The Patriot (review)

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Brave New World

It’s Patriator! It’s Gladiot! It’s Patton, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Braveheart, Robin Hood, Gladiator, and William Tell rolled into one! It’s a stirring reminder of the blood and righteous rage our country was won on, told to us by a couple of Aussies, a German, and a bunch of English! It’s the perfect Independence Day melodrama!

No, really.

Okay, The Patriot is corny and manipulative, but so are John Philip Sousa marches and fireworks, and if you find yourself getting a little choked up watching Macy’s pyrotechnics over the East River, then you’ll enjoy getting swept away by The Patriot, too. This is the best kind of old-fashioned filmmaking: grand and epic yet intimate and personal, full of angst-ridden good guys and hiss-worthy bad guys. It’s got, to paraphrase the grandfather in The Princess Bride, murder, revenge, fighting, swordplay, spectacular battles, loyal dogs, and true love. What’s not to like?
On the eve of the American Revolution, South Carolina farmer Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson: Chicken Run, Payback) is trying to hold his family together. A recent widower, he’s on the verge of losing his eldest sons, 18-year-old Gabriel (Heath Ledger) and 15-year-old Thomas (Gregory Smith), to the Continental Army, which they are frantic to join. Benjamin, haunted by his own service in the French and Indian War, is desperate to protect his seven children, his farm, and himself from the horrors of another war, one which he knows this time will be waged not in distant lands but where the colonials live: on their farms and in their towns.

Events overtake Benjamin, natch, and, his home destroyed and his family in hiding, he and Gabriel — now a corporal in the Continental Army — raise a militia, comprised mostly of Benjamin’s fellow French and Indian veterans, to wage a new kind of war on the British army. While General Cornwallis’s (Tom Wilkinson: Ride with the Devil, Shakespeare in Love) troops make appointments for battles, march along in the bright red coats that gave them their name, play cheery music, and basically announce to the world their exact location, Benjamin leads his rough and tough militiamen in sneak attacks on the Redcoats, targeting officers first. Cornwallis is appalled: Benjamin Martin does not fight as a gentleman. Insert ironic snicker here.

And so we come to The Patriot‘s villain, the deliciously despicable Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs: The End of the Affair, Soldier) of the British Green Dragoons. Even before Benjamin begins to make himself a nuisance to the British, Tavington is targeting civilians and doing all sorts of nasty things that his boss, Cornwallis, deems dishonorable. As he orders an atrocity, Tavington sneers, “The honor is found in the end, not the means — this’ll be forgotten.” Boo, hiss! And yet, he’s right. The British — I mean the British today — are up in arms over the character of Tavington, newspaper editorial writers protesting that he’s way more evil than the real man was. That may be so, but if Cornwallis had heeded men like Tavington instead of dismissing their ideas, the British would have quashed the colonials like bugs and I’d be spelling “dishonorable” with a “u.” Like Benjamin Martin, Tavington senses that the rules of war have changed, and he does not underestimate, as his superiors do, this new breed of people who call themselves Americans. Benjamin and Tavington are two sides of the same coin. I’m sure director Roland Emmerich cast Isaacs as much for his appearance as his commanding screen presence — with his piecing blue eyes and sharp, chiseled features, he looks strikingly like Mel Gibson.

Isaacs has a shot at stardom after The Patriot — boy, does he look fabulous in that dragoon uniform or what? — but Heath Ledger is the one to look out for. Unlike most of the crop of young actors today, he demonstrates real intelligence and a winning poise onscreen, enjoying an easy rapport with Gibson and charming awkwardness with Lisa Brenner as Anne Howard, the girl Gabriel woos with a delightful mix of boyish innocence and adult passion. And Ledger is obviously not squeamish when it comes to making his best feature — a beautiful smile — look bad onscreen. You’ll have to see the movie to see what I mean.

My friends and I had a great time filling in the blanks here with lines from every great film The Patriot brings to mind. Braveheart‘s “If I risk my neck for you, will I get a chance to kill Englishmen?” slips in nicely in several spots, as do some choice bits from Holy Grail, but my favorite was this: After the militia hijacks a wagon carrying Cornwallis’s personal effects, Benjamin uses the general’s journal, which details his strategies, to plan an attack. My friend leaned into me and whispered, à la Patton, “Cornwallis, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!”

But that’s not to say that The Patriot isn’t a wonderful movie on its own. Emmerich may actually have earned forgiveness for Godzilla with this visually and emotionally stunning film — screenwriter Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) deserves some credit, too, obviously. From the childish exuberance of Benjamin’s younger sons, as the movie opens, excited by a visit from the post rider to the glimpse of George Washington Gabriel gets as he writes a letter home from the misery of Valley Forge, from the mist-shrouded forest headquarters the militia sets up in an abandoned and crumbling Spanish mission to the ghastly immediacy of hidden Redcoats emerging from a cornfield, The Patriot is unforgettable. And by the time Benjamin runs through a bullet-streaked battlefield, waving high an American flag that Gabriel painstakingly repaired from tatters, to rally his men to hold the line against the British, how can any red-blooded American not get a little weepy?

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