Reviews: The Patriot

The Patriot

review by Chris Bichler

Reviewer’s note: These comments are loosely cobbled together from a couple of posts that I sent to RAFL shortly after The Patriot premiered during the summer, and some of my remarks were originally responses to thoughts posted by other list members. Ina Hark and Judith Medina deserve special mention for spurring some of these comments, and the “Friar Tuck” allusion originates with Ina.

Okay, true confessions time. My earliest and most primal concepts of what “America” means were largely shaped, not by Star Trek, but by Schoolhouse Rock. You remember — those great little Saturday morning snippets of “educational” TV that taught us all about “Conjunction Junction” and to how to sing the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution? (Hey, it beats William Shatner lecturing to the Yangs and the Coms, but I digress…) At some point in my adolescence, I graduated from musical summaries of history to appreciating the sight of men in knee-breeches, which certainly explains why I sat through so many mediocre TV dramatizations of John Jakes novels. And yes, I freely admit that I could watch reruns of Poldark from now until my 80th birthday and never get bored.

All of this is just context to explain that The Patriot was bound to get my attention sooner or later. In this case, due to René’s involvement in the project, it was sooner — and I’m glad about that, as this latest Mel Gibson flick is a very worthwhile film on several levels — though historical purists of the sort who skewered Disney’s Pocahontas will definitely want to take a pass. This is, after all, still a big ol’ Hollywood film positioning itself as a romantic blockbuster rather than a history lesson or an exercise in multicultural storytelling.

In most ways, this is a completely typical “western hero” saga. And while Gibson certainly makes an engaging hero, I think the movie might have been a little less predictable if it hadn’t ultimately boiled down to a High Noon-style showdown between his character and Chief-Bad-Guy Colonel Tavington. The film’s constant need to focus on Gibson as The Lone Hero was the single factor which, to my mind, accounted for most of the movie’s flaws. Personally, I would’ve preferred something closer to an “ensemble” approach that might have given some of the supporting characters (including but not limited to René’s Rev. Oliver) a chance to shine. But the movie industry is what it is, and you pay for your ticket knowing (among other things) exactly who is gonna get to off the Bad Guy (more on that in a minute…) and that any glimpses you get into any supporting character’s emotional life are mere happy accidents. As someone who invariably (and proudly) prefers television to “the big screen”, I kept wishing for the one-hour episode where we get to see things from Rev. Oliver’s point of view, or Gabriel’s — or hell, even the dogs’ perspective. Alas for the genre-constraints of the two-hour-plus big-budget feature.

Given that (fairly huge) caveat, I thought this was a fine and entertaining film with enough historical accuracy to at least raise some interesting questions about the American Revolution. For me, by far the most absorbing part of the film is the first hour or so, in which Gibson’s character Benjamin Martin is forced by circumstance to take up arms and become a soldier once more — rather than remaining on his farm to raise his family. Martin, as we find out, is a man with a dark past, who once slaughtered innocents during the French and Indian War. The conflict between Martin as family man versus Martin as warrior is fascinating and well-developed, and convincingly acted by Gibson. I appreciated the film’s strong insistence on many of the darker realities of our history, including the fact that families and children were not shielded from violence during the American Revolution — a war which is so often idealized in history texts and popular culture that it’s been rendered almost bloodless in the American memory. A sequence in which Martin takes his two young sons out into the forest to help him shoot down some British troops is one of the most absorbing and troubling moments in the film, and underlines something we all know intellectually about the colonial period: children were treated as “adults” at a much younger age, and would certainly have been part of the wartime violence. The film stresses the image of very young boys going off to serve as soldiers in the Continental Army in a number of scenes — and this both lends the film a strong dose of realism and also provides some sobering moments of reflection for the audience.

Also ever-present is the threat that colonial soldiers would lose their homes and families during the war. We the audience are never allowed to forget that aspect of the Revolution, so The Patriot on that score is a thought-provoking and possibly even “accurate” film.

