The Patriot, Mel Gibson’s epic about the American Revolution, opened (by an amazing coincidence) in theaters on Independence Day weekend. And cynics complain that Americans don’t take national holidays seriously anymore! Many viewers may regard the film as one more wallow in fantasy and stale popcorn, but among the nation’s literati, it has actually incited something resembling thought.
Yet the resemblance is not too close. The immediate reaction to The Patriot was denunciation for a scene in which the hero’s pre-teen sons are given flintlock rifles by their dad (Gibson) and conscripted to help massacre a contingent of British troops about to hang their brother.
Children aren’t supposed to have guns, you sec; and you are not supposed to have guns either. Even if you do have guns, you’re not supposed to give them to kids. And even if you give them to kids, you’re supposed to tell them not to shoot anything, especially people, even if they’re government troops about to hang your son. What you’re supposed to do in situations like this is dial 911 and wait for the cops. The film manages to violate every one of these rules in the space of about ten minutes.
This line of criticism came a cropper when Mr. Gibson and the film’s producers refused to change anything in the script, but it should have told them what was in store for their movie. Is it too much to ask late-20th-century critics to grasp that people who lived 200 years ago did not necessarily harbor quite the same superstitions that we do? Maybe back then, they believed in witchcraft and were against premarital sex and all that sort of stuff but even they didn’t believe in gun control.
Undoubtedly the dumbest thing said about the film (maybe the dumbest thing ever said about anything) comes from Jonathan Foreman, reviewing The Patriot for Salon.com. Mr. Foreman found it objectionable because “‘The Patriot’ presents a deeply sentimental cult of the family, casts unusually Aryan-looking heroes and avoids any democratic or political context in its portrayal of the Revolutionary War.”
Not only is the cast entirely too Aryan for Mr. Foreman, but the scene with the pre-teen sharpshooters is “the equivalent of the Werwolf boy-soldiers that the Third Reich was thought to have recruited from the Hitler Youth to carry out guerrilla attacks against the invading Allies.” Well, now, it ought to be clear what Gibson and his “German director Roland Emmerich” are up to. “Ifs hard not to wonder if the filmmakers have some kind of subconscious agenda,” Mr. Foreman mutters. The Patriot won’t win any Academy Awards, but Mr. Foreman and his own agenda ought to get a Pulitzer for paranoia.
You are probably catching the drift of the objections leveled at the movie. Not only is it politically incorrect on gun control but also on race (by leaving out all the glorious ethnic diversity of 18th-century South Carolina) and other matters as well. There’s no sex in the movie and no slavery. Gibson, a prosperous farmer, employs free black laborers.
Actually, even though it’s an obvious evasion of the slavery issue, this is not inaccurate. According to Eugene Genovese, the leading historian of American slavery, there were numerous free black farm laborers in colonial America. Their number began to dwindle after the Revolution.
But if there aren’t any slaves, there isn’t any feminism, either. The female characters are strong women, but they do not behave like men. They don’t shoot people or fight in battles or save the male characters, but they do protect homes and children, facing mortal dangers bravely. Religion—meaning Christianity— is also positively portrayed, with characters gathering in churches and a clergyman who actually bears arms against the foe.
A reviewer in National Review complained that Gibson’s character “does not fight for principle or country—at least not at first—but for vengeance. The relevant political institution is not South Carolina, but the family. This seems like a pretty serious cop-out for a film called ‘The Patriot.'”
But maybe that’s a point that few people today (especially at National Review) can understand—that patriotism begins with the family and works its way up; that nobody really fights for abstractions like “democracy” or “human rights” or “equality,” but to protect hearth and home; and that when hearth and home are trampled and torched, you take revenge.
A people steeped in those principles probably doesn’t need much else, and it won’t have many enemies who can conquer it. If Americans have forgotten those principles, they can go see The Patriot and remember what their forebears really fought for.
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