#474: The Patriot
Roland Emmerich’s stupid, unsubtle, but endearingly earnest pre-9/11 propaganda flick
Initial release: 2000
Director: Roland Emmerich
Roland Emmerich likes high-octane disaster films. From Independence Day to the 1998 Godzilla to The Day After Tomorrow, the German filmmaker has developed a reputation as the Master of Disaster; even his non-disaster movies are full of explosions, tonally schizophrenic, and have all the subtlety of a tomahawk to the face.
Enter The Patriot, a film that had the dubious privilege of being released in the brief period between Steven Spielberg’s hyperviolent, emotionally manipulative World War II drama Saving Private Ryan, and that moment when 9/11 broke America’s collective brains. Set in the middle years of the American Revolutionary War, the film stars none other than Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin, (very) loosely based on the exploits of Francis Marion, who was known as the “Swamp Fox” for his development of guerilla warfare tactics at a time when war was typically opposing lines of soldiers taking turns shooting at each other. Opposite him is Jason Isaacs as the cruel British colonel William Tavington, himself an exaggeration on the notorious Banastre Tarleton.
I don’t use the terms “loosely” or “exaggeration” idly. Martin is portrayed as an expressly heroic figure, a family man who, having to raise seven kids mostly on his own, prefers to remain neutral in the conflict between colonialists and the British crown, and is forced to violence when Tavington murders one of his sons and burns his house down. The most we get of any dark element in his character is a confession to war crimes he committed during the French and Indian War, an incident that drives his initial neutrality and his violent methods. In reality, Marion was, by most accounts, an unpleasant bastard whose idea of a “hearts and minds” campaign involved terrorizing the populace into taking up arms against the British. Conversely, Tarleton, who did have a reputation for brutality, is here transformed into a cartoon supervillain, perfectly happy to murder women and children to achieve his objectives.
Tavington is such a nasty character that there was actually some outcry in the UK that the film was anti-British; I would argue instead that by the standards of most of the world, the British Empire surpass the Third Reich in terms of body count and atrocities, and therefore The Patriot, in depicting the disgust of other officers towards Tavington and his methods (including General Cornwallis, who begrudgingly lets Tavington off his leash as his frustration with Martin’s guerilla tactics grows) is more evenhanded than a lot of films about the literal actual Nazis.
But lest we forget, this is a propaganda film first and foremost. Emmerich thinks subtlety is a kind of beverage; the finale of the film literally involves an American flag being used as a weapon. Part of the film’s manipulative quality can be attributed to the screenwriter, Robert Rodat, who also wrote the script for Saving Private Ryan; but part of it is just plain Emmerich. The film’s fumbling attempts at humanizing their American characters more or less boils down to admitting to war crimes (or joking about them) while at the same time getting into an argument about whether it’s okay to commit war crimes on British soldiers as revenge for the British committing war crimes (which includes Tavington locking up an entire town in the church and setting fire to it in a scene reminiscent of the final act of Come And See.)
Tonally, the film is all over the place; here it’s a romance, here it’s a gritty war drama, here’s some comedy to keep things light. It’s not that the film doesn’t know what it wants to be; the inconsistency is purposeful, telling the story in a somewhat episodic fashion (given that the narrative stretches over about 5 years this is probably inevitable) to try and cover as many characters as possible, giving a bunch of them a minute or two of screen time so we’ll feel bad when they inevitably die, often horribly.
Nevertheless, there’s an earnestness to the film that’s charming. Released in the decade between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, a time when America was mostly looking inward for enemies, The Patriot represents a more innocent time in American propaganda, a revenge film masquerading as a stirringly patriotic war drama. Like 2001’s Pearl Harbor, it’s a blissfully stupid flick that was never meant to be anything but a blissfully stupid flick until 9/11 happened and everyone in the Western hemisphere went out of their minds, drunk on rhetoric about liberty and freedom and looking for supposed ideological enemies.
Gibson is a better actor than the film deserves; while his playacting the dutiful, loving father is kind of hilarious given his present status as a raving racist tradcath weirdo, nobody sells berserk quite like he does. Tom Wilkinson is delightful as the frustrated General Cornwallis, perpetually irritated at everything and everyone around him (mood) and Jason Isaacs so perfectly embodies Tavington that if you looked up “sneering imperialist” you’d see a screenshot from this film.
Speaking of propaganda, this film was actually involved in the David Manning scandal, in which Columbia Pictures invented a movie reviewer out of whole cloth to write positive reviews of its films, including Rob Schneider’s execrable The Animal. The ruse was discovered when a Newsweek reporter looked into the newspaper that “David Manning” supposedly worked for and found that they had never heard of him and in fact all film reviews were done by a father-and-son team. So yeah, that’s a thing. You can actually listen to an interview with “David Manning” by Harry Shearer on his radio show. Up to you whether it’s a sketch or not.
The last time I saw this film was probably 15 years ago; I’m older now, and my life and perspective has changed; and yet, as stupid as this movie is, I still don’t hate it. They just don’t make movies like this anymore, and I think that’s kind of a shame.