Patriot, The

It is only to be expected that Mel Gibson takes on and defeats the entire
British army, virtually single-handedly, in The Patriot, but you would
have thought that at least the film would have had something to say about what,
from the point of view of the historian, the Revolutionary War was actually
fought about. In a country in which, as we learned from a report issued
in the same week the movie opened, only a third of the senior undergraduates at
our most prestigious institutions of higher education know that George
Washington led American forces at the battle of Yorktown, there is something
rather scandalous about this film’s ignoring all the historical casus
and concentrating on the fact that a fictional British colonel
committed fictional atrocities against the fictional family of a fictional South
Carolina farmer.

There is, it is true, a brief mention of the problem of taxation without
representation, but only so that the film’s hero can find it an insufficient
ground for revolt, saying that he would prefer one tyrant three thousand miles
away to 3000 tyrants one mile away. It’s a good line, but if there were any
other reasons that the colonies were in revolt, we don’t hear about them here.
Even the vague, all-purpose battle-cry of “freedom” featured so prominently in
Braveheart—another Mel-takes-on-the-British (or in that case
English) movie—is absent from his latest star-vehicle. Instead, Gibson’s
character, Benjamin Martin, must be given an entirely personal motive for
commencing to whack redcoats.

This is the murder of one of his sons and the order to hang another, both of
which atrocities are laid to the charge of a very wicked British colonel called
Tavington (Jason Isaacs). This character, very loosely based on the historical
figure of Col. Banastre Tarleton, is the agent of Lord Cornwallis (Tim
Wilkinson)—whose name as the British principal at Yorktown is presumably
known to even fewer Harvard graduates than George Washington’s. Cornwallis is
here represented as being over-refined, careless and incompetent, a man who
pretends to want to fight a gentlemanly sort of war while turning a blind eye to
his henchman’s depredations among the colonials in the hope of quick end to the
rebellion and a reward to himself of a great many thousands of acres in

Now the historical bad guy, known as “Butcher” or “No-quarter” Tarleton was
obviously a brutally tough hombre, but so far as we know it never occurred to
him to herd the men, women and children of an entire village into a church and
then burn it to the ground. This did occur to a Nazi S.S. division in 1944, and
the incident was apparently lifted out of its historical context and attributed
to the fictional monster, Tavington, because the actual, historical atrocities
of Tarleton would presumably not have made us hate him enough. Nor would we have
been willing to accept that the Americans might have been fighting against
something other than the atrocities of the other side (let alone committing any
of their own).

In other words, Hollywood assumes that, like Janet Reno, American audiences
these days can only be induced to justify the use of deadly force when children
are at risk. The indescribable vulgarity and stupidity of this assumption is
constantly being thrown in our faces, and like children ourselves, we are never
allowed to get anywhere near any of the more dangerous historical truths of the
war. Every time the fires of revenge begin to burn low in this the latest
version of the Mel Gibson killing machine, another of his family members has to
be sacrificed to get them stoked again.

Nor is it only the truths of the war from which we need to be protected. On
slavery, for instance, the film’s one talking black man earns his freedom by
fighting for the Americans (in fact, he would have earned it more readily from
fighting for the British) and is apparently well-satisfied with his lot in the
“new world” the Revolution is supposed to be building. He looks forward to
settling down after the war as a neighbor of Benjamin Martin’s, on an equal
footing with him, having won over the only man in the Americans’ guerrilla army,
apparently, with any racial prejudice at all.

Yeah right. Even the dimmest intelligence must be able to see what is going
on here, or when the British pursuit of the Martin family becomes too hot and
they take refuge in a Gullah community of free blacks, all of them happy and
prosperous and life-affirming, and singing reggae-like tunes. My regular readers
may remember that there is nothing I despise more than this kind of tidying up
of history for an audience of children—chronological or mental
children—who are assumed to be in need of protection from unsavory

The real enemy here is not so much the British as it is history
itself—all that talk about natural law and inalienable rights is so hard
to understand that we must drown it out by importing atrocities from the 20th
century to explain the spectacle of America’s past. Not for the first time,
either, the British are well-adapted as stand-ins for the history that movie
audiences are supposed to hate. Their la-di-dah accents by themselves are enough
to suggest royalty, aristocracy, gentlemanliness, social hierarchy generally and
the refined tastes, elegant dress and good manners that tend to go with

These hopelessly old-fashioned things are now, as we in America say, history,
and though it is easy to understand what Mel and his fans so dislike about them,
they ought to realize that even in England there can be few today who would put
on the red coat to defend them. I wonder, however, what a gentleman like George
Washington would have made of the idea that his army, or at least his irregular
troops in South Carolina, were fighting against the idea of the English

George who?

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