Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘The Patriot’: The American ‘Braveheart’

July 3, 2020 Updated: July 3, 2020

R | | Action, Drama, History | 28 June 2000 (USA)

“The Patriot,” starring Mel Gibson (2000, directed by Roland Emmerich) is basically the American version of “Braveheart,” starring Mel Gibson (1995, directed by Mel Gibson).

Man with bloody face
Mel Gibson as William Wallace, bent on revenge, in “Braveheart.” (Paramount Pictures)

Consider the loads of things “The Patriot” has in common with “Braveheart”: Substitute green vistas of Scottish mountains for green U.S. Southern cornfields. Both movies have massive casts and bone-crunching, bloody battle scenes. Both have a loathsome antagonist we love to hate. Both are nearly three hours long. In “Braveheart,” William Wallace (Gibson) avoids war—against the Brits—until his young bride is murdered. In “The Patriot,” Benjamin Martin (Gibson) avoids war—against the Brits—until his young son is murdered. These events turn both Wallace and Martin into infernally tricky guerrilla war-fighters, fighting for freedom. There are a number of string-laden score themes in “The Patriot” that are suspiciously similar to the score of “Braveheart.”

Man carrying flag in "The Patriot"
Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin, bent on revenge, in “The Patriot.” (Columbia Pictures)

Mel should’ve directed “The Patriot.” Mel’s an epic director, and while “The Patriot” is epic in length, it doesn’t quite have that certain special epic something that Mr. Gibson’s directing projects have.

The Story

It’s 1776; the American Revolution looms, and the British are bent on quashing rebel independence. Fictitious South Carolinian land and slave owner (and French and Indian War vet) Benjamin Martin (an amalgamation of actual men who fought in the Revolutionary War) is trying hard to forget his sins of wartime violence. He prays for forgiveness while stowing away his elaborately carved tomahawk, at the movie’s outset.

man with bloody face and tomahawk in "The Patriot"
Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) about to fling a tomahawk, in “The Patriot.” (Columbia Pictures)

We learn he’s considered a war hero of considerable stature; men continue to be moved and honored enough to buy him drinks.

He’s got seven kids, his wife is dead, he longs for peace, but his eldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger), a chip off the old block, enlists without his dad’s blessing.

young man in blue coat with rifle in "The Patriot"
Heath Ledger as Gabriel Martin in “The Patriot.” (Columbia Pictures)

When Gabriel, before his father’s very eyes, is captured by the Brits, and the sadistic British Col. William Tavington (Jason Isaacs) orders Gabe to be taken off and hanged, and then slays Martin’s second son Thomas (Gregory Smith) on the spot, it reignites Martin’s bloodlust.

Arming his two youngest sons with flintlocks twice their height, they ambush 20 British redcoats. And then Martin and sons, with a high degree of accuracy, snipe every last one of them. And forthwith, there are rumors among Brit soldiers of a killer ghost that roams the Southern fields and forests.

man standing behind tree with rifle in "The Patriot"
Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) about to ambush British soldiers, in “The Patriot.” (Columbia Pictures)

Like William Wallace, Benjamin Martin’s God-given leadership ability makes him the natural go-to leader of the South Carolinian local militia chapter, which consists of a motley crew of farmers, former slaves, war buddies, and eventually son Gabriel as one of his lieutenants.

As Martin predicted, this war would consist of skirmishes fought in and around the country homes, farms, fields, and towns of South Carolina. So while the Brits stage field battles that outnumber and out-arm the rebel forces, Benjamin Martin conducts elusive, stick-and-move guerrilla-tactic raids on British supply lines and forces, popping up, raining down death and destruction, and quickly fading back into the bush.

Honor and Tradition

What really hits home about “The Patriot” is something we’ve seen countless times before: Lines upon battle lines of men facing each other, from 50 feet away, standing there stock still while the enemy shoots them dead willy-nilly. What is up with such incredible stupidity?

Because how else, in this day and age, can it be described? Mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi invented algebra in the ninth century. Very intelligent. So why, nine  whole centuries later, are men standing still in fields allowing their heads to get blown off? Rebel soldier: “Take your best shot!” Redcoat: “Blam!!” Rebel ghost: “Doh!!”

field of battle with cannon smoke in "The Patriot"
Battle scene in “The Patriot.” (Columbia Pictures)

War was once considered an honorable thing. Honorable and courageous. Same with pistol dueling; one knew never to question a man’s honor because if you did—just like that—you’d be called out to get your head blown off at dawn. And if you didn’t show up? Your reputation was ruined for life, and I mean ruined.

Today’s military still thinks war is honorable, and of course, serving and protecting one’s country certainly is. But the rules of war were vastly different back in the day. You did not shoot someone in the face. Even back in the 1970s, pre-Bruce Lee, you did not kick someone in a fight. It was not cool.

Honor is interesting. For years, before special operations sniping came to be considered cool, it was considered cowardly. Now there’s nothing cooler—endless books and movies dedicated to the art of sniping. Shooting someone while hiding behind a tree is smart, but is it honorable to hide? Is it now honorable? Was it ever honorable? Does the end justify the means?

Questions to ponder. Have a peep at “The Patriot” and ponder people’s present-day pittance of honor and propriety.

Man carrying flag in "The Patriot"
Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin in “The Patriot.” (Columbia Pictures)

‘The Patriot’
Director: Roland Emmerich
Starring: Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs, Chris Cooper, Tom Wilkinson, Donal Logue, Adam Baldwin
Rated: R
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Release Date: June 28, 2000
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch