On watching “The Patriot”…

11/07/2000

Hollywood history has had its villains, and they seem to come in blocks. At the end of the forties (with strands oozing all the way up until the present day), these villains were from Nazi Germany. In the fifties, these villains were the Red Menace of Communists at home and abroad. By the end of the sixties, the enemy was becoming (more often than you’d expect) the government itself. By the time we reach the seventies and eighties, if the enemies were anything, it was probably taste. But that’s another story.
But in this – the first year of the new Millennium, there are a whole new batch of bad-guys to hate and fear – the people who may come along while you sleep and replace your children with crude duplicates carved out of root vegetables – the people who wear exotic clothing and move in an almost sinisterly stiff fashion – mindless drones of cruel masters, the menace is now … British …

INTERLUDE: A man and a woman leave the cinema and walk towards their car. The woman turns to the man and says, “I thought that bloody film would never end.” The man replies, “In some of the lower circles of hell, it never will.”

The plot of the Patriot is loosely based upon actual events in the US. Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) plays a retired Colonel with an infinity of Healthy, Wholesome Children and a cult of cheery non-enslaved black people who belt out the odd cheery number that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the Little Mermaid.
The oldest of his Healthy, Wholesome Children is called Gabriel (Heath Ledger) – a headstrong child, but with good moral fibre and teeth. His father – ashamed of his actions in the French and Indian War – decides to sit out the attempt of America to declare independence from Britain. But when Gabriel (who, I should add, resembles nothing more than a claymation duplicate of himself) enlists in the army, only to be captured by evil British Colonel Tavington – a man who subsequently burns down the family home and disposes of one of the middle Healthy Wholesome Children – Ben Martin realises that he has to get involved in the struggle.
Assembling a team of guerilla fighters, Ben Martin gradually takes a more and more central role in defending the good old US of A from the brutish Brits – but will his daughter come around and recognise him again? Will Joely Richardson (playing the sister of Ben Martin’s dead wife) fall in love with him? And will he get the opportunity to run around in slow motion with a huge American flag.
Yes. Yes. And yes, I’m afraid he will.

INTERLUDE: The man and the woman return home to their flatmate, who works in the film industry. She is eager to hear all about the film, as the English villain is played by someone she used to work with. The man and the woman struggle to explain how bad the film is, how it plays fast and loose with history and how Mel Gibson really must have an issue with the British – particularly after Braveheart. Between them the three try out various new names for the movie, including “The Patronise” and “The Pantriot”.


The Patriot was released in America some time around Independence Day – which is pretty much what you’d expect I guess. The reviews were pretty average in the US, and worse in the UK.
The problem with the film is that it passes over the opportunity to actually talk about a difficult time in American history – where loyalties were heavily conflicted between royalists and those who supported independence – and decides instead to opt for cheap jingoism, often at the expense of the truth. The “Old World” becomes the repository for all that is bad in the world, and the “New World” the representation of all that is positive.
Now before I go any further, I should point out that I’m not in any way here trying to defend the actions of Imperialist cultures of which the British Empire was one of the most globally successful and brutal. These cultures committed wide-spread atrocities world-wide, taking over less technologically advanced cultures and erasing people who got in their way.
But bear in mind that even in the time that the film is set, many colonial Americans still considered themselves to be, in essence, Europeans – members of the same culture that would be through this war divided into two. These same colonial Americans were systematically involved in the extermination of Native American cultures, they came from the same cultural background as the people they were fighting and they were supported by an anti-royalist French with their own colonial agendas.
It’s very difficult to retrofit modern morals onto period politics with any success at all – but while “No Taxation Without Representation” still works for modern moralists, the fact both Americans and Europeans were still involved in slavery makes the clear moral division a harder one to delineate into a simplistic “goodies” versus “baddies” movie.
But rather than explore this tension, the film instead hides it, characterising the British as child-eating, church-burning, godless deviants, while all the things that Americans today find objectionable about their own past – the things that generate guilt (again, for example, slavery) are also shunted off onto the malevolent European.
Case in point: At one point, the Aardman-animated Gabriel makes a speech to a black slave who is fighting alongside them. He says something to the effect of, “We are fighting against the Old World, and Old Ways, this is the New World, and there will be no slavery in it”. Actual facts – Britain abolished slavery FORTY YEARS before the United States did. And when the issue of slavery was finally to be decided in the US, it became a substantial component in a Civil War.
The Patriot can’t and won’t face up to this fact, and so remains an insult to history and a cheap attempt to depict a difficult and complicated struggle as instead Evil, Corrupt, Power-Crazed, Racist Big Monarchist Bad Guys versus simple decent farmer folk who love black people and freedom and don’t really even WANT to fight and who are actually Australian in upbringing. It’s like a part of American culture is still a teenager, lurking like Bart Simpson in the middle of a calamity, saying to itself: “I didn’t do it!

INTERLUDE: The man and his flatmate who works in the film industry go to Sainsbury’s on Finchley Road in London. Suddenly they notice the evil British star of The Patriot getting some groceries with his wife. The flatmate smiles and chats and says that she’s heard good things about the film, determined not to say anything bad about it until she’s at least SEEN the film. The man stands back, trying to work out why ANYONE would do a film in which they are helping to generate a revisionist view of history which slams their own country. He can’t think of a thing to say…

… so I’ll end with a quote from an article in Salon about the phenomenon of the EVIL BRITISH:
“The prizewinning historian and biographer Andrew Roberts called the film Patriot “racist” in the Daily Express, and pointed out that it was only the latest in a series of films like “Titanic,” “Michael Collins” and “The Jungle Book” remake that have depicted the British as “treacherous, cowardly, evil [and] sadistic.” Roberts had a theory: “With their own record of killing 12 million American Indians and supporting slavery for four decades after the British abolished it, Americans wish to project their historical guilt onto someone else.””