Also pretty nifty is the sense of the “motley crew” of average Americans defending their homes from trained soldiers. This is a more romanticized aspect of the film. Racism, of course, is largely — though not entirely — ignored here, but it’s still a lot of fun to see the various social classes of the American “peasantry” (deliberately contrasted with British “aristocrats”) working together for a common goal. It’s particularly amusing to watch the toughs that Martin recruits from a rowdy pub mingling with gentler, more god-fearing souls like Rev. Oliver. Obviously this is the American “melting pot, classless society” mythos in full-swing. Accurate or not, it’s lost nothing of its charm and primal appeal over the years.

The film is not without its comic moments — Martin’s quest for the perfect rocking chair becomes a running gag, as does his befriending of a couple of huge Great Danes procured…er, swiped…from Lord Cornwallis. There’s also a lot of really nice father-and-son banter and heart-to-heart between Martin and his oldest son Gabriel. René’s character has a charming comic moment in strapping on his musket, ripping off his powdered wig, and vowing to “fend off the wolves” as he marches off to enlist in the cause — much to the shock of his congregation.

The battle scenes in the film are indeed bloody — sometimes gratuitously so (two that focus on canonballs spring to mind), but on the whole I didn’t find that aspect of the film traumatic. Most of the sword-cuts that occur are actually staged so that you don’t see any blades cutting into flesh. Even one very disturbing scene in which a horse is felled by the point of a flagstaff is mostly implied violence. You see Gibson fall to his knees, you see the staff pointing up, you see the horse keel over…but you don’t really see much blood (from the horse, anyway…) This isn’t to minimize the fairly frank portrayal of warfare here — but I was actually surprised by how much of the violence was implied or at least blunted with cut-away shots and such.

Ideologically, the film is a little schizophrenic. On the one hand, there is unabashed flag-waving patriotism and sentimental rhapsodizing about a concept of “liberty” which is left largely undefined in any concrete sense. On the other, the film does a powerful job of conveying the senselessness and brutality that come with any war, and a very good job of respecting the heroism of the many who sacrifice themselves for others, perhaps to be forgotten as individuals. Still, this isn’t a movie about the heroism of “little people” — in the end it remains an action flick in which Our Hero takes out the Bad Guy mano-a-mano in the film’s closing moments. But for all of that, there is much in The Patriot that provides food for thought as well as entertainment.

Now we come to the really gratuitous, self-indulgent part of part of the review where I just talk about René (you knew that was coming, right?) Having been to a few conventions where the actor talked about shooting a death scene for this film, and having gotten rather attached to Rev. Oliver — who appears as a fairly sweet and “innocent” character in the early part of the film and gradually progresses to a skilled and rugged soldier — I found myself just a little worried that the good reverend was going to meet a terrible end. Well, as it turned out, his death wasn’t pretty, but at least it was quick and clean (or rather, looked quick and clean — word has it that this death sequence took three days to shoot. It takes up only seconds on the screen). Unfortunately I knew that Oliver was doomed the instant that the camera started cutting back and forth between him and the Chief Bad Guy — it was probably one of the few times that René was the only character standing in the shot — and everyone knows darn well that only Mel is allowed to kill the baddie.(sigh).

I must say, however, that this was one of the trickiest looking scenes I’ve watched in any film. The timing was such that Martin’s son Gabriel had to snatch up Oliver’s loaded musket just as Oliver is falling (viewed from several different angles). I don’t even want to think about the number of times René actually had to fall to get that effect right.

But (just for the record), in the shots before the death scene — in which Oliver is priming his musket, standing against the sky and looking very determinedly into the camera — René’s character is indeed the very essence of heroism. It’s a moment that resonates in memory well after the film is over.

There were other great scenes for Rev. Oliver, too. Watch for him dancing in that background at the wedding reception — also the look on his face when one of the other characters jokes about eating the dogs. There’s enough good material here to make any René fan very happy. His character is lovable and principled and, indeed, does seem to function as a kind of Friar Tuck at times. TV buff though I am, I’m certainly willing to admit that sometimes there is something to be said for looking at actors on a big screen.



