Wednesday, 22 August 2012

"The Patriot" movie

At one point in his career, it looked like Mel Gibson would honour his Australian roots by killing large numbers of English. He made Braveheart in 1995, in which he was a Scot killing English, and The Patriot in 2000, in which he was an American colonist killing English. As an Englishman (well, someone who is half English and half Welsh and was raised in Canada), I must agree that the Scots had good reasons to slaughter my esteemed ancestors. I loved Braveheart. On the other hand, I had a strong premonition that The Patriot was going to be simplistic and offensive propaganda, and avoided it. This happy state ended when my son was assigned the task of watching the film and identifying what details were historically accurate and what were not.

Overall, I would have to say that The Patriot is simplistic and offensive propaganda. It is comforting to know that my hunches were reliable in this case. Here are some of the more unbelievable aspects of the film.

It takes place in South Carolina, which was a slave-holding colony that became a slave-holding state. However, only one slave is shown. The blacks working for the main character, Benjamin Martin, are not slaves, but freedmen. I understand why this unlikely situation exists in the movie: it would certainly complicate a simple narrative of freedom versus slavery to point out that those fighting for freedom were committed to keeping slaves. The refusal to deal with the fact of slavery in this time and place is a lie of omission that is, in my view, offensive.

The story takes place in South Carolina, which is a Southern state, but everyone has a Northern accent. As long as we are going to be inaccurate about the accents, couldn't we let Mr. Gibson's character sound Australian?

Only one reason is given for revolution, at least until the atrocities start, and that is taxation. I understand from my high school Social Studies courses that many of the complaints that led to the Revolution were not related to taxes. First, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 led to much dissatisfaction, because it limited encroachment on Native lands; the Navigation Acts, Molasses Act, and Sugar Act all interfered with economic activities, but were not taxes; then five "Intolerable Acts" led more directly to the first Continental Congress.

The first three Intolerable Acts apply to Massachusetts alone, although other colonies expressed sympathy and solidarity with that colony.
  1. The Boston Port Act, closing the Port of Boston until order was restored and the East India Company had been repaid.
  2. The Massachusetts Government Act, removing the government of Massachusetts from local control.
  3. The Administration of Justice Act that let the governor move trials of government officials outside of Massachusetts.
The others had a broader scope.
  1. The Quartering Act meant that troops could be housed in privately-owned buildings at the governor's pleasure.
  2. The Quebec Act extended the boundaries of Quebec, allowed Catholics to take the Oath of Allegiance, and guaranteed the free practice of the Catholic faith. Many English-speaking colonists objected to each of those points.
 As for the taxes, the Townshend Act instituted taxes but, by the time of the Revolution, almost all had been repealed. Only the tax on tea remained. Then there was the Stamp Act of 1765, which was a widely hated tax.

In short, the "long chain of abuses and usurpations" mentioned in the Declaration of Independence is much more complex chain than a simple objection to taxes levied by an unrepresentative government. I think The Patriot deliberately obscured that fact.

It also obscured the fact that the colonials were not united in the revolution. A large number (20-30%) supported the British. About 70,000 left the United States after the Revolution. However, only one loyalist is shown in The Patriot: a British soldier.

Finally, many of the atrocities shown committed by the British were not known from that war. From what information I can find, the officers generally behaved "correctly," though all war involves atrocities. (Name one that has not. Certainly not Afghanistan nor Iraq, the West's most recent land wars).

In general, it is not worth arguing about details of dress or architecture. I am no expert in them anyway. However, it did strain credulity to see a flag with stars and stripes being picked up in a battle, as that did not exist at the time.

I don't know exactly how I should end this posting. The film made me angry. I felt that my intelligence was being insulted. I felt that lies were being perpetrated about both sides. Even within the category of propaganda movies, it is possible to do much, much better. Take the Chinese propaganda movie Hero, for example. It does not gloss over the fact that the Chinese First Emperor did terrible things and that many people legitimately wanted him dead, but it also showed that his accomplishments were remarkable. It created patriotic feelings without denigrating any other people. It was also gorgeous. If The Patriot intended a similar, ennobling effect, it failed.


  1. Gareth, I'm laughing because your review confirms my feeling about the movie. However, my feeling was so strong that to the best of my ability short of taking arms against a sea of troubles, I will die before watching this. Thank you for easing the tiny pang of pre-judgmental guilt I was also feeling about my feeling. However, I have much the feeling regarding Avatar, Titanic, Independence Day, and a few other films. I have become increasingly picky about movie watching because the number of hours I have left to squander are diminishing very quickly.