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Patriot (Movie review)

Mike Bobbitt

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The Patriot
Movie Review


Plot Details: This review reveals major details about the movie‘s plot.

OK I‘ll admit that I was ready to hate this movie even before I saw it. Most of what I‘d heard was "Yankee flag-waving BS" and comments re Nazi like British officers.

This should have turned me off, and even though the movie does contain this, I was presently surprised. Not to say that the movie was perfect, far from it. There is also a lot I still take issue with as you‘ll see.

First off the things I thought were done really well, or at least enjoyed. The cinematography, was fantastic. The sweeping battle sequences were just fantastic.

The sequence where the family arrives in Charleston and we see the harbour, filled with wooden sailing ships all moored, is both realistic and impressive. There is an excellent blend of great camera work and computer generated special effects here

Some of the scenes I thought were extremely well filmed. The sequence where the rebels pursue and catch the Dragoons, who have just fired the church, was very well laid out. The ensuing fight sequence was one of those "hold Your breath, how is this going to enfold, oh let it be over, moments." The cinematic equivalent of a really good roller coaster ride.

A lot has been said re the historical accuracy of this film and the use of the Smithsonian as the advisors. In some respects this was another thing that impressed me. The attention to details re costumes and uniforms of the American forces was evident.

The sets, added a lot to the movie. I‘m not sure if places like Colonial Williamsburg were used in the filming or not. The end result though was well worth the effort.

Two not well known but important aspects of the conflict were also touched on in the in this film which I felt was a good point. First is the fact that African Americans fought on both sides during the Revolution. It seems many people are of the assumption that the first time Black Americans took up arms was during the Civil War.

The second aspect was that the American Revolution was, especially in the southern colonies, a civil war. Not all colonists supported independence. Thousands actually took up arms in support of the British Crown.

This lead to some bitter fighting as one can expect when brothers literally fight brothers. Although it was only touched on briefly this is, was an important aspect of the war. These soldiers for the most part fought gallantly and honourable and their reward at the end was confiscation of their lands and property and exile. Being a descendant of these United Empire Loyalists it‘s something I was please to see noted albeit briefly.

Finally the fact that the Americans were initially no match for the British troops in a conventional European style open battle was presented. This was simply the truth, and the American commanders for the most part either ex British officers and/or having served alongside them were well aware of it.

The British Army had already perfected the fire discipline to win any engagement. As Gibson‘s character observes to his son as they watch the Battle of Camden unfold early in the film. "This battle was lost before it began".

At Camden poorly trained Colonials were no match for British regulars and fled the field. The American commander Horatio Gates, the victor at Saratoga, actually abandoned his men, as the film notes.

It was this volley fire technique that won North America for the British at Quebec in 1759, and would later repeatedly defeat Napoleon in Portugal, Spain and at Waterloo. Later it would he instrumental in building and maintaining the largest empire the world has ever known.

The only way the Colonials could hope to best the British was through guerrilla war. This is accurately portrayed in the film. Surprisingly the British had already learned this a generation earlier while fighting the French in North America.

Ironically it was the expertise of their Colonial irregular troops who showed them this. The Generals in London, once victory was theirs, promptly forgot this lesson and were forced to painfully re learn it.

The fact that they were able to adapt, albeit slowly is also accurately portrayed. The scene where Gibson and his guerrillas ambush yet another British supply column, only to discover that it is a trap laid for them with deathly consequences.

Finally we are shown the trained and experienced Colonial regular Army reappearing at the end of the film to beat the British at Cowpens and Yorktown. it took several hard years before both the quality of their troops and generals began to match and then exceed the British in this type of warfare.

OK so much for what I enjoyed, now on to what I could live with, or at least tolerate. First the portrayal of Colonel Tavington in the film.

He is obviously modeled on Colonel Tarleton, a loyalist officer who was well known for his brutal approach to the conflict. In the movie he is portrayed as evil incarnate, shooting prisoners, burning woman and children. No wonder some reviews here and elsewhere used the term Nazi to describe him. Actually I had only a small problem with this exaggerated portrayal for two reasons.

First it‘s a movie for crying out loud. We have a hero, good old Mel, and therefore we need a villain right. Mel is the ultimate good guy, kind father and family man who only very reluctantly takes up arms.

To match this you have to have a villain of almost cartoon evil proportion. Hey that‘s what we all shelled out our $10.00 for, and we all want to see good triumph over evil in the last reel. When Mel finally kicks his but, that‘s what we paid for.

Secondly, while Tavington/Tarleton is portrayed as pure evil, he is the only British officer so portrayed. The disgust at his actions by General Cornwallis and the other British officers is very evident. They prefer to fight with honour, and thus the "British as Nazis" idea is not as prevalent.

Now onto the infamous ambush scene. Here Mel and his two youngest sons avenge the death of one son and rescue another. There are a lot of comments on how implausible this whole scene is, one man, OK one man and two small boys, attacking and wiping out a whole column of well-trained British Soldiers.

Again it‘s only a movie and I thought it well filmed The whole battle sequence reminded me of similar scene in Michael Mann‘s Last of The Mohicans. As for how credible it was. Well speaking as an ex professional soldier, I‘d have to say that it only stretched credibility slightly.

