Some movies get so much right that I can forget what they get wrong. This is the case with The Patriot. Every Independence Day, I watch it – usually alone, because no one else in the family can “take it.” My reasons for doing so are both out of appreciation for the film itself, and to remind me of the cost of my freedom. Even though the events and characters are fictional, they are loosely based on actual individuals from the Revolution. If nothing else, it reminds me that the noise I hear on the 4th of July is fireworks… for the Patriots, it was cannon fire.
Loving this movie as much as I do, I also realize that it is enormously controversial, primarily in its depiction of the English. Now, I am not one of those inclined to lump everyone on the opposing side of conflict into “evil” territory, but the Revolution had its share of barbaric behavior on both sides (including Francis Rawdon-Hastings writing that, ‘The fair nymphs of this isle are in wonderful tribulation… a girl cannot step into the bushes to pluck a rose without running the most imminent risk of being ravished, and they are so little accustomed to these vigorous methods that they don’t bear them with proper resignation, and of consequence we have the most entertaining courtsmartial every day’”). So, to head off potential arguments – the British might not have been “all bad” as shown here through Tavington, but some of them weren’t very nice either, so having a fictional villain as awful as Tavington is not as grievous an insult as some might think.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Colonialists were not all divided into two groups—Patriots in support of Independence, or Loyalists in support of the monarchy. The film addresses this reality by including all kinds of opinions in the form of its main characters. There are the Loyalists who soon are in over their heads, the ardent Patriots like Gabriel, Anna, and Thomas, and the more reluctant participants like the Reverend and Benjamin Martin. And, we have Charlotte – a woman who takes no decisive stance, but suffers the consequences of war regardless, both in her forced abandonment of her town house and her known association with Benjamin.
Hardship wasn’t uncommon for people on all sides of the conflict. Loyalists were expected to give up the names of rebels whether they liked it or not. Patriots often had to abandon their families and hide out from invading soldiers. Their families, in turn, had to make do without the men andeven were punished in the place of their missing Patriot husbands and fathers.
Benjamin’s story is a journey of devastating loss transformed into new-found idealism. One of my writers for Femnista will tackle this topic more in-depth in our upcoming issue, but it has almost symbolic spiritual parallels, of a man standing on the edge of commitment, but only driven into it through extreme need. He is a battle-scarred “reluctant” Patriot, who enters into the conflict merely to protect his family but eventually finds an earnest desire to see through the cause his son fought and died to protect. It ceases to be an impersonal cause, and ignites his desire for freedom.
The theme of faith is woven throughout the film, both in obvious and symbolic ways. Not only does his life represent an allegorical transformation through faith, but his faith is present on-screen. Here, remarkably, is a family that prays and believes in God. Where does Benjamin turn in times of great turmoil? To the cross, be it in an Old Spanish Mission or a headstone. Crosses are everywhere. It’s a tragic but poignant moment when Benjamin looks up from the smoldering remains of the church, his wife’s necklace in his hand, knowing his daughter-in-law is dead, and all he can see is a burning window frame forming the sign of the cross.
The symbolism runs even deeper in the parallel between Benjamin and Reverend as reluctant men of war and deep spirituality. Though initially complaining that Gabriel has come to enlist men from his congregation to fight, the minister abandons his parish to “fend off the wolves” from his flock through active duty. He is the voice of compassion and reason in the midst of brutality, the one who argues that “quarter” be given to captured soldiers. Reverend dies protecting Gabriel, thus fulfilling the symbolic arc of dying for something or someone greater than yourself. His death echoes the death of the savior he serves, a martyr to a cause.
He represents the many ministers before and during the Revolution who not only preached Independence, but took up arms to defend it. Few are taught that ministers took active roles in the Revolution and were some of its greatest “inciters” – neither pacifists nor inclined to surrender to tyranny. (This is a dramatic departure from the modern church’s impassive stance, isn’t it?) The film, controversially, even shows children killing soldiers to protect their brother’s life. Much as we hate to think about it, that actually happened. Boys fought the Revolution, the same as men, often with muskets taller than themselves.
