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"MILITIA FIRE"

By DAN CAMERON-RODILL

The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson. This movie does it: almost three hours long without being a long three hours. It's got action, drama, humor, tragedy, family depth, spectacular battle scenes, fine cinemaphotography, and manages to do what Hollywood almost never does: our Revolutionary War. Moreover, Mel Gibson here is more than swashbuckler. As legendary Southern
militia man, Benjamin Martin, widower with seven children, he exudes true feeling, emotion, fatherliness, conflictedness, yes tenderness too, in addition to rage and moments of bloodlust. It's a "Revolutionary" contribution, as if he's saying to the audience, "Hey, look. It's all right for a real man to have real feelings, all kinds of feelings, and even show them!" The theme of fatherhood alone lifts this well above an adolescent blockbuster, Gibson obviously at ease with it, having his own large family in real life. His character also shows political complexity, aware of American paradox. We see him at first reluctant to join the struggle against the King. "Why should I trade one tyrant 3000 miles away for 3000 tyrants one mile away?"

Admittedly, I wanted to like this movie, but wondered. Although it's gotten plenty of good reviews, it's taken some flack too, mainly from two camps. Let's call them (1) the cleverlings and (2) Team U.K.

The "cleverlings" have seen hundreds, maybe thousands of movies and have their own standards, but they can't always see what's right in front of the popcorn. They will use a truth or half-truth to construct a self-deception. E.g. Worthy low-budget films can get slighted or overlooked in this commercialized world. Everyone knows that. The cleverlings get revenge by insinuating that big is usually bad. Never mind that Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" was a war cry against tyranny and oppression. The cleverlings can cite you five films that had "better" dialogue. Never mind that "Titanic" astounded the world as an epic of youth, adventure, class conflict, hubris and spectacle, despite some flaws. The cleverlings will tell you that something so successful can't be very good. They are almost like certain evangelists who are alarmed that kids are leaving the boob tube to read the phenomenal Harry Potter books; the wizardry and witchcraft, you see, is not religiously correct. As for "The Patriot," the cleverlings aren't interested in accepting it for what it is: a rare and colorful glimpse of the Revolutionary War, and the price paid. They'd rather dwell on what it's not. It's not one of theirs.

As for "Team U.K," some from that camp have been yelling "Foul!" They profess shock that the Redcoats are not always depicted benignly and the real Benjamin Martin, the American "swamp fox" played by Gibson, had a darker past than the movie lets on. "Team U.K." even suggested that the "real" Benjamin Martin may have co-habited with slaves! Well, well, since we know what "those Americans" are like, I'm not sure what the point here would be, aside from standard smear technique. This is even more obvious when you know that the Mel Gibson character is a composite, not based on just one historical figure. The movie clearly is about an American with seven children and why he decides to resist the British, and how he does it, and what he sacrifices. It's not about how foreign propagandists can deflect the drama with purported "historical" information or disinformation.

The Brit complaints made it sound like His Majesty's forces were depicted as comic book cut-outs. After seeing the film, I wondered which film they had seen. The Redcoats are never shown as especially cowardly, or even reprehensible, except for
one particular psychopath (Colonel Tavington). Some Americans are clearly willing to play dirty, and another is shown as an outright traitor, a real Brit lover. Sure, the English are much more powdered and coifed than the rough-hewn Americans they call "rabble" and "rustics" if not worse. That's just elementary historical fact. They represented royalty, not the Jeffersonian ideal of small, self-sufficient farmers. Actually some of their better qualities are seen in the tension between the psychopath Colonel Tavington and the English General Cornwallis. Yes, by American standards, some might see Cornwallis as a bit of a ninny. He bemoans what Benjamin Martin's militia may have done to his two Great Danes. "Our dogs may be dead! Is there no decency?" Yet he's sincere and honorable. His aristocratic values are not only firmly held, but almost incomprehensible in the modern era of 'smart' bombs and Total War. He actually believes that honor is more important than victory, which obviously would destroy his career in any country today, not excluding ours. When learning that Colonel Tavington is planning to attack militia families, he warns him sternly. "You will never be able to enter England again as a gentleman!" That may sound funny to an American, but Cornwallis means it. Swine were considered beyond the pale, even when cloaked in governmental authority. It's a very long way from the Gulf War where a general, today Clinton's "Drug Czar," was able to refer to actions resulting in the slaughter of Iraqi men, women and children after the truce as "the happiest day of my life." Yes, a long way, indeed.

The movie also has special ironies for anyone familiar with the war in Vietnam. There the foreign "regular" forces were not the Redcoats, but the Americans. There you didn't call the irregulars "militia." You called them guerillas." But those Vietcong guerillas (Who our grunts called "Charlie") and our colonial militia, while far from identical, did have some similarities: fighting on their home turf, usually avoiding head-on contact with regular forces, living off the land, using tactics of surprise, ambush, small arms and calling it a war of independence and national liberation.

The movie tries fitfully to address the slave situation, mainly through one black who volunteers to serve in Martin's militia with the understanding that he'll get his freedom after one year. Someone asks him, derisively, "What would you do with liberty?" Later we see the black, after completing his year, deciding to stay on with the whites and keep fighting. It's an earnest touch, but in today's world you don't know if this is (1) a historical fact or (2) a valid artistic invention or (3) just a pious spoonful of politically correct pudding.

Screen-writer: Robert Rodat. The German Director is Roland Emmerich, of "Independence Day" and "Godzilla." The cast includes Martin's eager-to-battle son, Gabriel (Australian Heath Ledger), Martin's Southern belle sister-in-law Charlotte Selter (Joely Richardson, daughter of Vanessa Redgrave), the French "advisor" to Americans, Major Jean Villeneuve (Tchely Karyo from Turkey). Classic English actor Tom Wilkinson is General Cornwallis to perfection, and the actor from Liverpool, Jason Isaacs, is Colonel Tavington so venomously you can enjoy hating him.

The Patriot does a lot more than just wave the flag and swash the buckles. It is do-see, no question.

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