The Redcoats Can Take Our Lives – But They’ll Never Take Our Freedom!!!
Remember the good old days when the public didn’t know anything about Mel Gibson’s beliefs; and one could just enjoy Bravehart without feeling guilty? Yeah, me neither. But I was like ten back then. That said, Roland Emmerich’s 2000 The Patriot tends to top many lists of the best films about the revolutionary war. Starring Mel Gibson as Captain Benjamin Martin, the hero follows his son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) into the war effort after the evil British Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs) murders Benjamin’s son Thomas in cold blood. While The Patriot scores high in action, it scores low in accuracy. Spoilers ahead!
Over the course of the film, Captain Martin leads guerilla assaults against General Cornwallis’, earning him the nickname “The Ghost”. Meanwhile, Colonel Tavington commits several war crimes during the film. While General Cornwallis initially chastises Tavington for his atrocities, he later comes to reluctantly endorse them. At the same time, Martin grapples his own feelings of guilt for atrocities he had committed against French soldiers during the Seven Years War. The film culminates in the 1781 Battle of Cowpens, where Captain Martin gets to face Colonel Tavington on the battlefield and personally impales him in the throat! Fuck yeah, Amurica!
A Night at the Smithsonian
The film’s producers enlisted the Smithsonian Institute as historical consultants on the film (Moore, 2000). However the consultation was stylistic in nature; especially when it comes to things like sets and costumes. The Smithsonian’s input led to certain script revisions, such as the addition of a runaway slave village where Martin’s family could hide from British soldiers. But the film has also received a great deal of historical criticism; both for greatly exaggerating British atrocities and for white-washing the stories of the figures the film’s heroes are based on.
First, let’s go first for the low-hanging fruit. Neither Benjamin Martin nor William Tavington were real people. Captain Martin was a composite of several real historical figures including Thomas Sumter, Daniel Morgan, and Francis Marion (Phillips, 2000). For example, Sumter was a veteran of the Seven Years War who reluctantly joined the revolution after the British raided and burned his home (Lockhart, 2016). Francis Marion was an expert on guerilla warfare, earning him the nickname “The Swamp Fox” among the British troops (Crawford, 2007).
Inspired by Several Rich Slave-Owners
However, there are several very important differences between Martin and his historical inspirations. Benjamin Martin is portrayed as a middle-class everyman: a widowed hard-working farmer who worked the fields with his own two hands. In reality, the South Carolina Patriots that served as the inspiration for Martin were all aristocratic slave-owners, an omission criticized by film-maker Spike Lee (The Guardian, 2000). While Marion did commit atrocities during the French and Indian War (Crawford, 2007) as Martin did in the film, Marion’s legacy is even more troubling than that, as there is some evidence that Martin was a serial rapist. All in all, the film chooses to white-wash the extremely problematic backgrounds of the individuals who served as Benjamin Martin’s inspiration.
The other particularly bizarre liberty taken by the film was the depiction of atrocities committed by British troops, which far more closely resembled war crimes committed by fascists during the 20th century than the types of atrocities committed by any European power during the revolutionary period (Foreman, 2000). In particular, no crimes resembling the burning of a church full of civilians are known to have occurred during the revolutionary war. Make no mistake, atrocities were certainly committed. Liverpool native Banastre Tarleton (the inspiration for William Tavington) did have a reputation as a butcher after refusing to accept the surrender of a group of Virginia Continentals led by Abraham Buford, and instead massacred over 100 American soldiers at the Battle of Waxhaw Creek (MyRevolutionaryWar.com, 2012).
Sir Banastre Tarleton: The Second-Most Famous Knight from Liverpool
But there is no evidence that Tarleton committed any massacres of civilians or any of the other crimes attributed to him in the film. This portrayal led Liverpool mayor Edwin Clein at the time to demand a public apology for the “character assassination of someone who has contributed so much to Liverpool’s great history.” (The Guardian, 2000). While Tarleton did command the troops at the Battle of Cowpens, nothing resembling the final showdown between Martin and Tavington occurred during the battle (Phillips, 2000). Tarleton was not impaled on a sword, in fact he did not die at Cowpens at all. He actually went on to return from the war and serve in the British parliament for over 20 years.
What the film does get right is its portrayal of war-crimes committed by colonial troops during the French and Indian war. In the film, Marion owns up to performing a particularly gruesome act at the fictional battle of Fort Wilderness in which he butchered a number of French soldiers and sent the survivors back with the heads of the ones who were killed. In particular, men like Francis Marion were known for committing acts of butchery and persecution against Native Americans during the conflict (The Guardian, 2000). So at least that part of Martin’s backstory is believable.
All in all, The Patriot deviates from history in several problematic ways. The film goes out of its way to make Mel Gibson’s Benjamin Martin a sympathetic character. They attempted to portray Martin as a hard-working everyman who got caught up in revolutionary fervor, when almost any South Carolinian of Martin’s wealth would have certainly been an aristocratic slaveholder. Meanwhile, the portrayal of atrocities committed by the British soldiers was incredibly ridiculous and off-base. The Patriot was basic Roland Emmerich’s attempt to recreate Braveheart, with an American revolution backdrop, not an exercise in historical accuracy.
Rating (4/13) Stripes
Crawford, A. (2007, June 30). The Swamp Fox. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-swamp-fox-157330429/
Foreman, J. (2000, July 3). The Nazis, er, the Redcoats are coming! Salon. https://www.salon.com/2000/07/03/patriot_3/
The Guardian. (2000, July 6). Spike Lee slams Patriot. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2000/jul/06/news.spikelee
The Guardian. (2000, July 30). Patriotic Liverpool up in arms over Gibson’s blockbuster. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2000/jun/30/news.melgibson
Lockhart, M. (2016, August 1). Sumter, Thomas. South Carolina Encyclopedia. https://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/sumter-thomas/
Moore, L. (2000, June 30). Capturing America’s Fight for Freedom. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/capturing-americas-fight-for-freedom-65510953/
MyRevolutionaryWar.com. (2012, 1 1). The Battle of Waxhaws/ Buford’s Massacre. MyRevolutionaryWar.com. https://www.myrevolutionarywar.com/battles/800529-waxhaws/
Phillips, K. (2000, July 7). Facebook Twitter Show more sharing options ‘Patriot’s’ Skirmish With Truth. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2000-jul-07-ca-48838-story.html