The Patriot recounts the life of a single hero during the Revolutionary War. Mel Gibson stars as a fictional historical figure who loses his home at the outset of the film and fights against the British as a renegade soldier. Along the way he gathers followers, faces the pain of losing his family, and finding vengeance against his arch enemy. Cinematically, the film uses historical realism, fashioning costumes and sets that reflect the 18th century Americas. Furthermore, we hear British accents and southern American accents from the characters. Yet the narrative of the film is historical fiction. Mel Gibson’s character may have been based on a real person, but in the film, he is not aligned with a particular man from the Revolutionary War. Many of the events, though, occurred in that time, and other characters act as historical persons, such as General Cornwallis.
The director encourages the viewer to identify with the militia, the protagonists of the film, who fight against the British with guerilla tactics. They appear as a rag-tag and rough bunch, but likable and most of all noble. They do not conceded to the “formal” practices of warfare but seek to kill quickly and effectively. The director portrays the British army, especially its generals, as unlikable, proud, and oppressive. The battle between the British and the settlers manifests itself in a representative scale through Mel Gibson and his enemy Tavington, who killed his wife and robbed his home. We see the entire conflict between two countries in the conflict between two individuals.
The most famous scenes center on the tension between these two men. First, the “axe hacking scene,” where Gibson and his gang sneak attack a squad of troops in the woods, shows Gibson chopping into the back of a dead soldier, clearly to an excessive extent. At the end, he is covered in blood, unaware of his mania, and stands off the body in a daze. The viewer knows this reaction stems from the loss of his family, thanks to Tavington, and expresses the character’s rage. Furthermore, it seems both justified and right but also excessive, as the scene makes most people uncomfortable.
The humor of Gibson and his militia lightens up the film, especially when they use it against the enemy. Blowing up their ship, stealing the general’s dogs, and confusing the troops all garners a laugh that eases the mood and satisfies the viewer. Yet the movie contains real violence too. We see the British remains in a town of woman and children killed and hanged. While we do not actually see their murders, the director shows the results of the attack and leaves violence to the imagination. This is an interesting tactic, and move the viewer in ways that explicit battle does not.
The final scene during the Battle of Cowpens marks the climax of the film, the point of ultimate justice. Who will win, Gibson or Tavington? The suspense builds as the two fight their way through the bloody battle field and finally confront one another. Tavington on horse back, charges Gibson who thrusts the bayonet through Tavington’s neck and kills him. In this scene, Gibson also runs with an American flag, representing the victory and pride of the favored country. The movie thus employs classic narrative elements of conflict on a macro and micro scale, yet includes an underdog aspect that viewers enjoy. The violence appears both real and excessive but the latter, I think, contributes to the story and the characters. It is not violence for violence’s sake. This film would benefit a humanities study most by analyzing its nationalistic message and questions of morality in the light of a man losing his family.