to violence as a result of tragedy. Gibson's often searing performance is marred by a character that is out of place, a Ramboesque figure riding around waving the new American flag. Scenes like this trivialise what the film is saying and turns a profound work into an action film set in the eighteenth century.

Performances are all superb, however, from Gibson down. Aussie Heath Ledger shows continual promise, delivering a poetically understated performance, one that evokes both quiet heroism and boyhood naivety. Jason Isaacs makes a formidable villain, but regrettably, helps paint the British as being simply villains, whereas there was far more to them than that. Technically, this is Emmerich's finest achievement, showing a great deal of visual detail, though he lets himself down by revisiting the politics of his Independence Day.

The Patriot is a movie that one hopes succeeds, but its failure to be true to itself and not resort to superficial Hollywood trappings, is a major disappointment. There are flashes of greatness here, some exemplary performances, but the issues are painted in black and white; there is no room for shades of grey that would have elevated a promising film, above a level of interesting mediocrity. Yet, flaws aside, if the film at least gets Americans thinking about their past, then maybe, flag waving aside, The Patriot may be more important than the filmmakers realised.

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© 2000 Paul Fischer. All rights reserved
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The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2017  by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.