The Wars on Film: The Patriot and The Dangers of Nostalgia Goggles

Revisiting the Emmerich Film on America's Birthday

The Wars On Film is a Bi-Weekly series dedicated to films and television mini-series set within the war genre. Once every two weeks I’ll dive into a classic of the genre, performing a retrospective on it, digging into the storytelling, production design, and depictions of military combat within these works and examining how they tackle the various  tropes of the genre as well as any attributes unique to the specific works. If you have any suggestions for films or mini-series that you would like to see me tackle, feel free to mention it in the comments.

Every now and then I revisit a movie that I vaguely remember really enjoying when I was younger, usually in high school or middle school, and I discover something absolutely earth shattering: young me had horrible taste. Imagine my surprise, when I sat down on this past Monday, July 4th to watch The Patriot for the first time since I saw it in high school Civics, to discover that this was once again the case. I remembered this film as one of the greatest war films I’d ever viewed, and a rousing emotional tale. I was very, very wrong.

To those who are not aware of the plot of the film, The Patriot tells the story of Benjamin Martin, a man who the best that I can tell is an amalgamation of several historical figures, a South Carolina plantation owner who is drug into the events of the American Revolutionary War after the death of his son at the hands of a British officer, and ends up dramatically shaping the course of the war. It’s the exact kind of inspirational, pat yourself on the back, nationalistic, and pulpy sort of historical fiction that Hollywood is always frothing at the mouth to put out, and is the kind of story that could, in theory be really good, if only it had not landed the absolute wrong director to tell it. If you follow film at all, you know who Roland Emmerich is. The German filmmaker is known for his disaster movies, films in which mass destruction and carnage is basically the entirety of the plot, usually with a few characters rising above their station or means to save the world. He’s decent at what he does, but what he does is not remotely suited to the story that he attempted to tell in this film. Call me crazy, but I humbly submit the notion that a German born filmmaker whose work has been categorized as “disaster porn” is not the ideal choice to tell a story about fathers and sons against the backdrop of the American Revolution.

So what, I’m sure you are asking is so wrong with this film? Well there’s actually a lot to cover so I’m going to do my best to be brief. The chief problem is the drama. Emmerich was never a director who was gifted at capturing the more quiet and human moments and this film is no exception. Any time the characters stop to talk for any period of time, you become intimately aware of just how poorly all of the human moments are put together. The dialogue varies from wildly stilted and unnatural (there is a line in which Mel Gibson’s Benjamin Martin exposition dumps the cause of the American Revolution, in the middle of a conversation about why he does not want any part of it) to hyper dramatic and cheesy (moments where Gibson’s occasionally wildly over the top delivery has a chance to truly shine). The characters are also a bit of a problem.  Outside of Gibson’s Martin, and occasional flashes from Heath Ledger as his son Gabriel, every other character in the film feels more like a plot device than a person. This is best exemplified by Jason Isaacs’ character, Colonel William Tavington. I believe you would be hard pressed to find more than a handful of characters in the history of cinema more ludicrously evil than Tavington. He burns churches, shoots children, executes surrendering soldiers, and violates every other basic principal of decency in warfare, all while smiling. At no point does the film even attempt to humanize him, or rationalize or bring reason to his actions. This is a character that makes the Emporer from Star Wars look like a character full of pathos and humanity.  He simply exists so as to insure that when Benjamin Martin stabs the villain through the throat at the end of the film, we can cheer without feeling the least bit guilty, because “he had it coming to him”.  All of this is to say, that as a character piece, this film falls flat on it’s face.

One would hope considering the massive deficits in character work, that the action might be able to salvage the rest of this film, and at times it does. However, even there the cartoonishness is sometimes too much to bear. In a moment very early on in the film we are treated to a shot of a canon ball making direct contact with the head of a soldier, and the soldiers head flying backwards out of frame, while his body remains. This served as an appropriate primer for the rest of the film. Simple laws of physics or basic rules of warfare of the period do not seem to apply to this film. Men fire smooth bore muskets and pistols with the pinpoint accuracy of a modern military sniper, all while running, rolling, and diving around in a manner that makes good shooting impossible. You may feel like I am nitpicking here, but as a history buff, witnessing a film depict men firing some of the most inaccurate fire arms ever made, while hardly once missing a shot, felt ludicrous at best. That is not to say that the action in this film did not have it’s moments. The large scale battle sequences which featured the standard military tactics of the era, march in a straight line, stop 20 yards from your enemy, stand perfectly still and fire, were a sight to behold, but are far to infrequent and brief to elevate this film above it’s many flaws. That being said, during the moments when the action is at it’s fiercest, you can almost forget how much of a slog the rest of the film is.

In short, The Patriot is not a very good film. It is not a very accurate film. And, while it may feature the director at his most restrained, little restraint was exercised in it’s making. It is the type of film that you see, and over time develop a perception of it that is greater than the film truly deserves. If you have not seen the film in a while and are wondering if it lives up to the positive memory you have of it, I can assure you that it does not. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go do anything but think about this movie.