With modern warfare increasingly resembling a video game, the visceral combat of The Patriot is a shocking reminder of what doing battle really means. Writer Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) sets the action in the Southern colonies, knowing that the American Revolution was an altogether different beast there than in the North. Not only was it more savage, but it was also more intensely personal, pitting neighbor against neighbor in a maelstrom of conflicting loyalties.
Lifting liberally from history, Rodat recasts many individuals as archetypes, none so much as British Col. William Tavington (Jason Isaacs), the bad guy as a personification of pure evil. Based on Banastre Tarleton, leader of the feared cavalry unit the Green Dragoons (their regalia is changed to crimson for American audiences accustomed to redcoats), Tavington is a social climber and vicious sadist using this uprising in the colonies to ruthlessly pursue his own self-interest.
Tavington will meet his match in colonist Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson). This veteran of the French and Indian War has already seen more than his share of bloodshed, some of it downright Mansonesque. Martin wants to stay out of this fray to tend to his farm and seven children, which leads his eldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger) to see him as a coward.
In a rather brave choice, Gibson initially plays Martin as a man incapacitated by fear. But the reason is an unexpected one. When he begins to fight, Martin becomes someone else altogether, a warrior who kills with a vicious efficiency, often falling into a frenzy where he’ll hack an already dead opponent dozens of times with a tomahawk.
The Patriot, directed with go-for-broke gusto by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day), is strongest when it contrasts these men, who represent two sides of the same coin (they’re both fearless warriors and brilliant strategists). But although the best moments in this three-hour epic take place during skirmishes and on the battlefield, a great deal of time is spent exploring family life (convincing and compelling) and romantic pursuits (corny and contrived).
Yet this uneven film – which effectively blends brutality and gentility, but can’t find the right mix between Hollywood clichés and the Revolution’s complex history – still succeeds mightily in bringing the era roaring back to life. If Americans haven’t upheld the principles fought for by these men, The Patriot maintains, there’s no one to blame but ourselves.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].