Tag Archives: The Patriot

Turns and twists

Here’s a heads-up for Turn viewers who are a few episodes behind–this post contains spoilers. Ye be warned.

Gen. Charles Lee’s capture is one of the most dramatic and humorous episodes of the American Revolution.  Lee was one of the war’s most colorful figures, an eccentric and unkempt British veteran who was habitually accompanied by a pack of pet dogs.  On the eve of the war he hung up his red coat and adopted America as his home country, fired with a commitment to Whiggish principles.  Lee’s experience got him a commission in the Continental Army, where (like his fellow expatriate Horatio Gates) he became one of Washington’s critics.

Despite his commander-in-chief’s entreaties, Lee dithered while the rest of the army retreated across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania in 1776.  On December 12 he stopped for the night at a tavern in Basking Ridge, NJ. British dragoons found him there the next morning, still undressed and several miles from the safety of his troops. Women inside the tavern offered to hide him, but Lee gave himself up when the British threatened to set fire to the building. (Incidentally, one of the dragoons who captured him was Banastre Tarleton, who went on to make a name for himself in the Southern Campaign.)  The troublesome general spent the next sixteen months in captivity, offering advice to the British on how to defeat his former compatriots.

Last week’s episode of Turn depicted Lee’s capture, but changed the circumstances.  The show has Lee falling into the hands of John André while playing hide-and-seek with a young woman who, unknown to him, is a British operative.

It’s an amusing scene.  But it’s no more amusing than the actual circumstances of Lee’s capture.  Why the change to the historical record?

I don’t have a problem with dramatic license. People who adapt history have to compress events, get inside the characters’ heads, and combine historic figures into composites. I get that.

If the story is told well, I can forgive all manner of distortions. I liked 300. I liked The Patriot, for crying out loud. In fact, the grand scheme of things, The Patriot‘s distortions are much more substantial than the liberties Turn took with Lee’s capture, but they don’t irk me as much because I can see the rationale behind them. Modern audiences wouldn’t be comfortable with a slaveowner protagonist, so you make his field hands free men. People want the villain to get what’s coming to him, so instead of having Tarleton/Tavington escape from the field at Cowpens, you have Mel Gibson shove a bayonet in his throat. I get that.

What I don’t get are these little departures that don’t really amount to any improvement over what actually happened. Would a straightforward depiction of Lee’s capture in his nightgown at a Basking Ridge tavern have been any less entertaining than the “Marco Polo” scene? I don’t think so. Nor do I think the notion of Lee passing information to the British before his capture adds anything in terms of entertainment value.

I don’t really intend this to be a criticism of the show. I’ve been enjoying it; in fact, it’s getting better with each episode, especially now that major players like Washington and Cornwallis are putting in appearances. I just get puzzled and irritated when filmmakers sacrifice accuracy for no apparent payoff.

2 Comments

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

The Patriot and rites of passage

As many of you probably know, Michael Kammen passed away a couple of weeks ago, ending a distinguished career marked by several important books and a term as president of the Organization of American Historians.

Coincidentally, when I found out about Kammen’s death I was about to start re-reading his book A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination.  In this work, he argued that a common theme in fiction about the American Revolution was the notion of the founding as a rite of passage.  Novelists have portrayed the War for Independence as a national coming-of-age story, and many have amplified this theme by populating their stories with characters on the verge of adulthood.  For these characters, participation in the Revolution marks a transition to maturity, so that their own life stories reflect the larger story of their country.  Many of these novelists have also employed generational conflict as a narrative device, with their young characters chafing under parental control just as America sought independence of a different kind from the mother country.

Kammen’s book deals primarily with novels, plays, and imagery.  He relegated films about the Revolution a short sub-section of one chapter, due to a scarcity of original material.  In the three decades since the publication of A Season of Youth, we’ve seen a few more (but not that many) theatrical and TV movies about the Revolution, and for the most part I think his thesis still holds up.

