Thursday, April 11, 2013

Film Review: The Patriot

The Patriot (Copyright 2000, Columbia Pictures Inc)

Dear Reader,

Many historians get very up tight when movies portray their period inaccurately. The fact of the matter is that movies are fictional creations, and should not be taken literally. Doing so only causes pain for those of us who are alive to a sense of the past.

First of all, the Patriot is obviously a great movie. It makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside about the creation of our great nation during the American War of Independence.  Mel Gibson delivers the performance which equals his work in Braveheart.  Jason Issacs, who would go on to play Captain Mike Steele in Black Hawk Down, and Lucius Malfoy in Harry Potter, plays the quintessential British villain.

The movie portrays the Southern theatre of the American Revolution, through the eyes of Benjamin Martin, a plantation owner, whose freed Africans continue to work for him. This is the first problem with the film. If a white master freed his slaves, they would generally not continue to work on his land. For former slaves, it was much easier to make a living as a produce farmer than a cotton worker.

In the film, Martin is a good man, who cares for his children after the death of his wife. His character is based on Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox." Marion was a guerrilla leader in the American South. In actuality, Francis Marion was not a terribly pleasant person. While it is true that he was a man of his times, and needs to be examined in his historical context, it is also true that he committed horrible atrocities against the Cherokee Indians during the French and Indian War, he hunted down and killed slaves who were "suspected" of aiding the British in any way during the American War of Independence, and occasionally, his men massacred British wounded and prisoners.

Jason Issacs character plays the devilish British villian in American History: Colonel Banastre Tarleton. (In the movie, the character is called Tavington.) Tarleton receives something of a character assassination in The Patriot. His men massacred American soldiers at the battle of the Waxhaws, but only because they thought the Americans pretended to surrender, and then shot Tarleton. He recieves some criticism from Washington Irving, but none of it appears to be factual. While light cavalry officers in the 18th century often had a reputation for violence, Tarleton appears to have been a fairly standard example of this type of soldier, not an evil aberration. The worst thing that can proved against Tarleton was that he advocated for slavery during his time Parliament (and he only did this because his family's economic investments would have been crippled, not because he though slavery was morally acceptable.) The infamous scene where the British burn down a church, full of trapped parishioners, is totally fictitious. One historian stated that if this scene actually occurred,  America probably would have used it as an excuse to stay out of the World Wars.

Let's move on to the films portrayal of the war. The British soldiers are pictured as mindless automatons, who can only move in rigid lines and fight in compact bodies. This myth has been thoroughly destroyed by Matthew H. Spring's excellent book, Through Zeal and Through Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America. In this work, published through University of Oklahoma Press, Spring convincingly argues that the British quickly adapted to the conditions of North America.  Thus, the only scene where British soldiers behave appropriately is where they exit the corn, in the scene directly before Mel Gibson's house is burned down.

The films climatic battle combines elements of the Battle of Cowpens and the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, and makes it appear as though there were relatively the same number of British and American soldiers. In both battles, the British were significantly outnumbered.

Overall, The Patriot is a very enjoyable fiction of the American Revolution. The movie is quite entertaining, and that's what movies are for, right?

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns

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