Reviewer: Dallas Shipp
Prepare yourself for the most moving picture of the decade. This stunning screen adaptation of the plights, heartache, and torment of the first American war comes to life with touching realism and heartbreaking honesty. Mel Gibson stars as the brave hero who must go to war to fight for his family... and his freedom. The world as Benjamin Martin knows it is changing. His peaceful farm in the rolling Virginian countryside is largely unaffected by the whispers of war. He spends his days carving rocking chairs and caring for his seven children. But beyond the tall corn rows and the glittering droplets of the sea comes a dark storm, a storm that would forever shape the course of history. Called to the capital for an emergency meeting of the Colonies, Benjamin is horrified to learn that they are planning war with England. Despite his wishes his eldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) enlists and his second-eldest, Thomas (Gregory Smith), longs for the day when he too may take up the rebel flag and go to war.
Despite the best attempts by the Colonists to keep enemy forces at bay the British, lead by the ruthless Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs), are ravishing the countryside, invading farms and towns along the coast. And ultimately their search for rebels leads them to Benjamin Martin's farm where Gabriel is concealed, having been wounded in a skirmish. Tavington takes the young man prisoner and orders his execution. Killing all wounded rebel soldiers, he is confronted by an angry Thomas. As Benjamin and his children watch in horror, without pause or reflection Tavington kills the boy. Benjamin's fury mounts as the British ride out with his eldest son and he cradles his dead child in his arms. Leaving the girls with orders to hide in the woods, he takes his two remaining eldest boys and sets out after Gabriel. After a violent interlude with British troops, Benjamin buries Thomas and takes his children to their aunt Charlotte's (played by Jolie Richardson) house in Charleston.
He then enlists and soon earns the nickname of "The Ghost" with his daring and successful raids on British troops. General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) is desperate to regain lost ground and reluctantly gives Colonel Tavington leave to pursue The Ghost and his men in any way he can. Up until now he has condemned the man's "brutal tactics" as without proper conduct and not appealing to the crown. But he has turned his army over to a monster without a shred of conscience, a man with a bone to pick with an old enemy, and far more lies at stake now than anyone could have ever imagined. Admittedly a brutal and at times barbaric film, The Patriot is the first movie in a long time to actually honor and pay homage to our great nation of America. It not only outlines the hell of war but the personal stories behind those involved in the Revolution against England. And at the heart of the issue lies a true diamond.. an honest respect for Christianity. Benjamin Martin is a man who believes in prayer; he is shown often grappling with the ways of God.
Crosses are very symbolic in the film and are seen often. Prayer is respected and honored; at a harsh moment of emotion, Benjamin prays for God's strength to fill him. A man and woman are married under a profoundly religious ceremony. One of the most memorable lines comes from Benjamin, when he is questioned about his past. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't ask God for forgiveness for what I did." Despite loss he never loses faith. A pastor is given a large role as the voice of compassion in The Ghost's band of men; he goes to war "to fend off the wolves" that may prey upon his flock, pleads with Benjamin to spare captured British solders instead of killing them, prays with his companions in prison, and eventually gives his life for another. Some may mistake Benjamin's enlisting as an opportunity for revenge against Colonel Tavington but in truth Benjamin skips the opportunity to kill his mortal enemy when he sees that the Patriots are falling back, the line breaking. He chooses instead to carry the flag forward in one of the most moving scenes of cinematic history, to lead the charge for freedom. The passion and honor for America is seen in every face; this is a profoundly patriotic film that was much too overlooked under the shadow of Gladiator at the Academy Awards. Generally I avoid explicitly violent films like the plague but I very much enjoyed The Patriot for the lessons it teaches are worth far more than the blood and violence and there are enough quiet moments, touching scenes between family and friends, to keep a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
Thus said, it very much deserves the R-rating for the high body count and gore. But you cannot make a soft war movie any more than you could make Titanic without the ship sinking. As expected, many people are shot, stabbed, and mowed down. A cannonball decapitates one man and takes the leg off another. A tomahawk embeds itself into a man's head. Someone commits suicide after learning of the murder of his wife and child. There's a lot of blood. By far the most offensive and gruesome scene is when Benjamin looses his temper and in his fury and grief hacks to pieces the body of a fallen British soldier. We never witness the actual contact or damage (thankfully the director chose to cut a scene immediately following in which we did see the carnage) but have to endure imagining what happened, and see our hero bathed in blood. I would have appreciated the film more without the blood but other than violence there is hardly any objectionable content. A handful of profanity, no sensuality, nudity, or even innuendo.
There are touching moments of romance and a heartbreaking scene between father and daughter that reduced everyone in the theater to tears. The one other caution I might mention that this is a very intense film emotionally -- viewers should be forewarned that main characters do die unexpectedly, which is the true essence of war -- people we love die. It will make you laugh. It will make you cry. It will make you proud to be an American and it will touch you deeply. I will renew your sense of patriotism and take a good long look at the "heroes" of our world today. The Patriot will awaken feelings of freedom that our forefathers cherished -- that they shed their blood for us so that we might live in freedom. The freedom of free speech. The freedom to go and live and work at whatever we want to. The freedom to worship in any way we desire. But perhaps most importantly it will renew our sense of the truly important things in life... family... friends... and faith.