In fact, the most successful recent movie about the Revolution fits Kammen’s argument to a T.  The Patriot is a story of generational conflict between Benjamin Martin and his oldest sons.  Martin knows what sort of devastation the war with England will bring and is reluctant to get involved, while the two boys are eager to enlist.  The protagonist gets dragged into the war by his children, one of whom is burning with patriotic idealism, and one of whom seems more fascinated by the trappings of war than anything, playing with toy soldiers and trying on his father’s old uniform coat.

The movie also portrays the war as a transition of a different sort for Martin’s younger children.  For them, the war is not so much a step into maturity as a loss of innocence.  Just as Martin predicts in an early speech, the Revolutionary War is fought on their doorstep.  The family farm is an idyllic sanctuary in the movie’s opening sequence, but when the shooting starts, Martin’s attempts to shield his children from all the death and destruction prove futile.  Check out this deleted scene:

There’s another way in which The Patriot supports Kammen’s thesis.  He argued that by pitching the Revolution as a coming-of-age, Americans have also domesticated their own history.  We’re a nation born in revolution, but we value order and stability.  If the founding was a passage into adulthood, it was a one-time event that doesn’t need to be repeated.  The notion of the Revolution as a rite of passage is thus a way of celebrating our violent and radical beginning without endorsing the overthrow of the status quo.

The Patriot’s closing scene shows us the Martin family returning to the site of their burned home at the war’s end.  When they arrive, they find white and black veterans of Martin’s command working together to build them a new dwelling.  The implication is that the destructive work of war and revolution is over, and it’s time to move on to the constructive work of building on a foundation.  The movie thus emphasizes the possibilities the American Revolution opened and passes over the issues it left unresolved.  And it would take another such violent upheaval to resolve some of them.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Historiography, History and Memory

Movie protagonists and the past as a foreign country

I’ve taken as one of my creeds novelist L.P. Hartley’s oft-quoted statement: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”  As I’ve said before, I love it when historical films manage to convey this “otherness” of the past.  The tricky part is that audiences are supposed to identify with a movie’s protagonists, and it seems like underscoring the differences between historical characters and moderns would only make that more difficult.  So how do you depict the “otherness” of a historical film’s protagonists without undermining an audience’s sympathy for them, especially when that otherness consists of attitudes and practices that are morally repugnant here in the twenty-first century?

The easiest approach is to cheat and eliminate the otherness altogether.  If your hero is a prominent landowner in eighteenth-century South Carolina, you’re going to have to deal with the fact that men of his stature, place, and time tended to be slaveholders.  The makers of The Patriot sliced through this Gordian knot by making Benjamin Martin a remarkably forward-thinking guy.

It’s a simple solution, but it also leaves a lot to be desired.  Whereas the movie shows the British dragoons tearing free blacks away from their homes, the reality was in many cases the reverse, with many slaves escaping their Patriot masters to make a bid for freedom behind British lines.  Ironically, Benjamin Martin’s fictional military exploits are similar to those of a real South Carolina officer named Thomas Sumter, who paid his recruits with slaves confiscated from Tories.

The makers of 300, by contrast, didn’t try to gloss over the unsavory aspects of their historical protagonists.  The Spartans leave weak infants to die of exposure, they savagely discipline their own children to turn them into hardened soldiers, they cherish the idea of death on the battlefield, and they slaughter their wounded enemies and desecrate their bodies.  And the audience is expected to accept the characters for what they are—even to celebrate them for it.

The movie not only gives us the Spartans in all their ruthlessness, but makes us empathize with them.  You probably wouldn’t want to live among them, and you certainly wouldn’t want to be a wounded Persian falling into their hands, but it’s fun to root for them for a couple of hours.  This solution seems more historically honest than the approach taken in The Patriot, and it works pretty well when you’re telling a story in which there are obvious good guys and bad guys.

Of course, 300 tells the story entirely from the Spartans’ perspective.  Can filmmakers tell the story of some historic event holistically—that is, from a variety of perspectives—while conveying the past’s “otherness” and still make audiences empathize with all the characters involved?  Can they do on film what David Hackett Fischer did in his book Paul Revere’s Ride, approaching “both Paul Revere and Thomas Gage with sympathy and genuine respect” even though the main characters act in opposition to each other?  I think one movie that handles this really well is John Lee Hancock’s 2004 film The Alamo.

