In response to British atrocities, a war hero reluctantly joins in the American Revolution. [ The Patriot credits: Dir: Roland Emmerich/ Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson/ 164min/ Action-Adventure/ American Revolution]
This is primarily a film about family loyalty and about war per se, and only secondarily one about the American Revolutionary War. Nonetheless, there are so few films that even touch upon the American Revolution that it will still be of interest to libertarians.
At the center of The Patriot is Benjamin Martin—a widower, a South Carolina farmer, and a caring father of seven children. It’s 1776, and the war for independence from Britain has just begun. Martin is reluctant to join the conflict as he remembers too well his own (as it turns out bloody and morally questionable) experience in the earlier French & Indian War. Even so, he can’t stop his idealistic eldest son from signing up with the rebel forces. Martin’s loyalty to his son soon draws him into the war as well.
In particular, when his son is captured and is about to be unjustly executed by a vicious British colonel named Tavington, Martin gets his guns from home and intervenes. (Incidentally, not only do Martin’s guns not have child safety locks, his ten-year-old sons do some of the shooting to help free their brother.) In the course of freeing his eldest son, Martin is suddenly transformed from a gentle family man into a blood-soaked warrior from hell. From then on, he’s fully engaged in fighting the British and in responding to Tavington’s relentless atrocities.
Throughout all this, Martin’s primary motivations are paternal. That is, at first he refuses to fight because he wants to take care of his family. Then he changes his mind and fights in order to save his son. And finally he fights to avenge and give meaning to his son’s death. These motivations are all sympathetic, but they aren’t the reasons that the American Revolutionary War is uniquely important. What makes this war different, what makes it of interest to libertarians, is that it was much more than just a war against something bad; it was a war for individual liberty, the linchpin of progress and human happiness. Unfortunately, that underlying philosophical basis is touched on only briefly.
As entertainment, The Patriot is a sometimes exciting and moving war drama. If it weren’t for the high level of graphic gore (including lots of bloody slashing, bashing, and the sight of soldiers’ limbs being torn off by cannonballs), it could even pass for a family film, with considerable feel-good content (love interests, racial integration). It’s a bit on the long side at nearly three hours, but the time goes by surprisingly fast. Production values are very high. It’s clear that an effort was made to achieve historical accuracy in small details, and indeed, some of the main characters are loosely based on actual combatants from the war.
However, it should be underscored that The Patriot is a fictional story, and in all likelihood unfair to the British. They may have been on the wrong side philosophically in this war, but they certainly had no monopoly on atrocities; there were plenty committed on both sides. As for the Revolution, it’s disappointing that there wasn’t more explanation in this film as to what it was about, but I think libertarians will still get something out of this rare cinematic salute in part just for the reminder of the kind of sacrifice that went into winning it. In other respects, this film is everything you’d expect—Mel Gibson, flag-waving, moral righteousness, and lots of carnage. The carnage aside, I enjoyed it.