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The Patriot

[2000; U.S.; Directed by Roland Emmerich; Written by Robert Rodat]

Jason Isaacs as Colonel William Tavington

I almost didn't bother to see The Patriot. I'm not a fan of Mel Gibson, and it was quite predictable that the film would be strong on flag-waving and weak on history. But once I heard that Banastre (with a name change that made him "Colonel William Tavington") was scheduled to be the villain of the piece, how could I resist?

First, let us complete the ritual required of every history buff who has viewed The Patriot: This movie is bad history. In fact, it is horrible, rotten, how-can-they-possibly-think-this-will-fool-anyone history. Don't be taken in by the fact that the Smithsonian Institute consulted on the film. The Smithsonian gave them advice on costume and set design -- advice which was often ignored -- but they had nothing to do with the script and should not be held accountable for it. (Actually, I've been told that the Smithsonian withdrew their support after seeing the results, but I can't confirm this from personal knowledge.) To paraphrase the standard Hollywood disclaimer, any resemblance between this movie and actual events in the American War of Independence is purely coincidental.

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let's look at the film itself. Doc M and many others will toss throw-pillows at me for saying so, but so long as I deal with it on the basis that it is 100% (maybe even 110%) fiction, I like it.

Released in the summer of 2000, The Patriot is a big-budget summer epic from the folks who brought us Independence Day, Stargate and Godzilla -- and that information puts the film into its proper perspective. As a lifelong science fiction fan, the concept of alternate-world history isn't new to me. Clearly, this is not our world or our American Revolution, but this odd, ultra-violent, otherworldly history has its entertaining aspects. There are men in snazzy red uniforms swashbuckling their way across the landscape, a couple of heart-pounding cavalry charges and the coolest anti-hero this side of just about anywhere. I select the term "anti-hero" with care, because I was definitely not cheering for the nominal good-guys. From the first moment Colonel Tavington rode onto the screen -- at the head of a column of elegantly if strangely clad dragoons -- it was his movie. I hope they put a bow on it when they handed it to him.

The film's producers, however, seem to be laboring under the confused notion that the Colonel Tavington of their world is based on the Banastre Tarleton of ours. It is quite an bizarre claim, because Tavington embodies virtually none of Ban's personality, never mind his history. [See Doc M's Tarleton vs. Tavington article for a direct comparison between the two.] Scriptwriter Robert Rodat did collect together the very worst of Ban's "Butcher of the Carolinas" legends as a starting point, but that wasn't bad enough to suit his purposes so he added in a few tricks from the repertoire of the Nazi SS.

His plans to produce an entirely unsympathetic villain were foiled by the casting director who hired Jason Isaacs. The scriptwriter handed him a two-dimensional killing machine in a cool-but-otherworldly red coat. The talented Mr. Isaacs took what he was given and subtly warped the role to produce a fascinating, multi-layered portrayal that far outshines the original material.1

Is there a film beyond Tavington? Well, it's hard for some of us to focus on the in-between bits, but there are some fun moments that don't involve the Red-with-Green-Bits Dragoons. Honest.

The actors are generally very good. Tom Wilkinson's fussy Lord Cornwallis is too old and far too querulous, but he's quite adorable and bears more resemblance to his real-world namesake than any of the other characters. (This isn't saying much, of course!) I simply love Peter Woodward's stuffy, stressed-out General O'Hara. The poor man really does come off as someone headed for a nervous collapse. (Though I can picture the real Charles O'Hara -- the delightful, outgoing, wildly eccentric bastard son of an Irish peer -- being utterly appalled to see himself represented as such a stiff-necked stuffed shirt. And an English stuffed shirt at that.)