As this scene demonstrates, the movie presents the Alamo’s defenders as heroic.  Indeed, for some critics, they come across as too heroic.  A number of reviewers accused the filmmakers of whitewashing the story.  What struck me about the movie when I saw it, however, was its remarkable frankness about the protagonists’ shortcomings.  Early scenes establish that David Crockett, Jim Bowie, and William Travis have all experienced some sort of disappointment or disgrace, and Texas represents a second chance for them.  A short but sympathetic side plot involves a very young solider marching in Santa Anna’s army.  Most notable, though, is how upfront the film is about the relationship between its heroes and their slaves—fittingly so, since the peculiar institution was one of the points of debate between the Texians and the Mexican government.

In one scene, Travis assigns two slaves named Sam and Joe the task of digging a well within the fort’s walls.  “Ain’t bad enough we got to fetch ‘em the water,” Sam complains, “now we got to find it for ‘em too.”  Later, Sam tells Joe that when the Mexicans storm the mission, he should worry about saving his own life and let his master to fend for himself.  (Travis did indeed own a young slave named Joe, who was wounded when the Alamo fell and escaped to freedom one year after San Jacinto.)    These scenes establish that the enslaved members of the garrison have their own interests at stake, interests at odds with those of the protagonists with whom we’re supposed to identify.  Contrast this with earlier depictions of black characters in Alamo movies, which tend to employ the familiar “faithful slave” narrative.

At the same time, though, the film’s revisionism doesn’t extend to demonizing the Alamo’s white defenders.  We sympathize with Sam and Joe’s predicament even as we admire the courageous last stand of the men holding them captive.  As prejudiced slaveholders of another time, Bowie and Travis seem foreign to us, but we also become invested in their confrontation with their own impending death.

As I said, the movie’s approach didn’t go over well with everybody.  The essay linked above, for example, notes that “the realistic portrayals of Joe and Sam may be to the credit of the filmmakers, but ultimately the film does little to question the ideological values inscribed onto the Alamo battle, which have gone largely unchallenged for the last 175 years, even if it does alter aspects of the story prevalent in its cinematic representations.”  In other words, the 2004 version is more frank about its main characters’ slaveholding, but it somehow manages to leave their bravery and heroism intact.  The movie leaves these contradictions unresolved.  It’s messy, complicated, and ambiguous, as history often turns out to be.  It didn’t work for many critics and historians, but from a purely historical standpoint, I was impressed.  Your mileage may vary.

Anyway, The Patriot and 300 grossed $113 million and $456 million respectively, but The Alamo flopped.  Maybe audiences prefer their historical heroes to be as straightforward as possible.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

And speaking of tomahawks…

The most dynamic visual representation of tomahawk combat in modern times is probably the electrifying rescue sequence in The Patriot, in which Mel Gibson turns a detachment of British soldiers into hamburger.

This portrayal of tomahawk fighting is as elegant as it is ugly, equal parts martial art and straightforward butchery. I suspect the reality was a lot more grab-and-hack and less Jackie Chan.

One account of a tomahawk in action—or about to be put into action—comes from the pension application of Charles Bowen, who fought at King’s Mountain. During the battle, Bowen somehow heard that his brother Reese had been killed in action. As he tried to find him, he came across his own captain, dead or dying from a shot to the head. At that point, something in Bowen apparently snapped.

Making his way to a spot “within fifteen or twenty paces of the enemy” and taking cover behind a tree, Bowen shot down a Tory who was attempting to raise a flag of surrender. He was reloading when Col. Benjamin Cleveland approached him and demanded he give the countersign, which was “Buford” (after the commander of a Virginia unit defeated by British dragoons earlier that year). Bowen couldn’t come up with the word, perhaps because he was still in some kind of a berserk rage, so Cleveland assumed he was a Tory. Here’s Bowen’s recollection of what happened next, as transcribed and amended at revwarapps.org:

Col Cleveland instantly leveled his rifle at Declarant’s breast and attempted to fire, but the Gun snapped. Declarant jumped at Cleveland seized him by the collar, drew his tomahawk, and would have sunk it in Cleveland’s head if his arm had not been arrested by a soldier by the name of Beanhannon [sic, Buchanan?], who knew the parties. Declarant immediately recollected the countersign which was “Blueford,” [sic, Buford] named it and Cleveland dropped his gun and clasped Declarant in his arms.

