It's not that The Patriot is a bad film, at least not if it's simply judged for what it is: a mindless, violent action flick. It's just that there's no real reason to set a mindless, violent action flick in the American War for Independence (or whatever they're now calling what we used to call "The Revolutionary War"). That war, more than almost any other before it, was fought over ideas. Sure, they were muddled, misunderstood ideas--I mean, a bunch of slave owners fighting for "liberty" and "justice" are not quite on the ball, idea-wise--but nonetheless, it wasn't about getting revenge because a crime lord killed some cop's partner.
Unfortunately, the revenge theme is about as deep as director Roland Emmerich can make things; rather than explain any of the issues, he just invents some episodes wherein British soldiers go around torching civilians and killing wounded soldiers, so they can be seen as Pure Evil.
The rebels, of course, are then Pure Good, led by the goodest of the good, Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson). Martin is a family man who had the bad fortune to live in a time when the pretentious waiter ponytail was all the rage, and the American colonies were in a state of war with the British. His eldest son, the handsome--and strangely Australian--Gabriel (Heath Ledger), decides to sign up with the rebel troops. Papa Martin, of course, is not happy about this, and decides to stay out of things.
That is, until the extremely evil British soldiers come and burn down his house and kill his son Thomas. This sends Benjamin into a wild blood lust wherein he single-handedly takes on 20 Redcoats, mostly by hacking them up with an "Indian hatchet."
The Indian hatchet is symptomatic of what's wrong with The Patriot. While the British may have been a bit heavy on the taxation, they were also attempting to grant some rights to the less privileged peoples of the new world, the slaves and Native Americans whom they recruited to fight on their side.
Meanwhile, the colonial rebels in South Carolina were not exactly enlightened on race issues. This is something that a more careful filmmaker would have dealt with by allowing for some moral ambiguity in the conflict. Emmerich, though, in a classically simple-minded move, makes Martin seem more heroic by having the black men and women who work his plantation be not slaves, but "freed men." In the South Carolina of the 1780s, this seems a bit unlikely.
After his house is burned down and his slaves--oops, "freed men"--are forcibly released from bondage by the evil British, Martin moves into the beautifully photographed South Carolina swamps, from where his militia goes out on raiding parties, mercifully killing Redcoats and looting the enemy supply wagons.
Emmerich may not be a deep thinker, but he has improved a great deal as a filmmaker since he helmed Godzilla, arguably the worst film of the '90s. In The Patriot, the cinematography is stunning, aided by the beautiful southeastern locations. The plot moves along rather quickly as well, and the battle scenes are superbly well realized, if inordinately gory. The film also adds some interest by featuring several scenes set among the Gullah-speaking African Americans of South Carolina, a little-known group who continue to live in that area to this day. However, they're included mostly as window dressing, and to smooth over the racism inherent in the colonial rebel's cause.
Still, there should be more to raise The Patriot above the level of Godzilla than nice pictures. In fact, The Patriot would have worked better if Emmerich had just taken a page from his previous big hit, Independence Day, and had made the Redcoats space aliens.
There's a lot that's interchangeable about Independence Day and The Patriot. Obviously, they could quite easily switch titles. The villains are inhuman in each. The lead character has to suffer the loss of family members in order to get involved in the action. And both are utterly predictable. (Hint: The British lose.)