Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Patriot (2000)

Some bad things get worse the better they're executed- and I think that propaganda is one of them. And I'm sorry to bring up some pretty heavy examples, but Birth Of A Nation and Triumph Of The Will are both all the more terrible for being particularly well-made movies. Nobody takes a bad movie seriously; in particular, nobody takes the message of a bad movie seriously. So when a movie that had a dubious message is well-made on a technical level, it becomes all the more troubling. Which brings me onto The Patriot, which, while not as reprehensible perhaps as those two movies, is still pretty problematic.

In this movie, Mel Gibson again reminds us how much he loves a bit of Brit-bashing. As you probably know, that's the kind of thing that usually plays well to Irish audiences. This is something else that I find problematic. No matter how enlightened we may think we are, for some if us there's always a bit of us that enjoys seeing the dirty Brits get their comeuppance, even if it's only in the form of a stupid and obviously cartoonishly patriotic Hollywood shlockfest. We tell ourselves that it's just a bit of a laugh and that we don't mean anything by it, and that it's no reflection on our attitudes towards the British today, but I think it says something about our inner nationalist side that we enjoy this stuff so much. As it happens, I have no idea why Mel Gibson likes having the British be the villains in his movies.  

The Patriot is certainly no Braveheart, but in terms of sets, cinematography and the ordinary nuts-and-bolts of movie-making, it's pretty good, and it should be, as it's made by people who know their craft. Jerry Bruckenheimer was the producer on this, and though he may be something of a schlockmeister, he sure knows how to make movies that look great. The Patriot aims at being a historical epic, and it definitely looks like one. The colours are lush, the landscapes are beautiful, and the action sequences are tense and thrilling. Mel doe a pretty good job directing too, which must have been difficult as he's in pretty much every scene. As someone who likes history, I sometimes enjoy even bad historical movies as I love seeing an era I'm interested in realised with a decent budget, and The Patriot doesn't disappoint in that respect.

Cup of Earl Grey?

So what's the plot? Well, it's 1776, and Mel plays Benjamin Martin, a character who seems to be based on various real-life guerrilla militia leaders who fought in the War of Independence. At first, all we know about him is that he did shameful but unspecified things back in the French & Indian War, and therefore has no interest in getting involved in this new war against the British. He's got about a million kids to look after, including a young Heath Ledger, and a conveniently-dead wife (convenient for her predatory sister, that is, played by a very hot Joely Richardson, who was no doubt dreaming of her days on board the Event Horizon). So when a bunch of South Carolina powdered wig-wearers get together to debate whether they should join the rebellion, Martin is all like 'nu-uh, I don't do that shit no more, besides I gotta mind the kids, no matter how much of a dick King George is being, and no matter how much shitty tax he's putting on our tea.' This is important as it allows the screenwriters to have their cake and eat it too: Martin is show to be a pacifist, but later events (vis the eeeevil British) will force his hand and make him take up arms. He's a nice guy when he's allowed to be, but he's a badass when he has to be. These early discussions about when/if it's morally okay to use violence for political chance are kind of interesting, but they get dropped after this scene and don't really ever come back.

'Benjamin Franklin?'

The requisite events occur at the hands of Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs, also dreaming of his days aboard the Event Horizon), who is the most moustache-twirlingly cartoonish villain this side of Jafaar. He probably enjoys tying girls to train-tracks when he's not out committing atrocities in the South Carolina countryside. Tavington kills a bunch of unarmed prisoners, including one of Martin's kids, therefore filling our hero with righteous rage and usefully providing him with a guilt-free reason to go on his own rampage. Martin grabs the rest of his family and teaches them how to kill British officers, pretty much declaring a one-man war against Tavington. Martin comes to be known by the British as "The Ghost," due to his almost supernatural ability to kill large amounts of their soldiers. As far as I can see, the only special ability Martin has is being able to ignore soldiers who are not in shot during tight camera angles. But that's just me.

 Tavington gets chewed out by his superior, Lord Cornwallis (who's appeared on this blog before), for being too brutal. Apparently, Tavington's cruel tactics are not sanctioned by the British army and are not representative of their behaviour during the war. This again is a ham-fisted ruse by the scriptwriters that allows them to have their hateful, eeeevil villain, but not seem like they're implying the British were all bad. Too bad they stuff it up by having even the other, slightly more sympathetic officers be snooty, arrogant and disrespectful to the American soldiers every time they appear. They aren't decentl professionals who happen to be on the other side to the protagonist, they're twits and cowards. Some soldiers occasionally seem horrified at Tavington's actions, but they're pussies and don't follow their conscience. And just in case you hadn't got your fill of stereotypes, Tavington himself is effeminate and foppish.

Martin gathers a group of rag-tag militiamen and sets up camp in the swamps. A French officer joins his squad, resulting in much hilarity (sic). If you figured that there'd be jokes about the Frenchman overdressing and being vain, well, award yourself a beer. They organise more attacks on the British, leading to a climactic final battle in which Martin finally faces down his nemesis and gets to wave an American flag around in slow motion.

But for all my kvetching, the movie is very enjoyable. Mel and Bruckenheimer know what they're doing, and even the very well-worn tropes that they're using go down easy. The dialogue is largely enjoyable, the characters are likeable and hateable as they need to be, and everything looks great. Which is the problem, as the movie contains some pretty troubling ideas.

One of the main themes of the movie is that of using violence to solve problems. As I've mentioned, the film toys with going into the ethics of this decision at the beginning, and then dispenses with it altogether, becoming a simplistic glorification of violence instead. It's very black-and-white; us vs them. Which is one thing if a movie is dealing with completely fictional forces (ie, Star Wars). It's quite another when real peoples from history are involves. I feel that if a film-maker is dealing with history, they have much more of a responsibility not to simplify (though I accept that this rarely happens). It's far more irresponsible to have Tavington, as a representative of the British forces, commit war crimes, than to have Darth Vader commit war crimes, because Tavington's actions actually serve to represent how the British behaved during the real war. And, by extension, how the Americans behaved. In reality, atrocities were carried out by both sides, and there isn't currently any concensus that the British were any worse than the Americans.

Also troubling is the movie's treatment of black people. Martin's farm is worked by a bunch of happy, non-slave blacks who are insanely loyal to his family (yeah, right). There's a whiff of Uncle Tom off the whole thing. There's one black man who joins the militia, at first because he's gotta serve a certain amount of days to earn his freedom, but who later sticks around because he believes in the cause. Which is fine, except his final scene is horrifically offensive: he announces that now everyone's building a new world, he thought he'd help rebuild Martin's house first. WHAT? The man has not a single thought for himself? What about building his own Goddam house now that he's free for the first time in his life? Instead, he acts like the Magical Negro who's only around to help out the white folks.

I flip and flop on this movie. I guess overall I like it, because I usually prefer a movie that tries to do something ambitious and fails to a movie that plays it safe. Mel could have made a perfectly ordinary, dumbass action blockbuster. Instead, he made a dumbass action blockbuster that's dealing with ideas it's laughably unprepared to follow through on. It's a movie that annoys me as much as I enjoy it.

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