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The Patriot

starring Mel Gibson and directed by Roland Emmerich

The Patriot is a popular entertainment about the American war for independence that tells the story of Benjamin Martin, a South Carolina planter and widower, and his struggles on behalf of his large family and against the British. The film is a Hollywood entertainment, and as such is well put together. Mel Gibson is both pensive and impressively athletic as Martin, and Jason Isaacs is perfect as William Tavington, the insanely cruel colonel of dragoons who kills two of his sons. The minor characters are diverting, there is grand spectacle as well as pretty scenery and costumes, and the director, Roland Emmerich, maintains a satisfying balance of sentiment and excitement, humor and drama, great events and personal complications.

Beyond such crowd-pleasing qualities, the film deals, as well as can be expected from Hollywood, with large themes—love and death, idealism and hatred, family life and the bloody birth of a nation. Critics have pointed to undeniable weaknesses: inaccuracies and improbabilities, a lack of depth of character, and excessive prettiness, including overly-sweet family life and sanitized race relations. Nonetheless, it is pointless to complain about things that are inevitable in popular entertainment; we should be grateful that the film is as thoughtful as it is.

Martin and Tavington are loosely based on historical figures, Francis Marion and Banastre Tarleton, who became legendary during the war as “the Swamp Fox” and “Bloody Ban,” respectively. Both sinned against the laws of war. The film colors the story by making Tavington an inhuman monster who herds a whole village into a church and sets fire to it, and slants matters further by moving Martin’s worst actions to an earlier period of his life, the time of his service in the French and Indian War (the American extension of the Seven Years War). Nonetheless, complaints that the film is anti-British are misplaced. Except for Tavington, the British are shown as brave, disciplined, and on the whole very much concerned to do things in a civilized fashion. Lord Cornwallis, the British commander in South Carolina, is presented as a generally admirable officer. Tavington himself observes that his conduct in America will make it impossible for him to go back to England and mix in society. And the Americans are shown, by and large, as no less likely to act badly than the British—Martin’s men are in the habit of killing prisoners and wounded, for example, until his idealistic son persuades him to put an end to the practice.

The ambiguities are essential to the film, and help give it what weight it has. On its serious side, The Patriot is concerned with the different faces of war: its law, its anarchy, and the bestial passions it releases and expresses. Martin had been responsible for a horrible atrocity during the French and Indian war, the death by torture of a large number of captives. Family life, his wife’s influence, and religion had turned him around, making him pacific if not a pacifist, but in spite of his repentance a residue of savagery remained. He was capable of relapse, as when he concludes his first armed attack on the British by hacking a dead soldier with a tomahawk. Nor was his sporadic blood-lust an anomaly; men continued to buy him drinks for what he had done in the war with the French, and some signed up to follow him against the British because they looked forward to more of the same.

Implicit in the film is an awareness that war, in spite of its chaos and horror, is behind all public order. Every state is founded in blood and rests on continuing readiness to take life, and the great theme of The Patriot is the violent birth of a nation. At the beginning of the film, shortly before the Declaration of Independence, it is doubtful that an American nation exists. Some proclaim it but others still feel like Englishmen, and illegal taxation, the main point at issue, seems insufficient ground for unity. Martin favors independence, but does not think it worth a war fought at home; he had done enough killing during the French and Indian War, and as a father and widower his loyalty is to his family. In any event, as he comments to the South Carolina Assembly, independence would not be an unmixed blessing: he would rather suffer under one tyrant 3000 miles away than 3000 tyrants one mile away.

Events do not allow him to hang back. His eldest son Gabriel believes in the idea of America, and joins the Continental Army over his objections. When Tavington orders Gabriel hanged on trumped-up charges of spying, and immediately thereafter murders Martin’s second son, sets fire to his house, and orders wounded American prisoners shot on his front lawn, Martin undertakes a guerrilla campaign against the British that begins with rescuing Gabriel and ends with leading his irregulars and militia in a set battle against British regulars that keeps the British in Yorktown and so leads directly to American victory in the war. By the end of the war solidarity with his men, the memory of those who suffered and died, and loyalty to Gabriel, whom Tavington also eventually kills, lead him to genuine patriotism.

But for what kind of nation? Gabriel says it will be a new world, a view in which the defeated Cornwallis concurs and one ultimately symbolized by the rebuilding of Martin’s plantation by his men after the war. It is clear that the new world will mean an end to the British aristocratic principle Cornwallis represents, and an emphasis on the principles in American life capable of men’s attachment: independence, equality, the dignity of labor, and family life. It is also made quite clear, through the figures of two of Martin’s men, a French military instructor who dreams of libert� and a black slave who becomes a freeman and then a committed patriot while in service, that the new order will spread to France, and eventually prove radically at odds with all ethnic and cultural distinctions.

Radical aspects of liberalism, from the French Revolution to a conception of equality that makes ties of common history and descent irrelevant and even illegitimate, were thus implicit in the American struggle for independence. The decentralized populist order for which Martin fought had to be justified, and something like John Locke’s egalitarian individualism is what did the work. Once the network of mutual obligation represented by monarchy and aristocracy and summed up in the conception of natural society had been subordinated to individual desire and equal rights as the fundamental principles of politics, further developments could not be limited. What began as the abolition of hierarchy in favor of individualism, private property, and personal religion slowly but quite naturally led to the utter abolition of the concrete order of things the Revolution established: to the abolition of religion, ethnicity and family as principles of social order, to ever wider enforcement of egalitarian ideology, and ultimately to comprehensive control by an alliance of money and irresponsible ideological elites.

The film does not show that outcome, of course, but it shows the groundwork, and the conflict between the implications of Gabriel’s attachment to the principles of the Revolution and the concrete society for which he and his father fought is behind such weaknesses as its cleaned-up version of race relations and family life. The film cannot show the full truth of such things, because however central they are to the actual way of life for which the rebellious colonists fought they sit uneasily with the principles of equality and the sovereignty of individual desire to which they ultimately appealed.

The problem is a fundamental one: since contract is an utterly insufficient basis for social order, permanent radical inconsistency between ideals and practice is essential to liberal society. That conflict explains many features of American life, for example the aversion to serious thought and discussion, and the combination among intellectuals of acceptance of American ideals with dislike of actual Americans. To its credit, The Patriot takes the side of actual human beings. The older liberalism it represents avoids drawing obvious conclusions from liberal principles and so permits most of normal human life to go forward. The men, women and children in the film are—straightforwardly—men, women and children, and however prettified their relationships there is more reality in them than in current degendered ideals. Even the film’s representation of race relations holds out possibilities of genuine mutual respect that today’s PC mendacity makes impossible.

However, it is hard to bring back old hypocrisies, however superior to newer ones. American conservatism has won no wars and few battles, because it necessarily accepts the liberal principles of the Founding and so finds it hard to defend itself except through obfuscation that soon fails to persuade. The time has come to look at other possibilities. Why not recognize that since man is a social animal he can not make social relations simply a matter of choice? What is wrong with serious discussion of the actual conditions of human life, for example the role of force and the givens of history and biology? The Patriot does not of course raise such issues explicitly. Nonetheless, it is to be praised for presenting what was at work in the American Revolution truly enough to make discussion possible, and for preferring the older, less ideological, and therefore more human side of liberalism to the modern version. It is up to us to deal more honestly and productively with the issues at which it hints.

A slightly edited version of the preceding review appeared in issue 21 of The Scorpion.