“How could it come to this, an army of peasants, rabble?” commander Lord Gen. Cornwallis wonders from the losing side of the Revolutionary War. The British, as it turns out, committed the one mistake no armed force, no matter how powerful, can afford to make: They stepped on Mel Gibson’s last nerve.
At least this is the case made by “The Patriot,” an epic look at America’s war for independence that has designs on being a better film than it finally is. Not completely successful in its attempt to blend a broad canvas with an intimate family story, “The Patriot” does benefit from Gibson’s charisma and is more serious and skillful than might be expected from the team responsible for “Independence Day” and “Godzilla.” Whether it is quite good enough is another question.
One reason “The Patriot” is a noticeable improvement over those predecessors is that the otherwise capable team of director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin has stopped (God willing, forever) penning its own scripts. Robert Rodat, who soldiered on through a reported 38 drafts, is the writer here, and, for both better and worse, his script echoes the Oscar-nominated work he did on “Saving Private Ryan.”
As with “Ryan,” “The Patriot” is strong on depicting the dark side of combat and the hellishness of the wartime experience for soldiers and civilians. You can tell how serious this film wants to be by its nearly two-hour-and-40-minute length and the number of key characters it allows to die. “Why,” Gibson’s Benjamin Martin asks pointedly when the talk turns to glory, “do men feel they can justify death?”
With expert cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (“The Black Stallion,” “The Right Stuff”) handling the visuals, “The Patriot” has a good sense of spectacle and is quite successful at re-creating a period that has not been brought to the screen with much success recently.
The film is especially strong at re-creating the look of combat in the 18th century, not a surprise given Rodat’s predilections. Making use of computer wizardry and reenactors (hobbyists who take part in re-created battles), “The Patriot” shows us the bloody, chaotic, hand-to-hand denouement of clashes that begin with armies stiffly approaching each other across open fields in carefully arranged ranks.
“The Patriot” also deals with philosophical conflicts about a war that inevitably pitted neighbor against neighbor and was not as obvious a situation as hindsight would make us believe. It’s Gibson’s Martin, in fact, who strongly comes out against a confrontation with Britain, saying, with enviable foresight (he’s the hero, after all), “Mark my words, this war will be fought among our homes, the innocent will die with the rest of us.”
But if “Private Ryan’s” weakness was a willingness to sentimentalize, that is true here as well. Included are an awkward romance for Martin, a gushy young love subplot, some pious stuff about racial brotherhood, and more along the same lines. In fact, “Patriot’s” main difficulty is reconciling its extremes of maudlin emotion and graphic violence: It’s hard to know what to make of a film that wants to feature winsome grins from gaptoothed kids as well as a graphic shot of a cannonball taking a man’s head off. It’s an ungainly mixture, to say the least.
Doing his best to meld these conflicting tendencies is Gibson as South Carolina plantation owner Martin. It’s his hands we see first, placing a sinister-looking tomahawk in a chest as his voice-over talks mysteriously of sins returning to visit him. Clearly, if this guy ever takes the tomahawk out again, everybody within throwing distance better watch out.
A widower with seven children, Martin is living an unimaginably bucolic life in 1776. Yes, like Clint Eastwood’s character in “Unforgiven,” some dark secret from his past hangs over him, something to do with the bloody Ft. Wilderness campaign in the French and Indian War, but otherwise he’s such a paragon that the film arranges for his entire plantation to be worked not by slaves but what must be the most contented group of freed black men in the entire South.
Having experienced war, Martin speaks out against it when the Carolina Assembly meets. His idealistic eldest son, 18-year-old Gabriel (Heath Ledger) sees things differently and promptly joins the Continental Army.
Two years pass, the colonials are losing, and Martin is still determined to stay out of the war. Then, after a battle practically in his frontyard, a bearskin-hat-wearing dragoon colonel named William Tavington (Jason Isaacs), the vilest, most reprehensible man in the British army, rides into view. A smirking sadist and a wonderfully convincing villain, perhaps the year’s best, Col. Tavington does things that Martin finds unforgivable. That’s right, it’s tomahawk time.
Though it comes relatively early in the film, the scene of Martin’s terrible act of vengeance is Gibson’s strongest, the lodestone of a performance that ranks among the actor’s most convincing. We see a restrained man turn into a complete berserker, a killing machine covered in blood and gore. His own children look at him with genuine fear when it’s over, and no wonder.
Leaving those children in the care of a sister-in-law (Joely Richardson) who is always making cow eyes at him, Martin picks up the nickname of “The Ghost” and becomes the leader of a band of guerrilla militia whose assignment is to bottle up the snobbish Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) and his army in the South until enough promised French military aid comes to turn the tide of the war. With independence hanging in the balance, they sure asked the right guy.
Besides those mentioned, Gibson is supported by a number of strong actors, including Chris Cooper as an American officer, Tcheky Karyo as a French liaison and Rene Auberjonois as a fighting padre. Yet for its real virtues, “The Patriot” is never completely satisfying. Having aims that exceed its reach makes this a better film than it would otherwise have been, but they also inevitably point out where things fall short of expectations.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong war violence. Times guidelines: graphic and bloody battle scenes, including a decapitation and a leg blown off; numerous scenes of violence involving children.
Mel Gibson: Benjamin Martin
Heath Ledger: Gabriel Martin
Joely Richardson: Charlotte Selton
Jason Isaacs: Col. William Tavington
Columbia Pictures presents a Mutual Film Co. and Centropolis Entertainment production. Director Roland Emmerich. Producers Dean Devlin, Mark Gordon and Gary Levinsohn. Executive producers William Fay, Ute Emmerich, Roland Emmerich. Screenplay Robert Rodat. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. Production design Kirk M. Petrucelli. Editor David Brenner. Music John Williams. Costume design Deborah L. Scott. Running time: 2 hours, 38 minutes.
In general release.