There’s nothing fancy about what Bowen was about to do; he simply “seized him by the collar, drew his tomahawk, and would have sunk it in Cleveland’s head.” If this was typical of tomahawk combat, then that scene from The Patriot is probably too elaborate on the choreography, even though it gets the raw brutality exactly right.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution

The Patriot: Considering Creative License

My mom is a high school principal and English teacher, and from time to time she uses film clips in her classes to liven things up.  Her American Lit students are doing a unit on the Revolution, so the other day she asked to borrow my DVD copy of The Patriot, intending to show a scene or two just to set the mood.  To her surprise, the students really got into it, and they ended up watching quite a bit.

Very few of my fellow Rev War buffs seem to share my positive view of this film.  In fact, several years ago I attended a fine symposium on the Revolutionary War in the South, and one thing shared by practically every attendee with whom I spoke was a strong dislike for this movie.

It’s not hard to understand their dissatisfaction.  The Patriot plays pretty fast and loose with the historical record of the Revolution in the Carolinas.  Here are some examples:

The chronology is warped beyond all recognition.  The film begins sometime around the run-up to independence, then jumps forward to the fall of Charleston.  This places most of the action after May 1780, but a subsequent montage seems to show the much earlier encampment at Valley Forge.  Furthermore, the DVD menu identifies the climactic battle as Cowpens, which took place in January 1781, but a bit of dialogue places this sequence in October.

That last battle merits some additional attention.  Although it’s supposedly Cowpens (depicted here in a rather inaccurate painting), it bears a closer resemblance to the larger battle at Guilford Courthouse.  Cornwallis is in command during this sequence, but he was not present at Cowpens.  Nor was Nathanael Greene, who is depicted leading a council of American officers on the eve of the battle.  The film’s Greene also seems to have a southern accent, while the historical Greene was from Rhode Island.

An earlier sequence depicts the American defeat at Camden in August 1780.  In the film, this battle unfolds across a picturesque open field.  The actual engagement took place in a swampy, wooded area.  Furthermore, the movie’s Continentals flee this battle en masse; in actuality, the militia ran in the face of British bayonets, abandoning the Continentals under Johann de Kalb.  On a side note, de Kalb’s wounds in the battle cost him his life, and his remains lie in a Camden churchyard.  On my first trip there in 2001 I visited his grave, and was surprised to find a small movie theater just down the street where The Patriot was showing.  It’s a small world.

Mel Gibson’s Benjamin Martin character is a mish-mash of several backcountry commanders.  The most obvious parallel is Francis Marion, visible in the center of this painting.  An early draft of the script actually had Marion as its star.  Like Marion, Martin is a partisan commander who takes refuge in the South Carolina swamps.  Martin loses a son named Gabriel in battle; Marion lost a nephew by that name.  Yet Martin also bears a similarity to Thomas Sumter, who took up arms when British troops burned his home.  Martin commands the militia at Cowpens, a role performed in actuality by Andrew Pickens.  At the same time, he devises a defense in depth, with the militia firing two volleys before retiring to the rear.  Here Martin becomes a fictional Daniel Morgan, the rough-and-tumble commander whose skillful use of militia and regular troops at Cowpens ended with a tactical masterpiece.

For an eighteenth-century planter, Benjamin Martin is a pretty progressive guy when it comes to race.  He owns no slaves, relying on free blacks to work on his farm.  When a slaveowner signs over one of his laborers to serve in the militia, Martin insists that the slave sign up for himself.  In actuality, Thomas Sumter used the confiscated slaves of Tories to pay enlistment bounties.

