I’m a history teacher and films about a historical event or people are important to me. I wish you could hear the conversations I have with my students about the past and their opinions when introduced to the culture and state of affairs in films. Scholars are apt to criticize the inaccuracies of historical films, but I believe many filmmakers spend great care creating the historical climate from which the audience can experience the past and recognize the universal truths therein.
Take The Patriot (2000) for instance. This week the topic was events leading up to American Revolutionary War. We analyzed primary documents of Thomas Paine and Patrick Henry and watched the film. As movie buffs, you and I have seen the film and can list all that’s wrong with it. However, I enjoy talking about what works by pulling out what is correct and hearing the fresh impressions of my students.
Here’s my new feature called History in Films. It is not meant to be a traditional film review, but an offering how historical films attempt to create the historical climate and how they influence the audience. I invite your comments. Here’s one aspect of the film’s success. Why not listen to the score by John Williams while you read?
The Moral Dilemma
Mel Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin, avoids fighting in the Revolutionary War to the bewilderment of his friends and sons. As a single parent, he doesn’t want to make them orphans and as a veteran of The French and Indian War, he has seen the horror and does not want to engage again.
As the movie progresses, he experiences loss and joins the South Carolina Militia. In this film, Benjamin Martin is a father. Mel’s acting is believable when he contorts his face, squints, and swallows hard especially when his oldest son dies. “Gabriel, don’t go!” makes me tear up every time I watch the scene.
The battle scenes, reenactments, costumes and props are impressive. The following interview explores 18th century warfare by the principle cast members.
Wars in film generally grapple with two opposing viewpoints. Side A: The glorification of war makes it a test of manhood and a virtuous act to show patriotism and loyalty. Side B: War is futile, senseless, and the loss of innocence horrifying.
Benjamin Martin asks a good question about war. “Why do men feel they can justify death? Is it our arrogance?” The answer, “You matter to your men, and your loss is shared by more than you know. Stay the course.”
To answer the question of why we war, the use of symbols in the film, while obvious, still makes the film good. Gabriel, whose convictions are clear, takes a tattered flag and repairs it, the very action suggesting he’s doing his part by holding the fledgling country together. His conviction and patriotism convinces his father to “stay the course” out of respect for his son. It is an interesting irony that the son teaches his father the purpose behind the war. No head of country should have the right to control a person’s life as a matter of policy or random impulsive decision. That is a principle worth dying for.
Another symbol in the film are the lead toy soldiers painted and played with by son Thomas. His idealistic hero-worshiping of his older brother causes him to act rashly. The loss of innocence is represented through the toy. His toys are melted and reshaped as musket bullets and function as sweet revenge. In death, Thomas becomes the soldier he dreamed of becoming. Cheesy? Sure. Effective? My high school students loved the film. And, it pulls the thread of Benjamin Martin’s role as a father first and fulfills the prediction Benjamin made at the beginning of the film that the war would be fought on the front lawns and “our children will bear witness to it.” The North Star necklace and the tomahawk are effective props and symbols, too.
Yes, Colonel Tavington was too evil, too one-dimensional. But Tom Wilkinson as General Cornwallis was perfect. Yes, most of the characters’ dialogue was contrite and predictable, but I’m always glad to see a film with Heath Ledger in it. It’s a great film for students to discuss the issues and catch a glimpse of 18th century Colonial America. My favorite scene is when the Captain has to burn down the church with the villagers inside. Tavington reminds him,”Didn’t you say all those who defy the king deserve to die a traitors death?” It brings up the topic of convictions. They are easily said, but when it’s time to walk the walk, convictions become cloudy. Are principles worth dying for? Is freedom free?