I‘ve laid a few ambushes in my time and been on the receiving end too. Numbers count for squat in this type of fight, if surprise is total. Gibson is also shown taking out the officers first to spread confusion. This would have done a lot to negate any advantage the numbers gave the British. As for the violence in the scene, and the children, well I‘m going to even go there.

Some of the more cliché Hollywood moments also bothered me. Again it was just a movie. The attempts at misplaced humour, the tavern recruiting, scene and the running gags with the "French", Cornwallis‘ dogs and Mel‘s rocking chair were really superfluous.

Add this to Mel‘s occasional mugging for the camera a la Lethal Weapon‘s Detective Riggs and we probably could have cut a good half hour from the total time without losing anything of importance.

The cliché scene where the poor white southerner has a serious objection to the black slave bearing arms and fighting alongside him is a little too pat. We all knew where it was going. Was anyone surprised when it was the same guy who gets wounded and left behind, and who was the only person to go back and rescue him.

Then we have the same guy, now reformed, just before the climactic battle say how proud he was to soldier alongside his rescuer the now freed ex slave. Right all it takes to overcome generations of institutionalized prejudice was this. Somehow I don‘t think so, but again I‘ll let it pass.

The scene where Tavington/Tarleton and his men raid Gibson‘s sister in law‘s, and future love interest, Plantation to capture his family was a bit of a waste. Any attempt at suspense was wasted here. You just knew they were going to escape and/or be rescued in the nick of time and surprise they were.

There must be an unwritten rule that the good guys little kids don‘t get snuffed by the bad guy. Of course because we need to get good and mad at the evil Colonel, we then get the massacre of faithful old buddy and third spear carrier from the right‘s family as a substitute.

The church scene where the plucky heroine shames all the big men into volunteering even the good Reverend, Rene Aubejois in a delightful role, was again a little too cliché, for my tastes, but it‘s a small point.

Likewise the scene where Mel brazenly marches into the British encampment and bluffs the Brits into releasing his captured men. This was so much more like Detective Riggs than Captain Benjamin Martin that I almost expected to see Danny Glover appear in a cameo.

OK all those things were a distraction, but I could live with them as I said. There were a couple of things that really bugged me about this one though. I mean the sort of thing that really moves a potentially great movie down to passable fair.

First as I noted earlier I was impressed with the attention to detail in the movie, with one glaring exception. What gives, doesn‘t the Smithsonian have British Army section?

I can‘t even begin to note the numerous errors I saw. Tarleton‘s Loyalist Dragoons wore Green Coats as did most Loyalist regiments not red as shown here. British Artillery also never wore red jackets, but blue. The Regimental Standards shown being carried do not match the facing colour of the Regiment they‘re being carried with and the list goes on.

Why make a big fuss out of this. I‘ve let other minor details slide? It may seem like picking fly sh--- out of pepper.

Why, because there was a lot of hype about how The Smithsonian was the consultant on this movie and that everything would be historically accurate etc. Like I noted for the most part, this was the case, and it added tremendously to mine, and hopefully others, enjoyment. Why then did they fall apart in this one area.

Dino be Laurentis when he made Waterloo in 1971 had his costume designer, ensure that the buttons, on all the thousands of uniforms were the correct type and style for each of the Regiments present. The buttons, who would be even able to notice this on the screen. If this could have been done then, why not this time round.

My other major beef was in the character Gibson portrays, Captain, later Colonel Benjamin Martin, "The Ghost". It is obvious that like Tavington/Tarleton that this is a fictionalized version of Francis Marion, The Swamp Fox. Marion was a veteran of the French and Indian wars and a plantation owner who eventually took up arms against the British. The name Swamp Fox came from his success at guerrilla warfare as is shown in the movie.

The real Swamp Fox was far from a perfect man. He was a slave owner, although almost all successful plantation owners of the period were. It was rumoured that he also had a rather unique past time, hunting Native Indians for sport. No rocking chair building and tortured shamed past for this man.

As portrayed by Gibson we have a very sanitized version of the real thing. It is quickly established that he regrets and is haunted by his past military exploits. No pride in taking scalps here. What is also established is that he supports his big happy family through his plantation. A plantation that is worked by paid, free black labourers, not slaves.

Have we now reached the point, at which we must now sacrifice both historical accuracy and credibility to the god of political correctness? We are to believe that this plantation is able to compete with all the other ones, which rely on slave labour, that it is even economically feasible.

Why not admit he was a slave holder, much as we don‘t want to admit it that was the situation at the time. Other heroic figures from this period owned slaves, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, you can‘t change historical fact.

OK make him a benevolent slave holder, what ever that was. Better yet ignore the whole thing. Make the character a tavern owner, or merchant. It wouldn‘t really have affected the story would it.

Anything would have been better than to censor and sanitize the facts. I seriously believe that the movie would have been better had we had the real Francis Marion, warts and all. Instead we got Father Knows Best with a flintlock.

Will I see The Patriot again, probably if only when it comes out on video/DVD. Will I still be impressed by the things I enjoyed? Yes. Will I still be bothered by the things I had problems with? Again yes.
 
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