In 1995, over a decade before a series of scandals landed gut-punches to his career, Mel Gibson reached a new level of cinematic grandeur after both directing and playing the lead role of the 1995 war epic Braveheart. Five years, and at least one more Lethal Weapon movie later, Gibson returned for another war epic, though he left the directing duties to someone else this time. The actor traded in his sword and kilt for tomahawks and an American flag in 2000’s The Patriot.
While its setting was separated from that of Braveheart by an ocean and nearly 500 years, like the earlier film, The Patriot deals with a nation struggling to achieve independence from the British. Mel Gibson stars as South Carolina’s Benjamin Martin. Considered a hero because of his service during the French and Indian War, Martin surprises many of his colleagues when he speaks out against independence from Great Britain. Regardless, the South Carolina vote to back the Continental Army passes and Martin’s eldest son Gabriel — played by a young Heath Ledger — eagerly volunteers for the army.
Mel Gibson’s Benjamin Martin may want to stay out of the war, but the war quite literally comes to his front door. When British and colonial troops clash in Charleston, many of the wounded from both sides find their way to Martin’s home where he cares for both. Among the combatants who find their way to the house are Gabriel, who is acting as a courier for the Continental Army. When the British Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs) arrives, he is unimpressed with Martin’s neutrality. He orders the colonial wounded executed, takes Gabriel prisoner, and kills one of Martin’s younger sons.
With one son dead and a second being carried away by the British, Martin springs into dark action and shows us exactly why he did not initially support military resistance against the British. Retrieving weapons he used at Fort Wilderness, including a tomahawk, Martin and two of his sons ambush the British soldiers transporting Gabriel. Martin brutally takes the British apart in hand-to-hand combat, in a way that would make William Wallace or any other Braveheart character think twice about disrespecting the French and Indian War veteran. The message is clear: this is the side of Benjamin Martin he did not want to his family to ever see.
To give too many more details would spoil far too much. Suffice to say, Mel Gibson’s Benjamin Martin soon joins the war effort against the British. Sadly, his woes are not over for long. There are buckets worth of blood to be spilled and Martin suffers much more loss. Isaacs is perfect as the merciless Colonel Tavington, and by the end of the film, the story arguably becomes much more about Martin’s vengeance than any patriotic notions of freedom or liberty.
The Patriot faced its share of controversy but, unlike the scandals that would hound Mel Gibson in the 21st century, debates over the film had less to do with any actor’s personal life and more to do with the historical integrity of the film. While Benjamin Martin and Colonel Tavington were both fictional characters, to those more intimately familiar with the history, their real life counterparts were obvious. Martin’s main historical influence was Francis Marion — a colonial officer often called “The Swamp Fox” — while Tavington was based on the real life General Banastre Tarleton. According to a number of critics, the stories of both were corrupted for the sake of drama and propaganda.
In the case of Mel Gibson’s hero, The Guardian called the real life Francis Marion “a serial rapist” and a slaveowner who was noteworthy for murdering indigenous people “for fun.” With Tarleton, things are a bit more complex. Word of Tarleton‘s alleged war crimes is as old as the Revolutionary War itself. Colonial writers claimed that at the Battle of Waxhaws in 1780, Tarleton’s men ruthlessly murdered Colonial soldiers even after they’d surrendered. More recent historical studies have found that what happened at the Battle of Waxhaws was largely misunderstood, and that the Colonial war effort capitalized on the atrocities as a propaganda tool.
If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you can decide for yourself what you think of The Patriot starting this Saturday, January 1st. The Patriot was directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) from a script by Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan). It stars Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs, Joely Richardson (Nip/Tuck), Lisa Brenner (Say My Name), Rene Auberjonois (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Tom Wilkinson, and Donal Logue (Blade).