Published June 1, 2000
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 belli 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 Ohio.
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 realities.
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 them.
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 gentleman?