"What would you do…if they destroyed your home…if they threatened your family…if they stole your freedom…where would you draw the line?
Wow. If the British hadn't pissed off Mel Gibson, America might never have become an independent nation…George Washington? Who's that?!?
Facts of the Case
It's 1776 and South Carolina farmer and veteran of the French and Indian War, Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson, Braveheart), is reluctant to get involved in a fight with the British army even as his eldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger, A Knight's Tale) joins the colonial army and America's founders, conspicuously off screen, draft the Declaration of Independence. When an evil British colonel (Jason Isaacs, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) burns down his house and murders one of his boys, Martin is driven into action. What ensues is Revolutionary War butt-kicking as envisioned by director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin (the duo behind 1998's horrendous Godzilla) and screenwriter Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan).
Since The Patriot has been repeatedly examined as an historical film, and beaten mercilessly for its failings on that level, I'm not going to pursue that path in this review. I'll be looking at the film as a piece of entertainment, which, I believe, is how it's meant to be viewed. In terms of historical accuracy, let me say only this: I think the film suffers enormously from Kirk M. Petrucelli's detailed production design and Deborah Lynn Scott's (Titanic) gorgeous costume design. Petrucelli and Scott create a beautiful and minutely-detailed recreation of 18th century colonial America that is worthy of a historically-accurate film, indeed their work is largely responsible for making us want and expect to see history—unfortunately, this ain't that kind of film.
The Patriot is best viewed not as a film about the American Revolution, or even as many critics have labeled it, Braveheart Redux, but as a prequel to Devlin and Emmerich's blockbuster of four years earlier, Independence Day. No kidding. The two films are fairly closely linked in structure and theme: out-gunned and under-trained regular joes, under the leadership of brave men, take up arms against an oppressive occupying force, declaring and achieving their right to independent rule. In one film, the occupying force happens to be British redcoats, in the other it's aliens from outer space. The Patriot is much more fun to watch if you pretend Mel Gibson's Benjamin Martin is some sort of distant ancestor of Bill Pullman's President Whitmore in ID4. You see, this isn't a film about the American Revolution, it's an astoundingly dense bundle of action film clichés and melodrama set against a backdrop of the American Revolution. In other words, it's not to be taken seriously as history.
When I say the clichés and melodrama are astoundingly dense, I'm not kidding. At its heart, the movie is a Rambo/Death Wish-style Hollywood revenge fantasy. Benjamin Martin is presented to us as a reluctant patriot, a man who doesn't like taxation without representation but isn't eager to engage the British military in open combat. It's only after a series of violent and senseless abuses against his family by British officers and soldiers, he (like any respectable revenge-driven action hero) is compelled to take up arms and fight back. Martin's initial reluctance to involve himself in the revolution is rooted in his participation in the French and Indian War. Like John Rambo or William Munny from Unforgiven, Martin is a man who has seen, perpetrated, and is haunted by terrible acts of violence and inhumanity. Once kick-started, though, he quickly reverts into a brutal and efficient killing machine, a man through whom the audience can live out its revenge fantasies.
And what's a Hollywood revenge fantasy without a soulless, evil villain the audience can passionately despise? The Patriot delivers in the form of Colonel William Tavington of the green dragoons. He's, well, a jerk. His tactics are brutal and inhumane. And he's a loose cannon, repeatedly defying the direct orders of his commanding officer, General Cornwallis (the only historical figure to appear in the film). Tavington, in grand action movie tradition, even has the opportunity to fool us into believing he's dead on a battle field, only to pop up and inflict death and mayhem in a key moment of drama—anyone who's seen an action film before can see it coming from a mile away, but hey, the filmmakers couldn't resist, I'm sure.
The melodrama is shoveled on in romantic subplots and family dynamics, and it's nearly as thick as Gone With the Wind, which was pretty clearly an inspiration. Gabriel falls for Anne Howard (Lisa Brenner, MTV's Undressed) and there's much eye-batting and speech-fumbling between the young lovers, not to mention the girl's father going through the obligatory comic-eye-rolling-and-pretending-disapproval-though-he-actually-approves shtick. You'd have to have never seen a movie in your life to fail to recognize from the first moment the lovers lock eyes that the romance is as doomed as Romeo and Juliet's, or Jack and Rose's in Titanic. The filmmakers even squeeze in an unnecessary romance for Benjamin, who falls in love with his dead wife's sister, played by Joely Richardson (Event Horizon). I guess the ending just wouldn't have been happy enough if Benjamin still longed for the lost mother of his children.
Speaking of Benjamin's dead wife, the family melodrama (aside from Benjamin's ideological conflict with Gabriel) comes via some pages of the Scrooged script thrown randomly into the mix. Benjamin's youngest daughter hasn't spoken a word since the death of her mother and, with Benjamin repeatedly running off to avenge offenses committed against his family, she's a bit wary of connecting with him emotionally lest he leave and never return. When she finally speaks it's sappy and tear-jerky and accompanied by a swelling musical score, effective only because of how cute the little blond-headed girl is and how effectively she sobs—even as you feel for her, though, you just know Emmerich and Devlin are in the background, jerking you around.
And let's not forget the largely undeveloped subplot of the softline, semi-literate bigot (by softline I mean he's a sort of made-for-TV bigot, sneering and self-satisfied but never so crass as to use a racially-derogatory term) who is transformed by his experience fighting side-by-side with a brave and stoic slave. At the end of the film, having apparently fought so hard for Benjamin Martin's freedom, the two work together to build our protagonist a house.
