L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 82, July 24, 2000
What's Wrong With Patriotism?
by Vin Suprynowicz
Special to TLE
Along with Mel Gibson (big-budget movies rarely get made these days without a "bankable" star embracing the script, and the similarity of this film's theme to Gibson's recent "Braveheart" can't be a coincidence) producer-director Roland Emmerich and Columbia Pictures seem to have presented the forces of Political Correctness with a bit of a conundrum this Fourth of July.
"The Patriot" -- the new Columbia film about the Revolutionary War in the Carolinas -- is proving to be enormously popular with American audiences, not just in ticket sales but in the resurfacing of a long-abandoned phenomenon: Theater audiences are actually wiping away tears and rising to their feet to cheer at the picture's conclusion.
Yet many in the mainstream press insist this film's object lessons about patriotism, the need for even reluctant men of conscience to sometimes take up arms in defense of hearth, home, and principle -- and even the potential effectiveness of an armed amateur citizenry in resisting tyranny -- are inadvisable, inappropriate, corny and maybe even a bit scary.
Some of the criticism, predictably, focuses on the film's treatment of blacks in the antebellum south.
In a character based in part on the life of Francis Marion -- the famous "Swamp Fox" who bled the occupying British forces with his guerrilla raids -- Gibson plays Benjamin Martin, a reluctant patriot and widower who considers it his first job to protect his family by remaining neutral in the burgeoning conflict. Martin's eventual heroism is "unsullied by the Revolution's central contradiction, chattel slavery," complains Gregory L. Kaster, a history professor at Gustavus Adolphus College, writing for the History News Service. "Martin's black workers, we learn, are not slaves, which is so unlikely as to be preposterous."
"This detail is in keeping with the film's failure to engage with any subtlety the experiences of blacks (not to mention white women) in the Revolution, or the fascinating irony of white men who owned slaves fearing their own 'enslavement' and proclaiming the equality of all men," Prof. Kaster continues. "A mostly silent slave in Martin's militia is made to stand for all slaves fighting for their (literal) freedom. Viewers learn nothing of the slaves who fought with the British in return for the promise of emancipation."
In fact, the film gives white women (most notably brilliant widescreen newcomer Lisa Brenner) quite vocal roles -- albeit Politically Incorrect ones, by today's standard -- urging their menfolk to take up arms in defense of their principles. Does Prof. Kaster mean the filmmakers should have revised history blatantly enough to give us some female Revolutionary War generals? Whom did he have in mind -- Goldie Hawn or Demi Moore?
Meantime, the majority of white Americans in the colonial south were never rich enough to own slaves -- many arriving on these shores as indentured servants, themselves. The film does indeed show the British offering freedom to any slave who would enlist with their forces, with Washington and the Continentals following suit. Black faces are quite noticeable in the Redcoat lines at the climactic battle of Cowpens. And while racists in Martin's militia initially grumble about his handing muskets to blacks, the stoic service of the "mostly silent slave" about whom Prof. Kaster complains finally wins them over.
Is the "battlefield conversion" of the racist who finally tells his black comrade he's "proud to serve beside you; proud" a sappy and obvious Hollywood touch? Yes, of course. But what's so wrong about showing black men fighting for freedom, too? They did, after all. And where better for a racist to learn the error of his ways than in observing the stoic -- even heroic -- service of a black comrade in arms?
It is a painful irony that most American blacks would wait another 80 years -- if not 180 -- for real freedom. But to assume viewers need this spelled out for them is to assume they are all illiterate morons.
No, "The Patriot" does not deal in any major way with the abomination of chattel slavery. But in the end, this complaint boils down to little more than another assertion that American history should no longer be taught as anything but a dispiriting compilation of the sins of Dead White Men -- that this should have been a Spike Lee movie about the horrors of slavery. To which one can hardly imagine any appropriate response other than: "Feel free to go make that movie -- it's just not this movie."
Anyway, the real focus of horror on the part of the forces of Political Correctness, clearly, is the crucial scene in which Gibson's character is transfigured into a man of action. Benjamin Martin -- having just seen one of his children killed despite his piteous pleadings with the evil Col. William Tavington (based on history's infamous Col. Banastre Tarleton, who recalled in his memoirs the pleasure he took in shooting fleeing rebels in the back) and with a second son under imminent threat of unjust execution -- hands flintlocks to his younger boys, aged about 10 and 13, and leads them on a wild run through the woods to a point where they can ambush the British column.
Here is the very kernel of the American Revolution -- a miraculous triumph of everyday, amateur American families taking up arms in a fight for liberty against what was then the world's most powerful army -- which the forces of the collectivist left have been struggling for generations to replace with a revisionist version of our history as nothing but a scurrilous catalog of genocide and oppression.
"Don't mistake ('The Patriot') for history," warns James Verniere of The Boston Herald. "It's a sales pitch for America."
"Overblown sanctimony and sentimentalism," agrees Ann Hornaday in The Baltimore Sun, "as corny as the Fourth of July."
"In a scene that will put lead in the spine of Second Amendment fundamentalist Charlton Heston, Martin tears into his larder of unregistered muskets ... and wreaks havoc on those who would invade his home," sneers Jack Matthews of the Daily News.
Well, indeed, Revolutionary War victories at places like Saratoga and Cowpens were largely attributable to the armed amateur militia, of whom Tench Coxe (an ally of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, who would later serve in the administrations of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison) was speaking when -- in his famous letter to the Philadelphia Gazette of Feb. 20, 1788 -- he defended the new U.S. Constitution, arguing:
"The power of the sword, say the minority of Pennsylvania, is in the hands of Congress. My friends and countrymen, it is not so, for THE POWERS OF THE SWORD ARE IN THE HANDS OF THE YEOMANRY OF AMERICA FROM SIXTEEN TO SIXTY. The militia of these free commonwealths, entitled and accustomed to their arms, when compared with any possible army, must be tremendous and irresistible. Who are the militia? are they not ourselves. Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man against his own bosom. Congress have no power to disarm the militia. Their swords, and every other terrible implement of the soldier, are the birthright of an American. What clause in the state or [federal] constitution hath given away that important right. ... The unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments, but where I trust in God it will ever remain, in the hands of the people."
This is the message which those who now cry "Don't pay any attention to the little man behind the curtain" wish Roland Emmerich and Mel Gibson had left unspoken.
But American audiences are overlooking such cynicism and disinformation in droves -- and perhaps drawing a few even less PC parallels, one Internet wag already circulating the apocryphal response of Attorney General Janet Reno to the scene in which the evil Col. Tarleton locks a village full of patriot sympathizers in a church and sets the building afire, the chief Clinton enforcer reportedly insisting: "Those cult members locked themselves in that church and set the fire themselves; the colonel was only trying to rescue them!"
"The Patriot" is a fine film and a great -- albeit admittedly "fictionalized" -- lesson in American history. Here's hoping it gets a whole new generation of Americans studying the real history of the War for Independence -- and the real reason why tyrants have always opposed an armed populace -- and leaves the forces of Politically Correct revisionism with a mighty knot in their knickers when it comes time to decide whatever they are to do with such a piece of "disgustingly populist, patriotic tripe," come Oscar time.