On the other side of the fence, Chris Cooper gives a nice, sympathetic performance as rebel leader Harry Burwell. Originally, the script claimed his character was Harry Lee, but Light-Horse Harry was in his early twenties in 1780, so if he fought with Benjamin Martin in the French and Indian Wars, he must have been wearing a red coat and diapers. Even for science fiction, that may be pushing it. (If they'd been doing real history, Cooper might have portrayed an interesting Nathanael Greene -- based on personality, that is, since they look nothing alike.) Heath Ledger's Gabriel (the "patriot" of the title) is a nice enough kid, and if they had decided to set the film in our world, he would have made a good Harry Lee.

Even Mel Gibson's Benjamin Martin avoids the pitfalls of terminal good-guy-itis, being possessed of both interestingly dark corners and occasional moments of whimsy. Given the nature of the film, I expected him to be a larger-than-life and whiter-than-snow HERO, so it was a pleasant surprise when he turned out to be a totally flawed and screwed-up man with a streak of pure homicide in him.

The cinematography of the film is splendid. Heck, all the techie stuff is beautifully done. The costumes are pure fiction in places, but they sure are classy. I dream of seeing the British Legion on film some day, looking splendid in their green coats, doeskin breeches etc., but for now, Tavington's cavalry unit looks entirely glorious as they charge over the hill. There are odds and ends of the story line that I don't like or consider trite, but it's the same with any film and is nothing to get excited about.

As far as I'm concerned, there is nothing especially wrong with the fact that The Patriot is bad history. I may nitpick at it on that level, but that's purely for my own entertainment. In the end, this is Hollywood and I don't expect a documentary. (After all, even the documentaries seldom get things right.)

On the other hand, I do find it seriously bizarre that the producers keep stubbornly claiming that the film is good history. They give us a battle that isn't Cowpens (where Cornwallis wasn't present) and isn't Guilford Courthouse (where Cornwallis remained in possession of the field). They set that battle in October (Cowpens was in January; Guilford in March), yet call it Cowpens on the DVD chapter labels. They nice up the social history of the times in the cause of political correctness. (In the real world, it was the British commander-in-chief, Sir Henry Clinton, who offered slaves freedom in return for service. The slave-owning Washington wanted absolutely nothing to do with the suggestion when it was proposed.)2 They take a bunch of historical people and rewrite everything from their personalities to their national origins. (Charles O'Hara was Irish. You'd think his family name might have given them a clue.) Then they expect us to be impressed by the amount of attention they lavished on getting the right shape and design for the buttons on the Continental uniforms? Let us please get our priorities straight here, guys!

Needless to say, it especially annoys me when they insist that Will Tavington is pretty much the same as Ban Tarleton. On the DVD commentary track one of the producers states flat-out that Ban made a habit of shooting most surrendering prisoners. This is a pretty good measure of the depth of their research -- and it rather emphatically proves the point that this film is pure unadulterated not-history. If only they would say, "Look, we know nothing at all about the real Tarleton dude. We read a few musty old legends, written 150-plus years ago by his enemies, and used them as a germination point for an original character. This is fiction. Period," they would be considerably closer to the truth, not to mention nearer and dearer to my heart. Tavington is a truly wonderful character. But he is definitely not Banastre Tarleton!

[For other opinions on The Patriot, check out the Silver Whistle. Doc M provides a biting and delightful review which is way funnier than anything I'm going to come up with here. She also provides links to a couple of earlier revisions of the script, including one where the Tavington character was still called Banastre Tarleton -- yet was slated to die at the Battle of Cowpens!

Author Guy Gavriel Kay also has an excellent review/commentary on his website.]

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1 In our world, the British Legion wore green coats. That's probably why they were called Green Dragoons. Why the heck Tavington's men are called Green Dragoons instead of Red-with-Green-Bits Dragoons is anybody's guess. [ back ]

2 See for instance Rachel N. Klein, "Frontier Planters and the American Revolution," An Uncivil War: The Southern Backcountry during the American Revolution, ed. Ronald Hoffman, Thad W. Tate, and Peter J. Albert (Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, for the United States Capitol Historical Society, 1985), pp65-69, or Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill, 1961). [ back ]

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