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82

THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 82, July 24, 2000
Patriot Games

Against Atrocity or For Liberty?
Second Thoughts About 'The Patriot'

by Tracy Harms
harms@bendnet.com

Special to TLE

'The Patriot' is well worth seeing and easy to enjoy. I am heartened that it was made and pleased by the movie, overall. But I must admit that I walked away from the theater a good deal less enthusiastic about it than I hoped I would be.

Why was I so much more moved by 'Braveheart'? It is ironic that a film about a fight which was victorious in establishing a monarchy and maintaining an aristocracy should bear more relevance to the struggle for liberty than a film about the American fight for Independence. More than ironic, it is sharply unsatisfying.

In both movies there is an emotional "hook" whereby the protagonist changes attitude and the audience follows along in empathy. In both flicks this hook is a matter of atrocity and suffering. A loved one dies a terrible, gratuitous death and the central character, previously unwilling to become involved, takes up arms against those who have done such wrong. Considered as a technique within the art of the screenplay we might as well admit its effectiveness. It would be missing the realities of cinema to imagine that these compelling structures of human drama would be skipped when they work so well. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with being reminded that the lives of our loved ones are in the balance in conflicts such as these.

In 'Braveheart' the atrocity provokes a change of mind in William Wallace, and from there on out the film dwells on his struggle toward Scottish independence. Most especially the plot turns on the conflicts faced within and among the Scots themselves, the tendency of politics to foster betrayal, and the tension between rulers and the people at large. Without losing touch with the basic structure of an action film, 'Braveheart' dwells on the tragedies of political strife. Every act of greatness or vileness is given a human face.

What of 'The Patriot'? Here the shock of atrocity is repeated through the entire film, each ugly act surpassing the last. What we have here is not a hook. It is not used to provide the turning point for Benjamin Martin's character, it is the abiding focus of interest. It is a theme. It represents what the conflict is all about.

There are passing mentions of political independence, self-rule, and so on, but the film never takes us to the point where the motivations of the characters are a burning desire for liberty. Yes, the black militiaman is seeking the freedom from slavery that his term of service offers, and he goes further to stand by his comrades after he is a freed man. I would not disparage a soldier's willingess to fight for his friends. Indeed, that has arguably been the great inspiration in most fine military units. But that is comraderie, not a yearning for independence. It is silent on the cause of liberty.

In this plot Tavington commits an ongoing stream of atrocities. This makes it easy to maintain the sense of motivation, both for the on-screen characters and the viewing audience, that these abominations must be stopped. As a result there is no need, and little room, for script that would deal with matters other than the horrors of war and the ever-present temptations, under the pressures of combat, of abandoning civil decency, laws of war, and basic human dignity. Those are worthy themes, of course, but I for one was hoping to see a film about the American gambit for Independence. What we got, instead, was a film about the American dislike of war-crimes and the lingering American turmoil over the realities of waging guerilla war.

As treatments of those topics go, I have no real complaint. There is real depth of character in many instances, especially in the central character of Martin. The film provides enough tragedy and ambiguity to be genuinely thought-provoking, yet forges enough unmitigated heroism and triumph to satisfy and succeed both as entertainment and as inspiration.

What I do complain about is that this was the heart of the film. Though not nearly so dismal as A&E's recent film on George Washington's winter offensive, 'The Crossing', it shares an absense of attention to the central political issues of the time. 'The Crossing' depicts the rebellious American colonists as driven by selfish avarice because they wanted to avoid paying taxes. According to 'The Patriot' they were striving to rid their counties of monsters who shot and burned defenseless citizens without end. In neither case are Americans portrayed as intent upon liberty. 'The Patriot' leaves the viewer with the impression that if the Brits had just played fair then Americans could have continued to have gotten along under the rule of Parliament well enough, thank you. In this sense 'The Patriot' is virtually a Royalist flick. It does not show how the hearts of Americans burned for independence, nor how that vision contrasted with the aristocratic notions of the mother country.

To omit this is a betrayal of the central theme of the struggle. Where is the *patriotism* here, in the American sense of the word? Where are the ideas and ideals that kindled the Sons of Liberty and the Committees of Correspondence? If that story had been told to death, perhaps a focus elsewhere would be refreshing, but of course the situation is nothing like that. The fact is that the values of these Americans are so alien to the modern screen that the focus of attention has rested on the involvement of children in combat. Nice as it is to see somebody ruffle the feathers of the gun-shy mainstream press, nice as it is to see somebody face the fact that American children were competent with firearms and capable of aiding an armed struggle, these are not enough. Impressive as it is to be haunted by the specter of authorities burning scores of Americans to death in their church, that by itself is not enough.

What would be enough is a script where we hear voiced the values of political autonomy, local sovereignty, and the cessation of aristocracy. We should encounter men and women who insist on a political order that assures rights in personal property, communication, self defense, community defense, and discretion in worship. We need to hear the demand for freedom from taxes imposed by distant assemblies. These matters were foremost in the minds of the Americans of that day. They were significant issues even for those Americans who chose to remain loyal to the Crown.

By exaggerating the existence of atrocities 'The Patriot' leaves a faulty impression as to what inspired Americans to take up arms against the nation within which they long saw themselves as subjects. Why did the colonists cease to accept subjection of that sort? Wherein arose the sense of an American identity strong enough to displace loyalties to the Crown? It most certainly did not spring primarily from a revulsion at the murder of civilians or wounded soldiers! That sort of thing is, however, a perfect motivation for modern American audiences. Does it leave them with a sense of pride in America? Yes. Does it provide justification for a big fight? Definitely. Yet another victory to cheer where rough and scruffy Americans rally around the flag.

Does that have anything to do with the major issues at stake in that conflict, the ideals which converged in the symbolism of the Stars and Stripes? No, not really. Another battle well fought. Another stunning sequence of action scenes. Another paean to the love of family. Another bucket of popcorn and a large drink, thank you. Then everybody can go back home to pay their taxes, surrender their firearms, and submit to the occasional warrantless search and seizure -- just like good Americans?

No, that is not the American way. But if you're looking for articulation as to why these things are antithetical to what America is about, 'The Patriot' is largely silent. Which is a shame. It's a good movie. I enjoyed it. But it did not speak to the cause of liberty as it could have. I am perplexed as to why not. Perhaps in this day many who desire to champion liberty are simply ignorant of its nature. Whatever theanswer, it indicates an American tragedy, but that is not the end of the story. Let us strive for enough heroism to live happily ever after. See you in the movies ...


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