At the outbreak of the American Revolution, Benjamin Martin (Mel
Gibson) is at home on his South Carolina plantation building a rocking
chair. A dispatch rider arrives with news that the colonial assembly is
convoked, but it is one war too many for Martin, a hero of the French
and Indian War in Quebec. Widowed now with seven children, he declines
to join the northern colonies against Britain, certain that reasonable
people can work out their differences peacefully. He is wrong. During
that very night British and American forces have brought the battle to
his own lands, and in the morning as he and his people are caring for
the wounded from both sides a British colonel rides up and orders all
wounded Americans shot.

The colonel commands Martin’s oldest son, who has turned up in the
night in American uniform, to be hanged as a spy. A younger son, running
to untie his brother, is shot dead by the colonel, who also, to compound
his sins, orders the family house burned to the ground. Martin dashes
into the burning house for three muskets, sends most of the remainder of
his family off to their Aunt Charlotte’s, and races into the woods with
two of his remaining, pre-teen boys. He finds the British convoy of
which his son is a prisoner, frees the youth, and savagely massacres the
escorts. For Benjamin Martin the war has begun.

Benjamin Martin himself is a fictional character, but the South (at
the opposite end of the country from Bunker Hill) played a major role in
the war under the guerrilla leadership of Francis Marion (“the Swamp
Fox”). The movie, however, contains some startling inaccuracies. It
presents a grand total of two blacks, one of whom is Martin’s
housekeeper (a grand estate in the ante bellum South with only one
servant? “Gone With The Wind” did better than that.) And the ranks of
the Southern military contain, similarly, exactly one black — and one
of that black’s Southern comrades in arms is eventually at some pains to
express his esteem. Although the entire film takes place in the deep
South, not one single character, white or black, speaks with the
slightest hint of a Southern accent.

As for Indians, Benjamin Martin encounters not a single one —
although at the time the South contained an over-abundance of Indians,
which was why in a later decade Andrew Jackson instigated a massive
campaign of what is today called “ethnic cleansing.” A giant operation
was set in motion whose simple and avowed purpose was to rid the South
of its Indian population — the operation to be called by Indians “The
Trail of Tears.” Their principal destination was Oklahoma, but only half
the Indians survived.

There was much racial genocide in early America. During the war
against the French, in the middle of the continent, Martin — then a
captain — comes across a village of settlers recently occupied by the
French. All the men have been murdered, and the women abused in a manner
left to the moviegoer to imagine. In vengeance, Martin has all the
French tortured to death. (It will be surprising if these scenes survive
uncut when the film is released in France.) For this merciless action
Martin is overwhelmingly contrite. One of his loyal supporters, however,
is a Frenchman, and the pages of history positively bulge with the names
of Europeans (usually aristocrats, French, Poles, Prussians), who
flocked to America to fight for the new American ideals.

The patriotic nature of “The Patriot” makes it highly pro-American
(like “Saving Private Ryan”) in comparison with most of the Hollywood
product of recent years. It is perhaps worth noting that both the film’s
star (Gibson) and director (Rolland Emerrich) are foreigners, (Gibson
having left the U.S. for Australia when he was 12.) It should also be
pointed out that Gibson in his private life is a man of strong religious
faith, as is his character in the film (neither common in Hollywood).

All in all, the film is beautifully made and acted. Lord Cornwallis
is assigned by George III to crush this unseemly insurrection by ratty
colonials. For the surrender at Yorktown, Washington extends the same
ignominious conditions that the British earlier imposed on him.

It might not mean much today, but in the 18th century what Washington
demanded was a point of great honor. The British were compelled to march
out of Yorktown in the formation of a defeated army. Cornwallis was too
ashamed to attend the ceremony personally but sent his sword out carried
by one of his officers. And two hours later the siege of Yorktown was
over. The British had surrendered and the United States of America was
an independent nation.

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