Monday, July 3, 2017
July 3, 2017: Representing the Revolution: The Patriot
[For this year’s July 4th series, I’ll be AmericanStudying cultural representations of the Revolution and its era. Leading up to a special post on Hamilton!]
On the monstrous issue at the heart of a Revolutionary blockbuster.
There are lots of reasons why this AmericanStudier should be a big fan of Roland Emmerich’s historical blockbuster film The Patriot (2000; serious spoilers in that hyperlinked video). It features a protagonist who seems to be at least loosely based on one of my childhood favorite American historical figures: Frances Marion, the Swamp Fox on the Revolution. It includes multiple, compelling scenes set in the South Carolina State Legislature (seriously). And it’s a got a heaping helping of Chris Cooper, which is more than just about any other summer blockbuster outside of the unquestionably great The Bourne Identity. What’s not to like?
The very, very very, unlikeable villain, that’s what. As embodied by Jason Isaacs, The Patriot’s villainous British colonel is a thoroughgoing monster, the kind of man who will shoot a young child just for the heck of it, with a smile on his face. There are of course generic reasons for this choice—the film is what we might call a historical revenge saga, one inspired quite directly by Mel Gibson’s previous Braveheart as well as similar films like Gladiator; those films featured equally monstrous villains played by Patrick McGoohan and Joaquin Phoenix (respectively), characters designed in each case to insure that audiences would root for nothing more than to see the protagonist achieve his vengeful goal. Maybe if I were a British or Roman historian, those villains would bother me more than they do—but as an AmericanStudier, it’s Isaac’s over-the-top bad guy in The Patriot who really gripes my cookies.
The problem isn’t just that making Isaacs such a monster reduces the film’s narrative of the American Revolution to a story of primal revenge (although that sure doesn’t work on any historical level, unless you want to argue that everybody really took that Crispus Attucks thing personally). Nor is it just that it makes the British look really bad, although they had some justifiable issues with that effect of the film. To my mind, the biggest problem with The Patriot’s monstrous villain is that he makes the film’s Revolutionary protagonist into an equally one-dimensional saint, turning our hugely complex, politically and socially layered originating moment into a simplistic saga of good vs. evil. I’m sure there were monstrous men in the British army, and in the Continental one as well—war tends to bring out such types. But they didn’t define the Revolution’s causes or stories; and so whatever its charms, this Revolutionary representation gets a failing grade in history.
Next Revolutionary representation tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Revolutionary representations you’d highlight?