A Few More Thoughts
by Marguerite Krause

I saw this film twice during its opening week, first with my college graduate daughter, the next time with my husband and son. My daughter found that it reminded her in some ways of Saving Private Ryan, and in others of Braveheart, which is fitting considering the screenwriter and leading man. Very strong in “atmosphere,” very powerful emotionally, no easy answers to the philosophical questions raised, no cardboard villains — and although it runs close to three hours, it was never boring.

René’s character, and his performance, were excellent. He liked to joke at conventions during the months before the movie’s release that trying to find him in the movie would be like playing “where’s Waldo?” but that was absolutely not the case. Just about every scene that includes Rev. Oliver features him in a clear and often prominent position, in which Oliver says or does something significant in his relationship with other characters, or to illuminate things about the characters or the situation. René’s amazingly expressive body and face contribute immensely, too, even when he has no actual dialogue.

There were several things I thought were excellent about René’s character. First was his general attitude: that as the town’s minister, he had a responsibility to look after his flock, wherever they went.

Second was the way Rev. Oliver served as a good example of the ordinary kinds of people who joined the militia — not just rough, tough trappers and hunters and backwoodsmen, like the men Ben Martin recruited at the tavern, but ordinary farmers and townsfolk. The reverend came across as an average Colonial civilian — even though he wasn’t a “professional soldier,” he could take care of himself in a fight and knew how to handle horses and guns, all of which would have been totally necessary and normal for any able-bodied adult male of that time period.

Third, he was someone the audience could relate to. There were several moments which could have seemed totally alien, maybe even incomprehensible to our modern sensibilities, but the reverend provided a “window” or a perspective through which we could relate to what was going on. Rev. Oliver was “accessible” because he was more like “one of us” than most of the other characters — or at least his reactions felt familiar, as if we might react similarly if we were in that situation.

One great example was when they captured Cornwallis’s wagons and Great Danes, and I think one of the “tough guys” suggested that they should “drink the liquor, burn the papers, and eat the dogs.” The reverend’s reaction echoed the sensibilities of modern, pet-loving Americans…and of course set up the lovely comic thread about the dogs that continued throughout the movie.

Other, more serious places where I think Rev. Oliver provided a strong audience-identification presence were when John committed suicide, and when Martin’s troop discovered the burned church. In the suicide scene, Oliver provided the voice of reason, trying to talk John through his horror…and after John shot himself, Oliver’s face reflected the shock and grief that seems “normal” to us modern Americans, compared to the stoic or subdued reactions of everyone else in the group.

The burned church scene was very powerful to me. As the group arrived, it seemed that most, like Gabriel, were concerned and confused — they couldn’t figure out where the townsfolk might be hiding, or why the British would have burned just one building instead of firing the whole town. They didn’t immediately grasp what had happened. Ben, who approached the church first, seemed to know, but his face remained expressionless, almost unsurprised, as if he’d seen so many horrors at the hands of the British that he had no emotions left to deal with this one.

However, right after we saw Gabriel knocking on the Howard family’s front door, and Ben staring grimly at the church, we saw Rev. Oliver — and his expression clearly revealed that he knew exactly what had been done, and was totally distraught with the horror and grief of it. Again, I thought this was a great use of the character (and wonderful performing by René) because the reverend, of all the people in the group, would have been most likely to recognize what had happened. He was an educated man, and on top of that, a clergyman…so he, of all of them, would have known how many times in history people have been locked in a house of worship and burned alive.

His knowledge, and his agony, showed so clearly that it gave the audience comfort, in a way — here was someone who understood as clearly as if he had been there to witness the atrocity…the way we had been.

Now, as for Oliver and Gabriel’s final scene….

