Brave Hearts

Will Roland Emmerich's evocation of the American Revolution supplant Roland Emmerich's Independence Day as the greatest July 4th attraction in the history of civilization? Don't bet on it.

The Patriot is an earnest, inanely robust, and reasonably gory Mel Gibson vehicle, but try as it might to Nazify the British army, it never establishes the sense of panicky territorial imperative that underscored the gooey intraspecies armageddon (and interethnic solidarity) of ID4. Still, even if The Patriot fails to unite the nation before the spectacle of American cultural hegemony, it is likely to be Hollywood's first Revolutionary War hit in the six decades since John Ford directed Drums Along the Mohawk.

What does it take to sell the American Revolution? The Patriot is a movie of cornball sentiment, humorously anachronistic dialogue, and expensive Colonial Williamsburg sets. With a house full of cute kids (the fruit of a deceased, saintly wife), Gibson's South Carolina planter would seem a prime candidate for the father of his country. (The apparent slaves working in his fields turn out to be freedmen.) Still, despite the outrage of British tyranny, he doesn't want to fight—he's too worried about his motherless children (and too haunted by his own savagery in the French and Indian War). Engaging his fellow South Carolinians in what amounts to a one-man debate on the necessity for revolution, he explains his logic: "I'm a parent—I haven't the luxury of principle."

Expat riot: Bloody Hatchet flanked by killer tots
photo: Andrew Cooper
Expat riot: Bloody Hatchet flanked by killer tots


The Patriot
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Robert Rodat
A Columbia Pictures release

Written and directed by Alan Rudolph
A Sony Pictures Classics release

Directed by John Curran
Written by Andrew McGahan, from his novel
A Strand release
Screening Room
June 30 through July 13

The boys, however, do want to kick some royal butt, and, as Gibson predicts, the war comes home—right into his front yard and up on the porch. Gibson's veranda serves first as an American field hospital and then as a stage on which the British enact their storm-trooper atrocities. Led by Jason Isaac's pale-eyed, lank-haired, sneering psycho, these Brits are a plummy lot—torching plantations, deporting slaves, murdering civilians, slaughtering prisoners, targeting children, and riding their horses right into the center of a colonial church.

The home attack does the trick, and, aided only by a pair of tots, Gibson ambushes and decimates an entire British platoon. The terrified redcoats call this mysterious superhero "The Ghost," although Bloody Hatchet would be a more accurate description. Gibson's character seems modeled on the Swamp Fox, a/k/a Francis Marion, a South Carolina planter and Indian-fighter turned revolutionary guerrilla. But screenwriter Robert Rodat, who scripted Saving Private Ryan, has performed a similar feat in stripping the Revolutionary War of its historical basis and making it a matter of emotional bonding. Even while organizing a militia to terrorize the Brits, Gibson is still trying to enforce his will over his son (Heath Ledger). "I'm losing my family," he complains.

Less plodding than Emmerich's Godzilla, The Patriot features some effective battle scenes. There's ample evidence of post-Private Ryan naturalism, as American regulars march in formation across an open field to get their heads blown off by the more disciplined British troops. "These rustics are so inept—it really takes the honor out of victory," Lord Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) whines. These effete Brits pretend to believe in honor. The Patriot has no such illusions, ransacking the screen-epic playbook to lift scenes from The Birth of a Nation and Barry Lyndon, as well as Gibson's Oscar-winning Braveheart. (Indeed, as the story of an unwilling dad who reconnects with his inner savage, The Patriot seemingly mimics Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven without addressing any of the issues raised by that vastly more troubling meditation on American history and the Hollywood-mediated American character.)

Gibson (who, always best when playing the spry lunatic, is somewhat less convincing here than as the voice of a claymation rooster in Chicken Run) fights tears, as well as the British, throughout. He's burdened with the success of the American revolution—not to mention Columbia's summer schedule—but family always comes first. The most shamelessly heartwarming episode has the Gibson clan seeking refuge—and discovering their own most tender feelings—among the dumbstruck Gullah people of some nearby Club Med. Of course, Ledger has already promised to fight to end slavery. ("Equal. . . sounds good," the movie's token black volunteer muses.)

Opening July 4th on the last election year, Independence Day had no competition and was even endorsed by both candidates for president. But this time, we have the makings of an E! channel plebiscite: Emmerich's war movie versus Wolfgang Petersen's Perfect Storm. Will the revolution run aground in digitally enhanced big weather? Should you batten down the hatches or perform your patriotic chore? Vote for an Act of God pseudo-event or the virtual Rights of Man? The choice is yours. As nominal love interest Joely Richardson coyly tells Gibson, "It's a free country—or, at least, it will be."

Another proud symbol of America, the eponymous heroine of Alan Rudolph's Trixie is a wide-eyed working-class wacko who chews gum, toils as a casino security guard, and spouts outlandish malapropisms, roughly in that order. The big surprise is that, as courageously played by Emily Watson, this self-described "private defective" turns out to be the smartest, bravest, most sexually well-adjusted character in the movie.

Trixie's competition includes Nathan Lane's broken-down lounge comic, Dermot Mulroney's romantic klutz, Lesley Anne Warren's addled sexpot, Will Patton's ineffectual gangster, and Brittany Murphy's precocious femme fatale. Embodiment of corruption, Nick Nolte's white-maned state senator swans through the movie as though he were the John Huston character in Chinatown—although the evil that he does consists mainly of ranting about presidential sex scandals and mouthing the blind Newt Gingrich quotes that Rudolph has worked into the dialogue. Trixie has little difficulty baffling him with bullshit. "Do I have an ace up my hole?" she wonders. Not this time. Rudolph has called his movie a "screwball noir"—elevating The Big Lebowski to the level of the Sistine Chapel by comparison. (Try to imagine The Big Lebowski directed by the Dude from a script by his bowling partners.)

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