Roland Emmerich’s “The Patriot” is a film set during the American War of Independence which tells the story of a farmer, Benjamin Martin, who joins the American cause and shows great courage in the struggle, while at the same time suffering large amounts off personal loss. As such, it is a film which demonstrates, to a certain degree, the actual reality and horror of war, while at the same time being a film that valorizes the figures of the soldier and of the family. In short, therefore, the film can be seen as occupying a contradictory ground in that it aims to be realistic war film and also to be a film that reflects dominant American myths and ideologies. It is by exploring this contradiction that one may come to reflect on its artistic or ideological value.
In terms of its cinematography, the film accurately re-creates the look and the feel of the time period in which it is set. The costumes are realistic and the New England landscapes which dominate much of it are effectively shot, with a combination of wide angled battle scenes and more tightly shot moments of hand to hand combat. The general pace of the film is handled well, as Emmerich opens with a shadowy depiction of brutal events, before introducing the character of Martin and his family. As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Martin was, in the past, implicated in the massacre and torture of enemy troops and that his retreat into a rural life has been an attempt to find peace with himself through his life as a family man.
As such, the film attempts to generate a degree of psychological depth as Martin witnesses the death of his son at the hand of English forces and begins to lead a guerilla resistance against what appear to be occupying forces. This depth reveals itself as Martin himself is presented as being unable to fully resist brutality. The points where the film most obviously asks moral questions occur when Martin kills prisoners in apparently nihilistic acts of rage, rather than conducting himself according to the conventions of moral or just warfare.
By asking these questions, and by realistically portraying the violence of war, the film attempts to generate a moral core for itself, and to avoid falling into the simple affirmation of violence present in Gibson’s earlier “Braveheart” which, in many ways, tells a deeply similar story. However, the it fails to do this. In short, Emerich fails to effectively balance the action scenes in the film with an actual moral conscience. For example, in one early scene, Martin effectively arms two of his sons. Given the purported moral concern of the film, this scene could have been a genuinely shocking portrayal of desperation and contradictory impulses and desires that could force a man to push his children in to a war that he himself abhors. Despite this, however, the film appears to revel in the resulting violence, and the scene carries almost no actual emotional or moral weight. Rather, the anguish that Marin appears to feel only serves to accentuate his credentials as a potential action here, albeit an emotionally wounded one.
To conclude, the film’s biggest failing is its attempts to question its own brutality. Rather than appearing genuinely reflexive, these moments are disingenuous because this brutality they contain is consistently portrayed in a slick, conscienceless way, as well as consistently being used to bolster Martin’s character. The character development serves to present Martin simultaneously as a wounded father and as a great warrior; both of which are archetypal figures for the founding myths of American ideology. The film’s attempt at morality fails, therefore, leaving it to appear as either high-class propaganda for US morality, or as simply a period action film. Therefore, although engaging at points, “The Patriot” is ultimately unable to overcome its very clear limitations.