Col. William Tavington, the film’s villain, is obviously based on Banastre Tarleton, the notoriously aggressive young commander of the British Legion depicted in the portrait at right.  Tarleton’s unsavory reputation in the Carolinas is the stuff of legend today, and made great fodder for American propaganda at the time.  Compared to his fictional counterpart, however, he was an absolute Boy Scout.  Tavington shoots a young boy in cold blood, burns civilians alive in a locked church, and (in a deleted scene available on the DVD)supervises the torture of captured American militiamen.  Tavington dies a particularly unpleasant death at Cowpens/Guilford.  Tarleton’s independent command at the real Cowpens was a disaster, but he survived, and in fact was one of the few British soldiers to escape the field.  He suffered a nasty hand wound at Guilford but served through Yorktown, returning to England to live to a ripe old age.  Although he never again saw active command, he was made a general in 1812.

In the film, Cornwallis and Tavington keep up a running feud.  In reality, Cornwallis relied heavily on Tarleton during the Carolina campaigns of 1780-81 and lavished him with praise on numerous occasions.

In other words, The Patriot takes place in a wartime South Carolina that’s similar to, but hardly identical with, the real thing.  To me, that’s no big deal.

Dramatic works operate by their own logic.  We judge them based on whether they’re credible, not whether they’re factual.  It’s only when their creators present them as “the truth” that they become legitimate targets for this type of criticism.  Screenwriter Robert Rodat slapped the “based on a true story” label on the script draft mentioned above, but the finished movie makes no such claim.  In fact, by changing the namesof characters and the details of certain events, the filmmakers assert their intention to present us with a fictional story rather than a reconstruction of history. 

Most of the movie’s discrepancies are the result of conscious choices, not errors, and in the context of drama they make pretty good sense.  The movie’s approach to slavery, for example, garnered some especially harsh criticism.  But since diversity and tolerance are our values du jour, I don’t think an American audience could have sympathized with a slaveowning hero, no matter how common the practice in the film’s actual setting.  It was a sensible choice to serve the goal of telling a story.

Whether or not that story works is a matter of taste, and of the principles of plot and character, action and setting, and all the other factors by which movies either succeed or fail.  The world of The Patriot isn’t exactly the same as the world I’ve found in the historical record, but for a few hours, at least, it’s a pretty compelling place to be.

(I obtained the images here from Wikimedia Commons.)

1 Comment

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

The Revolutionary War on film

I’ve been looking up early American course syllabi recently to see if I’m on track with my ideas for teaching a colonial course this fall.  Not long ago I ran across a website with teaching resources, including a list of films dealing with early American history. 

For reasons I’ve never understood, the Revolution hasn’t fared well on the silver screen.  There are a few period films that I enjoy watching.  1776 remains a personal favorite of mine, because it helps restore some of the suspense and urgency that two and a half centuries have worn away from the debate over independence.  I’ve also got to confess that I’m a fan of The Patriot.  It’s a compelling story told well, and it focuses on the critical war in the South, even if it plays fast and loose with the facts.  A&E’s made-for-TV films The Crossing and Benedict Arnold: A Queston of Honor also deserve an honorable mention.  I haven’t seen HBO’s Adams miniseries yet, but I’ve heard some great feedback.  Still, the Revolutionary War can’t match the Civil War or WWII in terms of number and quality of film adaptations.

This hasn’t always been the case.  As the filmography at the above website shows, the Revolutionary War was a pretty popular subject during the infancy of moving pictures.  From the early 1900′s to the 1920′s, filmmakers were turning out Revolutionary War stories at a surprisingly high rate.  Similar projects often appeared close to the same time: Paul Revere and Nathan Hale were both popular subjects in the 1910′s, and Francis Marion got his own film in 1911 and again in 1914. 

It’s clear that moviemakers were interested in the Revolution from the first days of putting stories on film.  It’s also clear that interest in making Revolutionary War films didn’t keep up with this initial burst of enthusiasm.

There are a lot of stories from the War of Independence I’d like to see on the screen, but it doesn’t look like it’s happening anytime soon.  Countingdown.com lists quite a few WWII movies in the works, but I couldn’t find any Revolutionary War-related projects in any genre.  Maybe the current Founding Fathers craze will bring more filmmakers around.

5 Comments

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory