A few days ahead of the Fourth of July weekend, I happened to catch The Patriot playing on television. If I had ever seen The Patriot before, it was when I was very small and I forgot most of it. Curious, I turned on the movie – which had run half its course – and watched the second half of the story.
This left me somewhat confused about how the film began and who the major players in it were. So I caught a second showing of the film on July 2nd, determined to see what I had missed. Once I reached the place where I had entered the story a few days prior, I almost changed the channel, but was persuaded not to do so in the end. Good stories tend to draw me in the same way that black holes pull in space debris. After a few minutes, I was hooked on the film and not going anywhere.
The Patriot stars Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin, a widower with seven children caught up in the Revolutionary War. Much like Jimmy Stewart’s Charles Anderson in Shenandoah, Martin wants to stay out of the War, despite being a Patriot – the name at the time for those who advocated American independence from Britain.
Heath Ledger stars as Martin’s oldest son, Gabriel, an ardent supporter of the Revolution who eventually joins the Continental Army without his father’s permission. Firefly fans will also be able to quickly identify Adam Baldwin. He plays a Loyalist or “Tory” who joins the British army encamped in South Carolina under General Cornwallis. Baldwin performed in this film a year before being cast in his signature role as Jayne Cobb in Joss Whedon’s short-lived television series. Meanwhile, Jason Isaacs plays William Tavington, the captain of the British cavalry who not only doesn’t mind using brutal tactics against Americans – civilians and soldiers alike – but seems to lust for the chance to kill some Colonials.
That, however, is describing the middle of the story. The movie begins with messages summoning Benjamin Martin to South Carolina’s congressional session, where the debate about whether or not the colony should rebel against England rages heatedly throughout the day. Though Martin wants independence from Britain, he knows that if the colonies start a war with the mother country they will be ravaged and pillaged by the Brits. Having fought in the French and Indian War before his marriage, Martin is well aware of how savage fighting among civilians can be. And since the battlefields will be on the property of land owners and farmers like him, he also knows their families will be caught in the crossfire. So he abstains from voting to leave Britain, refusing at the same time to vote to remain loyal to King George III.
That very evening, the delegates’ votes are counted. In a forty to twelve decision, South Carolina joins the War for Independence. Gabriel joins the line waiting to sign up to join the Continental Army and, under his father’s disappointed gaze, writes his name on the role of newly minted Continental soldiers.
Two to four years pass. Gabriel writes letters to his family, telling them how the War is going in the north. The second of Benjamin’s children, Matthew, reads the letters out loud to his younger siblings excitedly. Fifteen and keen to join his older brother, Matthew is continually disappointed by his father’s refusal to let him enter the army until he is seventeen. Too enthusiastic to wait that long, Matthew starts melting down his lead chess set to make musket balls.
One night, while the younger children are eating dinner and Matthew is upstairs, Benjamin surprises a house intruder who turns out to be a wounded Gabriel. Benjamin takes care of the wound, only to hear gun and cannon fire outside his house. He looks out to find his worst fear coming true: Redcoats and Continental soldiers are killing each other on his front lawn and in his fields. The War has come to the Martin household whether they like it or not.
The next morning, Gabriel wakes to find his family and their hired black servants tending to the wounded from the two armies. He walks out onto the front porch not long before Tavington rides up. The British captain orders the Martin house burned, since they have aided not only wounded British soldiers but injured and dying Continentals. He also orders the free blacks, whom he at first mistakes for slaves that Martin owns, be impressed into the British army. When one of the men protests that they are free and therefore do not need to serve the British crown to earn their liberty, Tavington tells them they are going to be Redcoats whether they like it or not.
That is when one of Tavington’s men shows him Continental dispatches found in the house. Gabriel was carrying them when he was injured, and his father left them somewhere in the house during the confusion in the night. To protect his family and fellow soldiers, Gabriel admits to being the bearer of the dispatches. Tavington decides that he will be hung as a spy, despite Benjamin’s reminding him that Gabriel is a courier and was not caught in disguise. Therefore, according to the rules of war, he cannot be hung as a spy.
But Tavington does not care about the rules of war. He wages war the same way the British actually did at the time; by throwing fear and heartbreak into the lives of innocent civilians. He threatens to kill Benjamin’s other children if he doesn’t shut up about Gabriel’s actual status as a courier and not a spy. Then, when Matthew tries to free his brother, Tavington shoots him, calling the youth a “stupid boy.”
