American guerillas

Jun 28, 2000 at 12:00 am

"The American Revolution was the first war that was fought which led into a democratic government," says German-born Roland Emmerich, director of The Patriot, "and you have to ask yourself, why weren’t there more movies made about that? I mean, think about it. It’s a defining moment in the world’s history, not only in American history."

That’s the thought both screenwriter Robert Rodat and producer Mark Gordon had when they were looking to collaborate on another history-based project after Saving Private Ryan. Their original plan was to make a film about Francis Marion, a continental army colonel who became a militia leader after the fall of Charles Town (now Charleston) to the British in 1780. Dubbed the "Swamp Fox," because he could so readily hide in South Carolina’s waterways, he was a much-feared practitioner of guerrilla warfare whose unorthodox tactics led one opposing officer to declare that he "would not fight like a gentleman or a Christian."

"But quickly, as happens a lot I think," says Gordon, "the real truth of the character’s life was less interesting than what we were able to dramatically fictionalize. So we took the real character out, but used him and some of the other unsung heroes of the American Revolution (as a template for Mel Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin), particularly in terms of the way they fought and their involvement in the French and Indian War."

The filmmakers wanted to emphasize the lesser-known aspects of the Revolutionary War, so they set their story in the South and showed how victory was gained in large part through sheer resilience against daunting odds. General Nathanael Greene, who never won a major battle yet drove the British army from the Southern colonies, summed up Washington’s strategy: "We fight, get beat, rise and fight again."

"The most surprising thing is that the rebels hardly ever won a battle," says Gibson, "and it was like they shouldn’t have even won. The British were very organized – they had the money and the weapons – except they couldn’t fight. There wasn’t any center they could conquer and subdue – it was just all over the place, and it was just the endless ant problem. They were like the Americans in Vietnam, all that equipment and money and bombs and everything, and they just couldn’t find the guys that were underground. They were just worn away."

Even though they weren’t dealing exclusively with historical figures and events, the makers of The Patriot brought the Smithsonian Institution onboard as key consultants so they could, as Emmerich puts it, "hit the spirit of the time."

Through meetings with a team of historians, important elements were added to the script. Rex Ellis, chairman of the cultural division of the National Museum of History, "gave a very articulate and impassioned presentation about the roles of Africans in American society at that time, their role in both armies, and about the Gullah Island cultures, and we incorporated that," explains Rodat.

That same Smithsonian staff OK’d some changes which would seemingly infuriate purists, like merging into one onscreen melee two important 1781 battles – Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse – where the local militias effectively fought alongside the continental army to help turn the tide against the British in South Carolina.

So when it comes to using history as a selling tool, the filmmakers behind The Patriot want to have their cake and eat it too. They trumpet the involvement of the Smithsonian and their careful attention to historical accuracy, but don’t feel they need to maintain a verisimilitude to factual events. Rodat, for one, gets testy at this designation.

"A pet peeve of mine," he says emphatically, "is the perception that there’s a battle between historical fiction and history. I think they’re radically different things. To counterpoise lists of historical fact and what’s depicted in historical fiction, and judge that fiction by the number of deviations from fact is nutty.

"Take (the World War II film) The Bridge on the River Kwai," he continues, "a perfect example for a movie. The bridge on the River Kwai still exists – I’ve walked over it. But it was blown up in the movie. That was a valid dramatic choice. It clarified in a really significant way what those guys were dealing with, and to say that, because director David Lean (Rodat’s ideal when it comes to crafting historical epics) decided to blow up that bridge, it’s a lesser work, is asking historical fiction to do something that history should be doing."

For Rodat, historical fiction serves as a way to bring people to history, not replace their knowledge of actual events. He’s quick to point out the different criteria for nonfiction documentaries and historical fiction such as The Patriot, which uses actual events as a backdrop but doesn’t proclaim to be "based on a true story" (a tag which deliberately blurs the boundaries between the two).

As for Gibson, whose Braveheart has more than a few elements in common with The Patriot, the distinction is simple.

"You adhere as much as possible (to history)," says Gibson, "up to the point where it becomes cinematically boring. Then if you need to, juice it up a bit. It is the movies, after all."

Serena Donadoni writes about film and visual culture for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]