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'Patriot (The) '

Wednesday, June 28, 2000

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Correction/Clarification: (Published June 28, 2000) In yesterday’s review of the movie "The Patriot," the rating was incorrect due to an editing error. Post-Gazette Movie Critic Ron Weiskind rates the movie at 2 1/2 stars.

"The Patriot" spends so much of its 164 minutes trying to be admirable that it avoids exploring most of the contradictions that would have made it memorable.

"The Patriot"

Rating: R, for strong violence.

Players: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger.

Director: Roland Emmerich.

Web site:

Critic's call: 2 1/2 stars


This tale of the Revolutionary War stars Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin, a hero of the French and Indian War who has become a plantation owner, widowed father and assemblyman in South Carolina. He also has become a pacifist who refuses to join the armed struggle against the tyranny of King George III.

But when an agent of that tyranny brings the war to him, Martin reverts to kind. He begins waging a brutal guerrilla campaign against the British in the forests and swamps. He strikes so quickly and effectively that the Redcoats dub him "the ghost." His haughty, cold-blooded adversary, Col. Tavington (Jason Isaacs), vows to destroy him by any means necessary, rules of war be damned.

Earlier, declaring his pacifism to the Charleston assembly, Martin foresees how the coming hostilities will hit home and perhaps prove divisive. That comment, along with Tavington's atrocities against civilians, put me in mind of a more contemporary war. In 1776, we might have been the Vietnamese. Two centuries later, we became the Redcoats.

I don't know if screenwriter Robert Rodat ("Saving Private Ryan") had that specific analogy in mind. But the movie suggests several other potentially fascinating conflicts simmering beneath the actual battles pitting Martin's ragtag force against the well-trained, numerically superior British regulars -- a metaphor for America's triumph of the common man over England's hierarchy of nobles.

For example, a black man joins Martin's militia to fight for liberty. The movie completely ignores the irony that most African-Americans would remain subjugated for nearly a century after the nation achieved its independence.

We see black men and women on Martin's plantation. Only later do we find out that they are not slaves -- no, they are freemen who have chosen to work there. Wouldn't it have been historically accurate, not to mention more credible, for a man like Martin to have owned slaves? Yes, but it would also be politically incorrect.

Our man must be above reproach. The movie would have us believe he all but singlehandedly won the war. Nothing must detract from his heroism except, perhaps, his own flaws, which we must be able to easily forgive. For him to have owned slaves would have been unforgivable. I don't remember who said it, but I agree: Hollywood usually shows us life not as it is, but as we would like it to be.

"The Patriot" builds its title character upon Martin's abhorrence toward his own viciousness in the earlier war and how he became set upon never going to war again -- until his own inaction leads to tragedy and makes him realize that he has no choice. When he takes up arms again, he kills without remorse and just as violently as ever.

This is a man who swears he cannot fight because he knows the horror of war and because he is a widower responsible for the rearing of seven children. Yet, once he realizes otherwise, he immediately enlists his two pre-adolescent sons to kill Redcoats. And this comes after he tries to prevent his eldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger), from enlisting for the cause.

Contradictions? When Martin, who believes in the cause of independence, is asked why he won't fight for his principles, he replies that he is a parent -- he can't afford to have principles. Excuse me? I know what he meant, but that's not what he said. A parent can't afford NOT to have principles.

The dialogue from "The Patriot" sticks in the mind, but not for the best reasons. The biggest of the film's howlers is spoken by Martin's sister-in-law, Charlotte (Joely Richardson). When he asks if he can sit next to her, she replies, "It's a free country. Or soon will be."

As long as I'm finding fault with director Roland Emmerich's film, let me also praise what he did right. The battle scenes are vigorously staged with the requisite furious intensity. There is great visual texture to the movie, the air hanging heavy over the pretty lands that will soon become killing fields. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel ("The Black Stallion") demonstrates again why he is one of the best.

If only Gibson's performance contained as much color and shading. He internalizes whatever emotion he is feeling. We almost never see it on his face. He speaks slowly and in a low monotone. When he gets agitated, it becomes a lower monotone.

"The Patriot" is rife with movie cliches. Never turn your back on a man you think is dead. Listen to the music swell as your impassioned plea seems to fall on deaf ears until one man hesitatingly stands -- and then another, and another, and another, until the entire room is on your side.

Actually, not just the music swells. At two hours and 44 minutes, "The Patriot" may have audiences clamoring for an armistice. In particular, the love stories involving Benjamin and Charlotte, Gabriel and the outspoken Anne Howard (Lisa Brenner), seem superfluous.

Yet Anne is involved in the only scene in the movie that actually surprised me, by going farther than we think it will. For the most part, alas, "The Patriot" goes just where we expect it to.

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