As the British Redcoats kill the wounded Colonial soldiers and set fire to the house and the hired hands, along with the family’s hired black maid, Abigail, are driven away like so many cattle, Benjamin holds his son while Matthew dies. Benjamin is devastated. He is also infuriated. He retrieves muskets, pistols, powder, and shot from the burning house, along with his Cherokee style hatchet. Then he takes his two remaining older boys to rescue Gabriel.
The Patriot is a REALLY good film. Though its story and heroes are in part fictionalized, a number of the events in the film did occur in fact and spirit, so the story does an excellent job of conveying the general atmosphere in South Carolina during the War for Independence.
Of course, since the film is pro-American and puts the British in a bad light, it has been criticized a fair bit. While it is true that one particular scene showing Tavington ordering the burning of a church full of Colonial civilians did not occur, the other acts of cruelty we see him perpetrate in the film are actually based in history. Not long after watching The Patriot, I happened to catch AHC’s miniseries “Patriots Rising: The American Revolution.” Several of the facts I mention from here on are from this series.
Despite Cornwallis’ statement that the Americans were “fellow Englishman” the Crown wanted to bring back into the fold, the British had no qualms about killing injured Continental soldiers or burning down the houses of even suspected Patriot supporters. So the burning of the Martin house, the destruction of Martin’s sister-in-law’s plantation, and the killing of American soldiers and civilians did happen during the War for Independence. This is something the British did in India and their other colonies. When rebellion among the native populace broke out the British would burn the houses of sympathizers, kill the injured, and find barbaric ways to terrify the civilians to make sure that they would stop supporting the rebellion.
One actual example of British viciousness from the War for Independence came on April 19, 1775 during their retreat from the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Driven from Concord and Lexington by American Minutemen, the Redcoats were ambushed by an eighty year old man named Samuel Whittemore on their way to Boston. A veteran of Britain’s campaigns against the French and the Indians in the New World, Whittemore was no spring chicken, even by our standards. But he went out with other Patriots to face the British. He shot three Redcoats with his musket and dueling pistols before drawing his confiscated French saber and going to work on the Lobsterbacks with the blade.
Whittemore did not get far before he was shot. You would think this would pacify the British. No sir. How dare this old man attack them, the best army the world had seen in centuries! While he was on the ground, the British soldiers bayoneted Whittemore a dozen times at least, maybe more. They left him for dead, but Whittemore survived his wounds. He died when he was in his nineties.
My point in bringing this up, readers, is not to incite anger and hatred toward the British. It is to point out that they were not, as they would have us now believe, pure and clean as the wind driven snow during the conflict which lasted from 1775-1783. Though the church scene in The Patriot did not take place in reality, the British were in truth quite vicious to the Continental soldiers and Patriots during the War for Independence. Their claim that every last one of their men was a chivalrous gentleman is stuff and nonsense, and they should NOT be allowed to get away with playing the victims here. They would not – and have not – cut us any slack when it comes to our historical blunders, and turnabout is fair play in this regard.
Another criticism aimed at The Patriot is that it “glosses over” the issue of slavery in America at the time. In particular, some people took issue with the fact that the blacks on Martin’s farm at the beginning of the film are free. By rights, critics argue, these blacks should have been slaves, something Mel Gibson agreed with.
However, by this criticism the critics show their ignorance. In point of fact, there were many free blacks before, during, and after the War for Independence. There were free blacks up to the time of the Civil War, and some of them fought for the Confederacy of their own volition.
One of the free blacks who fought in the Revolutionary War was a man named Salem Poor. Buying his freedom in 1769 for twenty-seven pounds, Mr. Poor was married and had an infant son by the time he joined 100 other blacks fighting alongside the other Patriots at Bunker Hill. Congress commended him for his actions in that battle later and, lest you think there were only a hundred free blacks on the American side of the argument, the one hundred at Bunker Hill were only a fraction of those who fought with the Americans for independence. There were at least five thousand free blacks fighting for the Revolutionary forces during the War.
There were also slaves who worked as spies for the Continental Army. One such was James Armistead, who ostensibly worked for Cornwallis. He was actually a Patriot spy who fed Cornwallis false information that led to the general remaining in Yorktown. This was where Washington, the Continental armies, and the French fleet bottled Cornwallis up in 1781, forcing him to surrender.
The British assumed that all blacks in America were on their side, since they had promised that any black who fought for the British Army would be granted his freedom after the war (yeah, right). The Patriot nods to this in the final battle in the film; one of the Redcoats in the front line of the British ranks is black. You have to look at the line real quick to catch him, but he is there.
