I have to admit that I was initially taken aback by the sight of Mel Gibson in a skirt. But "Braveheart" was so intensely convincing that I was soon swept up in the Scottish rebellion against English oppressors in the 13th century, with William Wallace's star-crossed efforts to lead it reminding me of "Spartacus." The pensive moments, the smoldering fires, the tragic hero whose personal struggles mirrored his people's, the individual subplots, the epic battle sequences—everything came together to make for a moving, sweeping saga.
I didn't have the same experience with "The Patriot." Many others did, but I never got past the sense that these were actors acting in a drama that was trying awfully hard to be epic. But "The Patriot" isn't nearly as complex as "Braveheart." It may have been visually sweeping, but there's a sense of smallness about it that makes the film feel more like a made-for-TV mini-series.
Despite its 175 minutes (10 of them added for this Extended Cut release), "The Patriot" feels like a historical shortcut, a patchwork quilt with a few homilies stitched in. Based in part on the life of Francis Marion, "The Swamp Fox," this film by Roland Emmerich ("Independence Day") features a script from Robert Rodat ("Saving Private Ryan") that seems to revert to Rodat's days of writing for television. The characters are more cardboard than we saw in "Braveheart," and the action seems as stagey as those stand-and-talk TV soapes. It's better than Disney's saga of "The Swamp Fox," which starred now-comedic actor Leslie Nielsen, but not by much.
Maybe part of the problem is the sheen of newness that everything has. The uniforms and clothing look fresh off the costume racks, and all the buildings and streets and pieces of lumber seem freshly painted and brand-spanking new. There's hardly a clue that a city like Charles Town (now Charleston, S.C.) was over a hundred years old at the time the action takes place, and that the southern colonies were struggling with embargoes the same as their northern counterparts.
Maybe part of the problem is that the characters feel like caricatures. Wealthy farmer Benjamin Martin (Gibson) has a past that prevents him from becoming a "patriot" and fighting for the future. He and others did some awful things at Fort Wilderness during the French and Indian Wars, and the engraved hatchet he keeps in a trunk is a reminder of the savagery. So his gentleman farmer is reluctant to get involved in the American Revolution. That's the extent of the complexity of the main character, and Gibson seems less able to tap into his character's essence than he was in "Braveheart." Other characters are similarly drawn, with every American colonist but Martin willing to fight (what about the Tories, folks?)—which renders a complicated political landscape as simply drawn as a child's fingerpainting. But the worst caricature is the villain. The writer and director have given us a full-blown, nasty, love-to-kill-and-maim bad guy to hate. Col. William Tavington (Jason Isaacs) is such a sneeringly awful man—one who shoots Martin's teen-aged son in the early going, and later shows no compunction whatsoever about killing women and children—that when the final battle against the forces of British Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) comes, the historic moment takes a back seat to personal revenge. In 1781, when patriots cornered Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, where a French fleet was waiting to prevent the British from retreating by sea, it was a major turning point for the American Revolution that really isn't emphasized here all that much.
But that's no surprise. "The Patriot" blurs facts and reality with no apparent conscience. Martin is like The Swamp Fox insomuch as he and his men ride into the swamps and have their encampment there. But while the real Swamp Fox and his men were guerillas who ambushed the Redcoats and then hightailed it back to the swamps to hide, the swamps simply serve as a headquarters for a group of state militia who fight alongside Army regulars in those straight military lines that were common back then. Though Martin advocates non-conventional warfare, he seems way too willing to take his men and fight in ranks, without trying to convince the leaders that other methods might work better. It's also a bit much that Martin took the pouch of lead soldiers that belonged to his murdered son and used them, one by one, to melt down into musket and pistol balls—with one, of course, saved like, like a silver bullet, for dealing with that villainous officer who killed the boy.
Curiously, one historical accuracy also contributes to a sense of the film's fantasy. Though we learn in a making-of feature from historians that cannonballs did not explode, but rather rolled, bounced and took off entire limbs of soldiers in those military formations, the sight of that happening in a film for the first time is so strange that it seems a 21st century computer trick and nothing more.
The things that are truly epic in this film are the battle sequences and the sweeping cinematography. If only the characters were less cardboard, the plotline more complex, and the look of the sets and costumes more appropriately shopworn. And if only there were more sideplots. Half of the film seems spent illustrating Martin's reluctance, and the other half depicting battles. The one character who comes closet to genuine growth is Gabriel Martin (Heath Ledger), who confides in his father about a special girl (Lisa Brenner). But the relationship that had the most potential—one between Martin and his widowed wife's sister, Charlotte (Joely Richardson) isn't satisfyingly pursued. Chris Cooper seems wasted as an American colonel, and Tcheky Karyo seems absolutely token as the lone Frenchman fighting with the patriots. But perhaps the most offensive characters are a slave and a redneck fighting redcoats side-by-side. That these two characters are to represent the whole complex relationship between blacks and whites is more symbolic of the writer's and director's naivete rather than a national acceptance of slaves because they fought for their freedom. As even one of the extras confirms, blacks fought on both sides, and for the same goal—freedom—but that level of complexity never makes it into the film.
What makes it into this one is apparently 10 more minutes of slashing gore.
Video: As befits a big-budget picture, this one has great video quality. It's remastered in High Definition and presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. But maybe the colors are a bit too bright for it to seem truly period.
Audio: Every cannon shot rattles the speakers, with English 5.1 and French, Spanish, and Portuguese Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround. Subtitles are in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish, and the audio is booming—especially with the 5.1.
Extras: Those who already own "The Patriot" on DVD may want to hang on to the Special Edition, because it contains a director's commentary that apparently had to be dropped to accommodate the addition of 10 minutes of footage and additional language tracks.
But the other extras from the first release are still here. A short feature on "True Patriots" and "The Art of War" are pretty standard making-of features that attempt to illuminate for audiences what didn't come across on film. There's also an interactive visual effects short feature that's a repeat, and conceptual art to film comparisons. Rounding out the extras are photo galleries and filmographies. Of the extras, I actually enjoyed the brief one on converting art to film that showed storyboards compared to stages of filming. If you already own "The Patriot," there's nothing in these 10 minutes that would make it worth your buying it again.
Bottom Line: Is "The Patriot" entertaining? Yes. Is it a great film? Not by any stretch of the imagination. Will it make Americans appreciate their heritage or think differently about the Revolutionary War? Probably not. Years from now, historians will look at this film as a relic of the Bush years, when everything was black and white, and nationalistic bravado was in the air. But for now, it's not as much of a flag-waver as it is another saga of good vs. exaggerated evil.