The Patriot (15)
ANOTHER sweeping ‘historical’ epic, another fight for freedom.
When Mel Gibson sets his heart on liberating something, he really does it with style. Cast your mind back a straight five years and he was freeing Scotland from ‘neath the yoke of the sadistic King Edward I and his equally murderous soldiers and henchmen.
All it took was the throat-slitting of wee Mel’s busty bride and, in the guise of Scots hero William Wallace, Gibson tore off to beat the Brits at their own game. It mattered not that history was obscured by screen gore and the realities of what really happened went down the pan faster than you could shout ‘Freedom!’
Five years on from his multi Oscar-winning triumph with Braveheart, Gibson is back in warrior mode with The Patriot, in which he metamorphoses from passive country gent to mad-eyed combat vet with unsettling rapidity.
Helmed by Roland Emmerich, the man behind such mammoth undertakings as Independence Day and Godzilla, The Patriot is, in truth, a bloody good yarn, but one in which any semblance to the truth has been burned on the pyre of overt commerciality.
As Benjamin Martin, Gibson prefers to sit out the growing conflict between Colonials and their British masters. The reason is simple: he’s been to war, witnessed its horrors – indeed, committed a good share of them himself – at first hand and has no wish to re-tread that gruesome path.
Only when his son is shot down by cold-eyed English officer Colonel Tavington (the terrific Jason Isaacs in full-on Peter Cushing mode) does Martin erupt into life. Freeing his elder son, Gabriel, from English clutches by decimating an entire column of troops, he and the boy (star-in-the-making Heath Ledger) join their countrymen and vow to wage war on the English invaders to the last drop of their blood.
The Patriot harks back to those grand, majestic Hollywood epics of yesteryear, like Waterloo, The Longest Day or even, at a distance, Spartacus. It certainly has the scope, it certainly has the scale and breathtaking spectacle.
It doesn’t even matter that, on the clapometer of gore, blood and viscera is gushing out of the top like the spout of a stricken whale.
What does make for a fatal wound is in the obvious, subjective take on the two opposing sides. Everything in The Patriot is black and white. The English are the guys in the black hats, and Gibson and his pals, including the ever-excellent Chris Cooper, are in the white corner.
The English are depicted as – yawn – disdainful, aristocratic killers who murder at will, scything through the verdant South Carolina countryside hacking, bludgeoning and shooting anyone who is unfortunate to stand in their way.
Gibson and Co, on the other hand, are the forces of good fighting for a rightful cause. Not only do they have God on their side (don’t they always in films like this?) they have the audience on their side, and in the palm of their collective hand, almost from the world go.
Such a standpoint is the reprehensible state of Hollywood pictures today. Not content with rewriting history (such as transforming an English submarine and its crew into an American vessel to recover a secret weapon in U-571 recently), they also prefer to dictate how global audiences relate to screen heroes and villains.
If feelings can be manipulated through the use of stereotypes – and Isaacs’ officer is a clear example – then viewers will root for the hero. That’s what Emmerich and writer Robert (Saving Private Ryan) Rodat wanted in The Patriot, and that’s what they’ll probably get.