Political Film Society - Newsletter #79 - August 15, 2000

August 15, 2000


The PatriotThe Patriot, directed by Roland Emmerich, provides much insight into what the American Revolutionary War was all about and why participants lined up on opposite sides. The action takes place in South Carolina, beginning in 1776; though there is some effort to provide historical accuracy, the hero and villain are cartoonized. As for the villain, the Mayor of Liverpool has demanded an apology for the apparent depiction of the cityís hero, Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton, who confesses in the contrived dialog that he could never return to England after committing such acts of wanton barbarism as killing women and children while commanding American troops loyal to the crown. (In fact, Tarleton returned to England as a hero and served in Parliament for twenty-two years.) At the beginning of the film we view widower Benjamin Martin (played by Mel Gibson), based in part on the revolutionary hero Thomas Sumter, managing a prosperous farm with his seven children. An officer of the Continental army is rounding up recruits, so Martin goes to Charlestown (as the capital was then called) to vote in a town meeting. Recalling his experience in the French and Indian War, in which he committed heinous acts to get the Cherokees to break their ties with the French, he is against the war option, but the majority supports independence even before July 4. Nevertheless, his oldest son Gabriel (played by Heath Ledger) enlists. When British troops later arrive at Martinís doorstep, where he is caring for the wounded on both sides of the war, including his son Gabriel, Colonel William Tavington (played by Jason Isaacs), the villain in the movie, seizes the anti-British Gabriel for eventual execution. When Martinís next youngest son attempts to intervene, Tavington shoots him dead on the spot. Martin then enters the war seeking revenge (NOT as a "patriot"), organizes a ragtag militia, attacks the convoy containing Gabriel, massacres most of the British soldiers, and liberates his son. Thereafter, Martin leads a militia of fighters who can democratically come and go as they please.

Because his attack on the convoy came from the bushes and quickly disappeared, Martin is called "The Ghost," and Tavington seeks his own revenge, eventually getting approval to do so from the commander of the British forces in America, Lord Charles Cornwallis (played by Tom Wilkinson). When the movie ends, Martinís militia plays a key role in weakening Cornwallisís forces, and Gibsonís voiceover tells us that the arrival of French ships in 1781 sealed the fate of the British at Yorktown. As a film focusing on an American victory, The Patriot may seem yet another post-Vietnam effort to find American heroism in the use of force, but there are several twists. We first view the democratic method used to decide upon entry into war through a town meeting, though of course only white male property owners attend, with only a slight majority convinced that peace efforts had failed. Next, we realize that the Americans were already a conglomeration of diverse ethnic groups. Whereas the British tell African slaves that their slave status will end if they join the army of the mother country, General George Washington offers freedom for any Black who serves twelve months in the Continental army or the militia, though of course the implied promise of complete abolition of slavery was unfulfilled after 1781. The British also promise a land redistribution as a reward for the Loyalists, whereas the Americans only want "no taxation without representation." Cornwallis is portrayed as a gentleman who wants to follow rules of civilized warfare, as do most British officers, so Tavingtonís excesses embarrass Cornwallis in the film, especially since the atrocities are a rallying point for rebels to oppose the British; nevertheless, the historical fact is that there was no rift between the two British commanders. Whether barbarous British tactics prompt unorthodox ambushes by Martinís guerrillas, or perhaps the reverse, is yet another ambiguity in the movie. Allegorically, The Patriot turns out to be a retelling of the Vietnamese war of independence, first from the French and then from the arrogant superpower of the day, with Colonel Tavington playing Lieutenant Calley, and the cost of independence is a war in which marginalized women and traumatized children pay a heavy price while men act like savages. MH

The annual Meeting of Members selected members of the Board of Directors for the year 2001. Michael Haas was retained as Chair and Treasurer. Eric Dacumos was elected Secretary.