October 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 6
It was all over by nine-thirty—Colonel Rall mortally wounded, the last of his Hessian troops, driven out of the town by the Continentals and surrounded in a desolate winter orchard, dropping their muskets to the ground.
Washington rode up to the group of sullen captives; Hugh Mercer joined him, his round Scot’s face radiant. “That’s the last of them, sir. Trenton is ours.”
Washington squinted into the cloudy, smoky sky. “It will be a hard journey back.” He looked down at the Germans. “See that the prisoners are killed.”
Mercer blinked. “All of them, sir?”
The Hessians stared uncomprehendingly at the two; in the midst of the group a score of women tried to comfort a few frightened towheaded children.
“Sir, there are…” Mercer trailed off.
Washington smiled a wintry smile. “Women and children, General Mercer? Yes. Kill them first.”
I know, I know; it never happened. But I was just trying to show you what a brutal business war is. What’s wrong with that?
The Patriot has gone from movie theaters to that brief limbo summer blockbusters inhabit before their video resurrection. The film was by no means a commercial disaster, but it has left behind it a faint odor of disappointment, which may well be interpreted to mean that movies set in the Revolutionary era simply don’t work.
I would be sorry to see that happen, because I believe that almost any historical movie is better than no historical movie. Nevertheless, I think The Patriot betrayed its franchise in a very creepy way, one that has nothing to do with anachronisms or simplifications or any of the usual Hollywood sins historians make themselves disliked by enumerating. Throughout the film, for instance, Mel Gibson casts bullets from his little boy’s toy soldiers; he might as well have been making them from lightbulb filaments, because it would be more than a century before any child would have such a toy. Never mind: If the screenwriter feels this adds needed poignancy to his story, let him have it.
But I don’t think he had the right to draft the scene in which a British colonel, having secured the permission of his commander, Lord Cornwallis, to wage a war of atrocity against civilians in the Carolinas, herds a townful of women and poetic-looking children into a church, locks the doors, and sets the building afire.
Now this did happen, but not in South Carolina and not in the 178Os; it was the work of an SS unit at Oradour sur Glane in France in 1944. Several reviewers who sensed a connection with twentieth-century enormities responded with something that strikes me as a sort of moral opacity: the idea that it’s fine to ascribe this piece of Nazi behavior to British regular troops because it teaches modern audiences the salutary lesson that war is brutal. (It is perhaps unfair to suggest that a German filmmaker would be more than happy to show that once the shooting starts, everyone plays by the same rules.)
But put aside the libel to an honorable enemy whose cause a third of the people in our infant nation supported (and, for that matter, the likely historical implications of an event that might very well have been potent enough in the national memory to keep America out of World War I). The Revolution was, like any real war, savage, but is that what makes it interesting? The Patriot contains scarcely a wisp of anything that could really be called patriotism. MeI Gibson’s single articulated political thought is that a democracy poses as great a threat of despotism as a monarchy, and he doesn’t pick up a musket until Cornwallis’s henchmen have murdered his youngest son in cold blood and are taking his eldest off to be hanged.
It seems to me that if you’re making a movie about the Revolution in which “patriots” are goaded to fight only by the same spur that drove the Russian soldiers at Stalingrad—as opposed to the wrenching, intimate calculations about what it meant to have become an American—you’re bound to lose out. If the two foes are identical, moviegoers naturally are going to prefer the one that comes equipped with motorcycles and airplanes and machine guns. So aside from questions of historical accuracy and the ethics of slandering the dead, you’re setting up your viewers to be disappointed.
And, judging from the box-office results, they were. What many in the academy currently like to call our national “creation myth” may have its sentimentalities, its self-satisfactions, and its longueurs, but it’s a hell of a lot better than “the barbarians started killing our children, so we had to do something.”