Reading history, I am continually amazed at the reliance on God of the generations that came before us. Our faith is limp and pallid in comparison, even superficial, when measured against the towering beliefs of such men as John Adams or Benjamin Rush. Society was so saturated in faith that it seeped into every aspect of their lives, from the schools (often, children were taught to read out of the Bible) to the halls of government. A society that believes in the nature of “Providence” (divine intervention, and divine meaning even in loss) is utterly lost on us.
We have everything we could ever want or need at our fingertips, with no undue hardship on ourselves. But life was hard even for the wealthy Colonialists. They had no modern medicine to heal, no way to ensure their crops, and no one to turn to other than God in times of hardship and doubt. Even Benjamin Franklin, arguably the most “deist” of them all by a modern standard, still believed in the power of prayer, and promoted it among his fellow Congressmen when approaching monumental decisions of war.
The film covers all aspects of the period, from various angles – from the Negro settlements on the coast to the arrogance of General Cornwallis and the hardships of the women left at home while the men fought in the fields and forests. Though all the characters are fictionalized (apart from Cornwallis), the main ones are based heavily on actual individuals, and the events are inspired by historical conflicts and tactics. Benjamin Martin, of course, is loosely based off of the Swamp Fox, a Patriot who gathered a militia and launched tactical strikes against the British from the safety of the swamp. He abandons traditional and frankly stupid tactics of war (marching out to fight in hand to musket combat) to use ingenuity, trickery, and cleverness to keep his men safe and win battles.
Colonel Tavington is heavily based on Banastre Tarleton, a commanding officer in the British army known for his brutal war tactics. His behavior earned him the title of “The Butcher” among the Patriots. He never burned down a church with townspeople inside it, but he did threaten to burn down a house if its Patriot General did not emerge. He also very nearly captured Thomas Jefferson during a raid on Monticello, but he must not have been all bad, since he left Monticello unmolested. Contrary to the fate of his fictional counterpart, Tarleton survived the war and returned to England, where he had a long political career that included heavily opposing the abolitionist bills put forth by William Wilberforce in Parliament. (Remember the obnoxious character played by Cirian Hinds in Amazing Grace? That was Tarleton.)
Fellow Christians seem to have a variety of responses to this film, all of them legitimate for various reasons, but I frankly do not agree with some of them. One of the complaints often put forward is that this is a story of revenge. That is true, but I don’t see that as a negative thing so much as a reminder that all of us are fallen, and all of us struggle to come to terms with those who harm us. If you choose to view this story as merely being about one man’s desire to kill another for the death of two of his sons, you are missing a central pivotal moment where Benjamin’s motivations change.
After Gabriel’s death, Benjamin intends to give up and go home. He has no heart to fight, much less to pursue Tavington to a brutal end. But as he fingers the flag Gabriel so painstakingly repaired, he can’t abandon the cause his son fought and died for. He returns to the battlefield not for revenge, but for Independence. Furthermore, when in the heat of battle, he has a moment of choice – to attack Tavington, or to lead the charge and “close the line” so that they will win the battle. He chooses to inspire, rather than to take revenge. He chooses the greater cause over his own desires.
This doesn’t mean Benjamin doesn’t get to kill Tavington, but it shows that he fights not for revenge, but a greater purpose than himself. Though he has his moment of vengeance, he freely admits that “my sons were better men.” Benjamin acknowledges that many of his motivations are not worthy of the cause; he reaches a point of ultimate humility and takes no real pleasure in killing his enemy.
I love everything about this movie (except perhaps the too-gory violence at times). The costumes, the music, the characters, the story… it all carries meaning to me, it all serves to remind me of how much I have to be grateful for, and it is an annual tradition that I approach with equal trepidation and enjoyment every year, on Independence Day.