A Cheer for Old Glory

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It has everything you want in an epic: sweep, scope, wild reversals of fortune and plenty of bold, basic emotions. It offers a stalwart hero and a sneering villain, bloody battles and daring rescues, tender love, heedless cruelty and, above all, scores of attractive human beings who have pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to a desperate but noble cause.

What's not to like about The Patriot? Well it certainly suffers from irony deficiency. It is four-square for democracy and decency, and this, of course, will cause a certain amount of superciliousness among the postmodernist swells. Since it is a story about the American Revolution, it will suffer from the age-old suspicion of movies in which guys wear knee britches and write with quill pens. But if the mass audience can get behind Gladiator, why shouldn't it take a flier on more recent history? You telling us Russell Crowe is cuter than Mel Gibson? Or that in his picture he suffers more than Gibson does? Get outta here.

Gibson is cast as a grieving widower named Benjamin Martin. In the French and Indian War he was a gallant, not to say legendary, commander, but something bad happened in its course-a preventable atrocity, we eventually learn-and he is determined to raise his numerous progeny in peace and prosperity on his South Carolina plantation. In the state assembly he votes against raising troops and money for a war of independence. This alienates his son Gabriel (charmingly played by Heath Ledger), who joins the Continental Army. And it reckons without the relentless cruelty of Colonel William Tavington (whom Jason Isaacs plays with ferocious candor, offering neither excuses nor a single redeeming grace).

One day, in hot pursuit of retreating rebel soldiers, Tavington comes riding up to Martin's plantation at the head of a cavalry troop. Insouciantly, even rather jauntily, he orders all the Americans-most of them wounded-to be shot, the plantation fired, and for good measure, he marches Gabriel (by this time a dispatch rider for the valiant Colonel Harry Burwell, played by Chris Cooper) off to be hanged. When one of Martin's other sons tries to rescue his brother, he is coldly murdered.

It is this psychopathy that begets Martin's patriotism. With two of his other boys, he rescues Gabriel from the hanging party in what is surely director Roland Emmerich's most dashing set piece. This action establishes Martin, whose character is surely based in part on Francis Marion, the not-as-nice "swamp fox" of the Revolution, as a great, almost ghostly guerrilla leader. Also, it personalizes the war for him. At some point, we know, he must confront the hateful Tavington mano a mano.

Before that can happen, a lot of war will have to be fought. Fought seriously. Fought painfully. And it is here that The Patriot often transcends the clichés of the epic form, not to mention director Emmerich's previous work (the mysteriously successful Independence Day and the seriously miscalculated Godzilla). This is possibly because the script is by Robert Rodat, who wrote the unblinking Saving Private Ryan. He and Emmerich stress two things. The first is the brutal reprisals the British take against the families of the men fighting with Martin. You cannot help comparing what happens in this movie with what we have been horrified to see, the day before yesterday, in the Balkans. Civil wars-which America's Revolution was-are even more relentless and unforgiving than other kinds of war, Rodat and Emmerich insist.

They are, however, also aware of the formal conventions of 18th century warfare, which were peculiarly sanguinary: two armies lined up neatly, marched toward one another until they were at virtually point-blank range, then fired. It is the sort of battle in which war's deadly essence is thrown into the highest possible relief.

One has to wonder if today's audience, out for escapist fun, will appreciate all this. The movie, though it is never less than surprising in its willingness to confront human ugliness and sometimes more than inspiring in its embrace of our better natures, is long-almost three hours. And some people won't be able to dig out the poignant reality beneath what looks superficially like rather old-fashioned spectacle.

But that, perhaps, is why Mel Gibson was placed on earth. He is hard pressed here-by family losses, by the unrelieved harshness of this nasty, backwoods war, by the demons that haunt his character. Yet we are never unaware of the actor's fundamental good nature, reflected in Martin's fierce, sweet love of family, the casual ease of his action passages. He is unquestionably a star who can open a picture. Now we will see if he can, as he did in the even more unlikely Braveheart, narrow the distance between the modern audience and far-off history. It is by no means a sure shot. On the other hand, it would be almost unpatriotic to bet against him.