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Patriot, The (2000) 
Director by Roland Emmerich
Cast: Mel Gibson, Jason Isaacs, Heath Ledge, Joely Richardson,  Lisa Brenner

We haven't had a good Revolutionary War movie in a while. We've been practically overrun by World War II flicks, and the Civil War and Vietnam have certainly received their screen-time; but the first American war has been largely overlooked in recent years. Coming to rectify that oversight is director Roland Emmerich, the auteur behind Independence Day and Godzilla, with a new film called The Patriot. Fear not, though--history has not been revised to include aliens or lizards with a thyroid problem. In fact, the only larger-than-life character is Benjamin Martin, a colonial soldier played by that most manly of men, Mel Gibson.

The movie opens in 1776, but our hero isn't exactly itching to get into battle. Though he distinguished himself in the French and Indian War, he chooses to stay home this time and take care of his seven children, whose mother has passed away. That's not true for his two oldest sons, however, who, inflamed by the independence rhetoric, are anxious to join the fray. But when the oldest son is taken prisoner and the second is shot in cold blood (by our murderous villain), no self-respecting father, much less The Patriot, could stand back and do nothing. So, armed with two rifles and a magic hatchet (at least it seemed that way), Martin sets out, lays waste to an entire British regiment, and frees his progeny.

If this plot (written by Robert Rodat, Saving Private Ryan) sounds slightly familiar, then you must have seen Gladiator, which also features a reluctant warrior who happens to be heroic in battle, devoted to his family, and practically invincible. Gladiator and The Patriot also include an antagonist that rivals Attila the Hun. In this case, Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs, End of the Affair) kills innocent civilians, burns houses, and personally tries to destroy Martin's remaining children. Provoked by this man of evil, Martin and his eldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger, Ten Things I Hate About You) organize a local militia to harass and pin down a large contingent of the British Army, while also waiting for their chance to exact revenge.

While it's easy to sound cynical in describing this paint-by-numbers plot, The Patriot is, by and large, well-made and enjoyable. Unlike Gladiator, it doesn't waste any time on political intrigue or ambiguous characters. The action moves at a steady clip, pausing long enough between battles for both of our leading men to hook up with some female companionship. If there aren't any surprises in the story (it's clear in the first six minutes which women will marry which men), there aren't any dull stretches, either.

The acting certainly doesn't hurt. Though Mel Gibson could probably do this role in his sleep (think equal parts Braveheart, Ransom, and Mad Max), he still deserves kudos for a rock-steady performance that never teeters into caricature. Ledger, as the earnest son following in his father's footsteps, is also compelling, even in his romantic scenes. The rest of the children have little to do except look gorgeous; in fact, they're so impossibly beautiful I almost thought I was watching the WB network. The same goes for the two female characters (played by Joely Richardson, 101 Dalmatians; and Lisa Brenner, making her film debut). But thumbs up to Isaacs, who pulls off the spawn-of-Satan role without losing his dignity.

The cinematography by Caleb Deschanel (Anna and the King) revels in the idyllic mist-covered countryside of South Carolina. Using washed-out colors and soft-focus lenses, the wide-screen shots often have the curious look of early 19th century paintings. Unfortunately, Emmerich feels the need to imitate every recent war movie by including multiple gruesome severed-head shots along with a number of hatchet chops to various body parts. Composer John Williams does his usual superlative job, particularly in the battle scenes when a stirring horn section comes to the fore.

While Emmerich hasn't tried to jazz up early America's history, it should be noted that The Patriot conveniently glosses over several unflattering aspects of the early colonies. It's clear that Benjamin Martin is based largely on Francis Marion, the famous "Swamp Fox;" but Marion's less admirable qualities, particularly the brutal treatment of his slaves, have been removed entirely. In fact, Gibson's character is so utopian he'd probably boycott present-day South Carolina if he were alive today; and the blacks seem to live lives of serene contentment. But, as I mentioned last week, summer movies are designed not to offend. In that and many other aspects, The Patriot succeeds. 

J. Robert Parks 06/26/2000

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