Review: ‘The Patriot’ (2000) Remains a Powerful War Epic 20 Years Later
By Daniel Rester
The Patriot is one of the first R-rated movies I can recall seeing. I was just eight at the time. I watched it with my father and his friend on a giant TV with a booming sound system. It blew me away with its emotional and violent turns. It also got me interested in researching the Revolutionary War.
As I got older and learned more about history itself and the film’s production, I came to understand that The Patriot is largely fictional in its historical depiction. Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), the hero at the story’s center, wasn’t even a real person. The atrocities some of the British soldiers commit, like the burning of a church, are more in line with Nazi actions during WWII than anything based on fact for the Revolutionary War. The plot also dodges the slavery at the time for the most part, while the little it does depict is problematic (painting the slaves as not really minding serving their masters).
Despite it being defenseless in how it depicts history at times, I still love The Patriot. As an epic piece of summer action entertainment, it’s rousing. As a family drama, it’s moving. It nails the look of its time period and is brilliant on a technical level, from its costumes to its cinematography; it was deservedly nominated for Oscars for Best Sound, Best Music Score (John Williams), and Best Cinematography (Caleb Deschanel). The film is also easily the best work done by German director Roland Emmerich, who likes to make disaster films and jingoistic actioners.
The plot takes place in 1776 and follows the aforementioned Martin, a widower and “war hero” of the French and Indian Wars. He is afraid of his past and trying to raise his large family in the present. He doesn’t want to get involved with the conflicts between the Continental Army and the British. However, his hand is forced after his son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) is taken prisoner and another family member is killed. From there, we follow Martin and others as they fight the British in South Carolina.
Emmerich’s film, written by Saving Private Ryan (1998) screenwriter Robert Rodat, is big on spectacle and melodrama. But it also has well-drawn characters and a gripping story about a man coming to terms with his mistakes and grief. This helps keep it grounded even as Emmerich starts getting flashy with the set pieces, as with his uses of slow motion or his decapitation-by-cannonball scene.
The acting in The Patriot is excellent. Gibson was in his prime when the film was made. He is a force as Martin, perfectly cast as a veteran who becomes a legend called “The Ghost.” There’s a couple of crying scenes in here that are among the finest moments of Gibson’s career. Ledger is also terrific in an early showing of his star power to come. There’s some amusing father-and-son banter between these two; the film also finds humor with a running joke involving Martin building chairs.
The supporting players around Gibson and Ledger are strong too. Chris Cooper and Leon Rippy shine as two of the Continental soldiers. The actors portraying the British enemies do what they can despite being made into malevolent cartoon characters at times. Jason Isaacs is particularly memorable as the venomous William Tavington, a personal enemy of Martin’s.
As a historical lesson, The Patriot has a few hits but many misses. As grand historical fiction with American fist-pumping, though, it’s really entertaining. The battles are explosively staged, the images and sound design are expertly crafted, Gibson fires on all acting cylinders, and the John Williams music score is beautiful.
If you haven’t seen The Patriot yet, I recommend checking it out this Fourth of July. Just don’t take it as firm history. Grab popcorn for the movie but some books for the facts.
My Grade: 8.7/10 (letter grade equivalent: A-)
MPA Rating: R (for strong war violence)
Running Time: 2h 45min
USA Release Date: June 30th, 2000