Patriot, The

Stars: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs

Americans know little of history in general and perhaps even less of what made America what it is today. As Independence Day nears, a trip to the movie house for a little lesson might be in order.

The new American Revolution film, The Patriot, sets the scene in 1776 just as the South Carolina assembly is getting ready to cast its vote as to whether it should go to war against the British over taxation and governing issues. Mel Gibson plays Benjamin Martin, a conflicted farmer who stands for self-government but not at the expense of fighting the mighty British and having his seven children see a war in their own backyard. As a reputable fighter previously in the French-Indian War, Martin has a mystique about him. We know there’s oil bubbling under his surface, just ready to explode.

Eldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) doesn’t share his father’s concerns and volunteers the moment after the South Carolina assembly votes yea. Martin isn’t happy but there’s simply nothing he can do about it. For two years Gabriel fights the war, with the Colonialists losing miserably against the well equipped and highly experienced Brits as Martin stays home and tends to the safety of his flock.

But one day, a team of British Dragoons, lead by the supremely brutal Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs) appear on horseback at Martin’s farm. That’s the day that Martin’s idealism changes radically and now, he too, is in it for the course.

Scenes of war are particularly violent. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a man get his head torn off by a cannonball, for example. And as it was historically, expect to see lots of teenagers and kids even younger take to killing. In one scene, Martin’s two young sons Samuel and Nathan, perhaps 12 and 10, help their father dispatch some British officers. It’s more than unsettling for the youngest – he seems a virtual basket case after the incident, especially upon witnessing his father’s revenge laden killing rampage. War does make monsters of some men.

With Martin now in the war, the colonialists smarten up because it is Martin who tells them that battling in an open field is pretty stupid. And when you see them all lined up like toy soldiers waiting for the other side to blast away, you’ll agree. So Martin and his band of citizens, the militia, including son Gabriel and an amiable French liaison officer (Tcheky Karyo) play hide and seek amid the trees and rocks and use trickery to make some headway in the war. Martin’s orders are to try to keep the British commander Lord General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) and his troops from moving north before the French rescuers can send troops and armaments our way. It’s a six-month wait at best. And South Carolina apparently marked the turning point of the war thanks to their efforts.

Cornwallis wants to play by the rules of war at first but when his personal entourage is attacked and personal items stolen (including two Great Danes) and he’s later made a fool of by Martin, all bets are off and Dragoon leader Tavington gets the nod to proceed anew and wreak havoc on the families of the militiamen in a most brutal fashion. We see the viciousness of war close up and the sacrifices of the men who fought for independence.

This movie, however, is too long by at least 20 minutes as it moves through battles, skirmishes and family gatherings; even a wedding pops up in the middle between Gabriel and his beloved – something used to spur him on toward his own revenge as the son becomes the father. What bothered me, though, for all this hiding and seeking and jumping over bushes and rocks, how is that the final battle scene has them all standing in that stupid open field again? Didn’t they learn anything?

Lotta says “The Patriot is involving and interesting most of the time and even has its humorous moments. Shorter would have been much better. The matte scenery/location shots were a little too obvious at times and John Williams’ music too overpowering. I didn’t care for the way the final battle was edited – had a kind of weird effect to it as in “Gladiator” except in that film it kind of worked – here it just looked out of sorts.