The first thing I have to point out is that, as I watched the movie the first time I had no sense at all of how long I’d been sitting in the theatre, or how much longer the movie had to run. Also, my daughter and I both agree that using slow motion in action scenes can sometimes seem annoying or “fake” — but in the case of the last fight scene with Gabriel and Rev. Oliver, the slow motion seemed perfectly justified.

The first thing that struck me, as the fight went into slow motion with Rev. Oliver loading his rifle and Tavington seeing his danger and starting to load his pistol, was how truly alien this kind of warfare is to our modern perspective. It wasn’t just a matter of which side had more men or better weapons, or even who had the better aim. A big part of the equation was who had the most personal courage — the sheer nerve — to stand there, eye to eye with his enemy, and keep his hands steady and his wits about him so that he could correctly load his gun!

The fact that the scene was in slow motion gave the audience time to clearly see what was happening, what choices the characters were making, and to anticipate the consequences — which led to a great, multi-level build-up and release of dramatic tension.

First level: we see that Rev. Oliver is in a position to kill Tavington…and it looks like Oliver is going to get his gun loaded and be ready to fire well before Tavington. Bad guy about to die: emotional upswing for the audience.

Second level: Oliver finishes loading, but sees that Gabriel is in danger, considers his options, then chooses to sacrifice his clear shot and instead give Gabriel the immediate help he needs. This is both scary and satisfying: we know Oliver well enough by this point to expect this kind of behavior from him — his first instinct is always going to be to take care of his flock — but we also fear that he’s blown his chance against Tavington. Oliver moves so quickly that the audience’s sense of hope stays high: he might yet have time to get Tavington. But no — Tavington fires and hits Oliver, who collapses: emotions plummet for the audience.

Third level: As Oliver falls and Gabriel turns and takes in the situation, Oliver passes his gun — still loaded and ready to fire! — to Gabriel. Audience hope rises again: now Gabriel is armed and ready, and Tavington’s gun is empty. Sure enough, Gabriel fulfills our expectations, stays calm, takes aim, and shoots Tavington. Emotional upswing for the audience again, higher than before because of being mixed with shock at Oliver’s death and the excitement of seeing victory grasped from the jaws of defeat.

Fourth level: With Tavington down, Gabriel retrieves his knife and approaches the body of the man who murdered a town full of innocent people, including his bride. The camera focuses on Gabriel’s expression, and because I had no sense of whether we were close to the end of the movie or still had a while to go, I was prepared for this to be the movie’s moment of philosophical or ethical resolution…we would see whether Gabriel would be just like his father, and vent his wrath in a display of violence (like Ben at Fort Wilderness, or when he hacked the body of the soldier with his tomahawk, when he and the boys rescued Gabriel after Thomas’s death), or whether Gabriel would rise above the temptation to mutilate Tavington’s body, and show himself to be even more of a hero than his father. Audience emotions: still high, poised for resolution.

Fifth level: Tavington rolls over and kills Gabriel! Audience emotions shattered downward, even deeper than before as we see Tavington literally getting away with murder: Gabriel’s death, Oliver’s death, and the still-unavenged deaths of the townsfolk. When Ben arrives and sinks into grief, the characters, the plot, and the audience have all hit the emotional low point of the film.

This whole emotional roller coaster covered only a few minutes on screen, but thanks to the clarity of the performances and the almost suspended quality of the slow motion, it had a profound emotional impact, climaxing in Ben’s breakdown.

In fact, both times I saw the film I came away with a lingering sadness — and I think this sequence (the murder of the townsfolk through Gabriel’s death) contributed strongly to that effect. There is plenty in the story to sadden and outrage us — so many lives lost in the various battles — but the impact of this fight scene was increased because it was up close and personal, involved two especially likable characters, and had the added sting of unfairness with Tavington’s escape, because we know that he’s only going to create more misery later on.

All in all, The Patriot is a powerful film and, even if you don’t generally enjoy war movies or historical epics, if you’re a fan of René’s work, you won’t want to miss his performance in this movie.