Finally, what would an action movie be without slow-motion action sequences? The answer, according to Devlin and Emmerich, is it wouldn't be any kind of action movie at all. The Patriot even shamelessly employs the old slow-mo "Noooooooo!"-thing that's been lampooned by nearly every modern-day sketch comedy show. If the filmmakers created a version of the film in which all the slow-motion action took place at regular speed, I'm guessing its run time would drop from 165 to somewhere around 90 minutes.
So, the big question with any Superbit release is, does it really look better than the original release? The answer is yes. Slightly. I'd never seen The Patriot prior to screening it for this review and had no familiarity with the original single-disc Special Edition release, so I rented it to compare. On my 32-inch display, the image is a bit sharper and the colors brighter on the Superbit release; the differences may be more dramatic on a larger display. Some scenes, particularly at night, have a very fine sheen of grain, and there are some minor, minor blemishes here and there on the print used for the transfer. The image is intentionally soft at times, modeled after colonial paintings like Emanuel Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware," the sort of stuff you'd see reproduced in a high school history textbook, replete with billowing flags and shafts of golden sunlight. The cinematography is quite beautiful.
I focused my attention on the DTS soundtrack since it's new to the Superbit edition of the film. It's simply one of the best I've heard, enveloping throughout and very active when it needs to be, particularly during battle scenes and thunderstorms. Some of my favorite moments, though, were quieter ones, morning and evening scenes in which characters were engaged in dialogue set against the dawn or dusk sounds of birds or crickets with the crack and thud of cannon fire miles away layered even deeper in the mix. Dialogue is consistently crystal clear, and the score (which has a gentle trumpet motif extremely similar to Nino Rota's main theme for The Godfather) is richly presented.
Since this is a Superbit Deluxe edition, it contains, on a second disc, all the extras that appeared on the original Special Edition with the exception of the commentary track by Devlin and Emmerich, which has been sacrificed in the name of higher bitrate video and the DTS soundtrack.
The "Visual Effects Interactive Featurette" is brief and only marginally interactive. It's two multi-angle features with commentary that explore the digital construction of two large armies engaged in 18th century polite-as-can-be European warfare, and a colonial soldier losing his head to a cannonball.
The Art of War and True Patriot featurettes are each about 10 minutes long and include input from cast and crew. The first gives a very brief run-through of 18th century European warfare—its gentlemanliness; the rigors of reloading a musket during open warfare; the gruesome use of bayonets and cannons. The second examines the high level of period accuracy presented in the film and, quite tellingly, focuses almost entirely on costume and production design, with screenwriter Robert Rodat essentially admitting the film's characters are at best composites of historical figures and many liberties were taken in the name of entertainment.
The photo galleries are neatly organized by subject and contain around 110 stills.
There are six deleted scenes with optional commentary by Emmerich and Devlin.
The teaser and theatrical trailers are nicely presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. The full theatrical trailer is unintentionally hilarious because of its cheesy voice-over by the "In a world…" guy (I just can't hear his voice and take it seriously).
The talent files contain abbreviated filmographies for Roland Emmerich, Dean Devlin, Robert Rodat, Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, Chris Cooper, and Jason Isaacs.
Finally, the "Conceptual Art-to-Film Comparison" is a pretty cool feature in which we're presented with production drawings (most in color) followed by a few seconds of the images as they were realized in the film. There are 13 examples.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the film itself may wallow in action movie conventions, the performances do not. Both Gibson and Ledger turn in extremely strong performances that drew me into the film in a way the script never could have on its own. Jason Isaacs is deliciously evil as the cardboard villain Tavington. And the flick has some character actors like Chris Cooper (Lonesome Dove) and Rene Auberjonois (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) who never fail to deliver.
I know I've spent most of this review deconstructing the film as action movie cheese and maybe I've come off harsh, but don't let that necessarily scare you away. Action flicks are meant to work emotionally, not always intellectually. If you enjoy the release of shutting down your left brain and diving into a good revenge fantasy, this one may be just for you. And it's technically astounding, beautifully shot, and well-acted to boot.
The big question: is it worth buying the Superbit Deluxe version of The Patriot instead of the Special Edition? The answer will depend on your priorities. On the one hand, the Superbit Deluxe runs 5 to 7 dollars more than the Special Edition and you're going to lose a commentary track. On the other hand, moving the remaining extras to a second disc has made room for an improvement of image quality (however slight) and a DTS soundtrack.
If you already own the Special Edition, I wouldn't recommend a double-dip. Overall, neither edition is clearly superior. But as consumers, isn't it nice to have choices?
The Patriot is found guilty of sentimental manipulation; the charge of intent to murder history is reduced to reckless endangerment. The movie is free to go with time served.
And Emmerich and Devlin? While I'd like to let them go with a slap on the wrist for this misdemeanor, even an innocuous crime is a violation of parole for the felony that was Godzilla. Back in the pen, boys.
[Editor's Note: I feel compelled to point out, despite Dan's assertions that history doesn't matter here, that Benjamin Martin is loosely based on real-life Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, also known as "The Swamp Fox." His story has been told, and told better, in a Disney TV series from the 1960s starring Leslie Nielson.]
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• Visual Effects Interactive Featurette
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