by Cathleen Myers
We can see why the British are unhappy with this Revolutionary War action film, vaguely based on the story of Francis ("Swamp Fox") Marion and on the events leading up to the Battle of Cowpens. With few exceptions, the British characters in the film are portrayed as well-dressed sadists who shoot unarmed school boys in cold blood, slaughter women and children, burn houses around whole families, lock an entire town’s civilian population in a church and set it on fire, and break their word of honour. The principal villain Colonel "William" Tavington (Jason Isaacs) has the military ethics of Darth Vader. For the record, the historical Banastre ("Ban") Tavington was a ruthlessly ambitious commander with little regard for the accepted rules of engagement but he seems to have drawn the line at committing mass murder, especially in churches. While a nod is given earlier in the film to General Lord Cornwallis’ military genius (And why not? There’s no glory in defeating an aristocratic poseur!) and while Tom Wilkinson invests the role with dignity and professionalism, the screenplay also makes every attempt to belittle and vilify Cornwallis. Was it really necessary to portray the British as foppish proto-Nazis in order to justify the War of American Independence?
If you’ve seen Braveheart and Rob Roy, you already know the essential plot of The Patriot. After his young son is murdered by the British, Ben Martin (Mel Gibson’s American hero, loosely based on Marion) rallies a rag-tag militia of South Carolina volunteers to wage guerrilla warfare against the far more numerous and better equipped British army. Meanwhile, Tavington and his men continue to do maliciously cruel things to innocent American civilians - and to Martin’s family in particular. But, of course, there’s a climactic battle (at Cowpens) in which Martin finally gets to exact his revenge in slow-motion.
It’s a pity that Robert Rodan’s script degenerates into action movie cliches because this film was made with such good intentions. The American victory at the Battle of Cowpens is a turning point in American Revolutionary War history and a thrilling story well worth telling. Director Roland Emerich’s battle scenes appear to be fairly accurate ("Fire twice and then retreat"). But the climactic revenge scene is not only improbable; we know it didn’t happen. It’s one thing to make up stories about a half-legendary figure like William Wallace. It’s another to make up impossible stories about well-documented historical figures from recent history!
It’s also a pity because producer Mark Gordon and staff took such care to get small historical details right. The Smithsonian Institute provided both research and consultants. Not only are many of the major details (weaponry, canonry, vehicles, tack, quill pens, candelabra, etc.) accurate; even tiny details like the buttons on the men’s beautifully tailored uniforms and civilian coats are accurately reproduced, and on the whole, the men’s costumes are impressive. John Williams’ stirring score skillfully weaves real 18th century melodies with the composers’own and he writes admirably in the style of the period (though, disappointingly, there is no Anglo-American country dance music at the wedding reception!). The battle scenes - which are not for squeamish viewers - appear to be extremely realistic, and a number of the recruits in this Colonial army are heart-breakingly (and accurately) young. There are some fine convincingly "period" performances in supporting roles: Rene Auberjonois as a fighting minister, Tcheky Karyo as the token French officer (who has most of the best lines), and Heath Ledger as Martin’s earnest eldest son. And only the most child-proof of viewers could fail to fall for the child actors playing Martin’s children with both spirit and impeccable period manners. Even Cornwallis’ Great Danes give winning performances.
Since so much effort went into getting so many minor details right, it’s amazing that so much else seemed to have escaped the consultants’ notice (Or maybe it didn’t!). Rodat’s dialogue makes little attempt at period language and often sounds anachronistic ("May I sit here?" "Why not? It’s a free country - or it will be"). Perhaps it was too much to expect the 18th century South Carolinians to speak with the quasi-British accents they apparently still had. The director made a conscious decision to make the American characters (even the ones played by Australians) speak with modern standard American accents and perhaps this can be justified dramatically. But does the ingenue (Lisa Brenner) have to sound like a Valley Girl?
As usual, the women’s costumes aren’t as accurate as the men’s. As The Costumers’ Scribe has already observed, some of these provincial Carolina women’s gowns look like they came straight out of Versailles (the heroine Charlotte, played by Joelly Richardson, even wears a Madame de Pompadour knock-off), which seems unlikely. Biggest howler: Charlotte appears in two scenes in public in a corset, chemise, and petticoat - something almost equivalent back then to posing semi-nude! Indeed, most of the women in the film are nearly falling out of their bodices and hardly anyone seems to be wearing either a chemise or a fichu during the day. We certainly expected more from Costume Designer Deborah L. Scott, who won an Oscar for her exquisite work on Titanic! While the silhouettes are generally correct, thanks to good period corseting, many of the younger American women and girls wear their hair down in carefully arranged curly chaos - rather like modern Cosmopolitan cover girls - which spoils the period illusion. Only the British and loyalists seem to be well-groomed in this war.
African-American historians have criticized the film’s rose-colored view of slavery in Colonial South Carolina, which will remind you an awful lot of the happy slave-master relationships in Gone with the Wind. Miss Charlotte’s slaves love her enough to die for her, and Politically Correct Martin has freed all his slaves. He’s certainly a lot P.C.-er than the real Francis Marion!
Our own peevish little complaint: How do Charlotte and Martin plan to get married? She’s his deceased wife’s sister. That would have certainly raised eyebrows - it was illegal in England - and the issue should have at least been discussed!
Oh, yes: And in case you’re wondering, the historical Ban Tavington didn’t get killed in various ways by Ben Martin, but gained little glory from his infamous victories: Snubbed by General Cornwallis and the other British staff officers, Tavington was deliberately excluded from the post-war negotiation table and not invited to the festivities. He received neither the land grant nor the peerage he obviously was bucking for. He was in the Prince Regent’s set for a while but spent a great deal of his last years sulking over social snubs and defending his conduct in print. The British do not like war criminals any more than we do! Interestingly enough, this ending is foreshadowed early in the film, when Cornwallis warns Tavington that his brutal techniques will alienate his own countrymen but the idea never surfaces again. One wonders how many script doctors worked on this screenplay.
Our recommendation: See the film in a bargain matinee or wait to rent the video. Even with all its one-sideness and melodramatic excesses, it’s a stirring, visually impressive costume picture shot on location in South Carolina and the cinematography alone makes you realize what our boys were fighting for. If Patriot does one thing well, it shows the personal sacrifice involved in our War of Independence, which was not simply a war of wits fought by singing, dancing fops in Philadelphia (And, yes, we do like the musical 1776!) but a savage, bloody, expensive war fought by real people. Meanwhile, if you want to know the real story of the famous battle, read Kenneth Roberts’ classic retelling, The Battle of Cowpens.
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