Not much screen time passes before The Patriot gives up any pretense of being a serious historical epic. Mel Gibson, as the anguished 18th-century hero Benjamin Martin, has just lost one young son and is in danger of losing another — his eldest, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), held at knifepoint by a craven Redcoat. What does Mel do? He lifts up his heavy Cherokee hatchet and hurls it into the Brit’s forehead. Whack! The audience goes whoo! The movie is rabble-rousing at its hypocritical worst; it asks us to respect Benjamin’s longing for peace but also cues us to cheer whenever he sticks it to a British soldier and breaks it off.
The Patriot is too gaga for thinking adults and too long and excessively gory (at one point, Benjamin is soaked with blood from head to toe) for kids, so one must assume it has been made for simple-minded adults — many of whom will respond as expected (or as programmed) to the film as a ripping yarn about a burly manly man who revenges himself upon sadistic aristocratic fascists, as if we hadn’t just seen that in Gladiator and in Gibson’s own Braveheart. Gibson seems to love movies in which his heroes are outrageously fucked over, tortured, robbed of their loved ones (well, at least here we’re spared the usual Gibson torture scene), thus giving them full moral license to wreak vicious havoc on their enemies. Either this is commercial shrewdness on Gibson’s part — hey, it worked in Mad Max — or a troubling psychological glitch that drives him to play rabid martyrs.
To be sure, Gibson does vengeance better than Charles Bronson ever did. An intense actor oddly gaining more edge as he gets older and more vulnerable, Gibson has some fine moments here when he almost comes unglued in the face of loss — and then, finally, does come apart. Benjamin faces a lot of loss in The Patriot; at the outset of the American Revolution, he predicts that innocents will die, and it’s a good call. Whenever the movie begins to bog down, director Roland Emmerich and screenwriter Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) toss in another tragedy so that Gibson can get his bloodlust up again.
The British press has been unkind to the movie, understandably: The English are represented by either clueless aristocracy (Tom Wilkinson’s General Cornwallis) or mustache-twirling sadism (Jason Isaac’s Colonel Tavington, who makes up for having no mustache to twirl by reading his lines as if they were maggots in his mouth). We also see one American Loyalist captain (Adam Baldwin), who, following orders from Tavington, has his men torch a church full of innocents. This is an intriguing character who could have been a complex doppelganger for Benjamin, but this scene and a couple of other brief appearances are all we ever see of him, and though he looks conflicted and disgusted as the church burns, there’s no follow-up — he gets neither a come-uppance nor a moral-reawakening scene.
As in Braveheart, most of the supporting characters are there to fight alongside Mel Gibson — solid actors like Chris Cooper and Rene Auberjonois are thrown away — and the leading lady (Joely Richardson), apparently in the movie to prove that Benjamin is heterosexual (as if his seven children left any doubt), never makes an impression except to deliver the movie’s much-derided line, “It’s a free country, or at least it will be.” I didn’t expect complexity from the director who made Independence Day and Godzilla, but The Patriot is American History for Dummies — the birth of a nation treated as a backdrop for vengeful bloodletting. Now that Mel Gibson has saved his people from the scummy English twice already, could he please move on? If a movie star from another country consistently made films depicting Americans as sadistic wimps, would we be any happier about it than the British press is?