Armistead’s spying was the undoing of the British at Yorktown and probably in other places. Occam, the slave who eventually earns his freedom under Martin’s command, is representative of slaves like Armistead who fought for the Continental Army. According to blackpast.org, Lafayette wrote a testimonial on Armistead’s behalf in 1784, dismayed to find he was still a slave after his service for the Revolution. Two years later, the Virginia General Assembly emancipated Armistead, who married, raised a large family, and received forty dollars a year (big money at the time) for his services during the War. I think it likely that the slaves that fought in the Continental Army or militias, as Occam does in The Patriot, were freed by the end of the War as well.
For the historical record, it is also worth noting that the American Army had other “minorities” in its ranks. This is “whitewashed” out of history courses these days, but both the British and the Americans relied on Indian aid during the War. Most of the Indians sided with the British, since they considered the American settlers direct enemies, despite the fact that the British generally deemed the Indian tribes of North America to be enemies that they tried to eliminate by the expediant of biological warfare.
The chiefs of the Oneida tribe might have known this, because they sided with the Americans during the War for Independence. The Oneida were part of the Iroquois Confederacy, a confederation of five or six North Atlantic Indian tribes that had caused the French nothing but trouble. But when the rest of the Confederacy remained firmly on the side of the British, the Oneidas and Tuscaroras sided with the Americans. At the Battle of Oriskany on August 6, 1777, according to oneidaindiannation.com, Han Yerry and his wife, Tyonajanegen, joined at least 60 Oneida in a fight against the British. Yerry was wounded in the wrist and his wife had to reload his pistols for him. According to the website, she had her own guns as well. Later, during the winter at Valley Forge, when Washington’s supplies ran low and his men were dying of disease and the cold, Yerry and his tribe brought them corn to keep them going. Without Han Yerry, Washington might not have had an army after that bivouac in Valley Forge in 1776-1777.
There were also plenty of women who worked for the Continental Army. A former indentured servant, Deborah Sampson, left her family’s farm not long after the War began, telling them that she had found a job elsewhere. Once she was well enough away from home, she changed into the Continental uniform she had made for herself and signed on as a “man” who served in the Army until she had to be discharged due to disease, later receiving a pension for her service. To the best of my knowledge, she was never injured in any battle in which she took part.
Another woman who worked for the nascent American government was Nancy Hart. A southern woman with eight children, Nancy’s husband fought with the Americans during the war. Nancy was a big woman – about six feet tall – and in the right clothes, she could easily pass as a man. Once her farm duties were taken care of, she would go out at night, dressed as a man, and walk around British encampments in South Carolina. In this way she picked up information she could send to her husband to help in the war effort. When Tories invaded her farm looking for an escaped Continental soldier, she got them drunk and held them at gunpoint until her husband and the militia arrived. Her husband wanted the men shot, but Nancy said that was too good for them and said they ought to be hanged instead. The men followed her advice.
Elizabeth Burgin was a humanitarian worker who tried to help American prisoners kept in the hulks out in New York Harbor. Like the hulks mentioned in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, these stripped down and worn out British warships in New York Harbor were used to hold American POWs. Describing them as unsanitary would be an understatement; ten to twelve men would die each day aboard these prison ships, to be turned over to the British guards so they could be buried on the shore.
Elizabeth decided she could not stand back and let these men die. With the assistance of a Patriot spy, she helped two hundred men escape the ships. No one knows exactly how she did it, though they have most of the details of her plan. When the British caught on, they put a price on her head – two hundred pounds, equal to twenty years’ worth of wages for a Redcoat. Elizabeth had to abandon her rescue operations and was eventually awarded a pension for her service. Her only regret was that she could not save more men from the prison ships than she had.
In light of these facts, The Patriot can be seen as a historically accurate film. It may take some liberties with real history, namely with the church burning event, but the rest of the story is right on the money. The British really were brutal in the manner they waged their wars. For them to pretend that the black events of their past did not happen and to claim slander over The Patriot is downright hypocritical.
The British criticism of The Patriot is largely unfounded and it should not weigh on your mind when you watch the film, readers. Be forewarned, it can be gory. It originally had an R-rating in 2000. On the television in 2017, it was listed under the TV-14 rating. Wow. We have changed a lot in seventeen years, haven’t we, readers?
Go enjoy The Patriot at your earliest opportunity, people! God bless America!!!