Hollywood’s American Revolution

"Everything will change," a stunned General Charles Cornwallis announces toward the end of "The Patriot," the Revolutionary War epic starring Mel Gibson which opened in theaters just in time for the July Fourth holiday.

Cornwallis (played by Tom Wilkinson) utters this prophetic remark as he watches his British regulars being routed by American Continental soldiers and a band of South Carolina militiamen led by Gibson’s fictional character, the middle-aged patriot-hunk Benjamin Martin. It is one of the film’s better lines, encapsulating the revolutionary scope and implications of the overthrow in America of the old monarchical, aristocratic imperial order embodied in Cornwallis and defended by the Redcoats.

Not without good reason did the real Cornwallis order his troops to play an English folk tune "The World Turned Upside Down" when he surrendered to Washington at Yorktown in 1781. Like the United States in Vietnam two centuries later, Britain, the superpower of its day, was humiliated by what the on-screen Cornwallis disparages as "an army of rabble, peasants," aided, of course, by the French.

For the makers of "The Patriot," as perhaps for most viewers, the Revolution is synonymous with the War of Independence. We witness repeated bloody clashes between Martin’s grassroots guerrilla militia and Cornwallis’s professional British soldiers in and around the swamps of South Carolina where the film is set. We see as well the British, led by a made-for-Hollywood sadistic colonel (played by Jason Isaacs and modeled on the notorious Colonel Banastre Tarleton), bring the war to the civilian population.

And in the superbly choreographed climactic battle scene, which prompts Cornwallis’s prediction, we watch slaughter on an epic scale, eighteenth-century style, with the opposing armies marching toward one another until half a football field apart, and then opening fire until ranks are broken and desperate hand-to-hand combat ensues. These scenes, realistic and at times surreal, have a powerful and salutary cumulative effect. They remind us that our independence as a nation was won on the battlefield in a long and hard war marked by terror, refugees, courage, and sacrifice.

But the film’s relentless focus on the war obscures what arguably was most revolutionary about the American Revolution.

As John Adams shrewdly noted, a revolution had occurred "in the minds of the people" even before a shot was fired. In the course of a decade of resistance to British imperial measures, beginning with the hated Stamp Act of 1765, the Patriots elaborated a potent ideology that depicted American liberty in danger of being extinguished by corrupt and aggressive British power exercised by Parliament and, the Patriots ultimately concluded, the King himself. The colonists, this ideology warned, were on the verge of becoming "slaves"—that is, subject to absolute and arbitrary power. By 1776 the Patriots had added the radical ideas of equality and republican government to this ideological mix.

To the film’s hero, however, ideology matters hardly at all. A widower and parent haunted by his guerrilla exploits during the French and Indian War, Martin tells the Charleston Assembly, "I haven’t got the luxury of principles," a strange pronouncement given the critical importance of principles to the Revolution. Martin takes up arms (including his hatchet) only after the British arrive at his farm and kill one of his sons before his very eyes. Not ideology but the simple desire for revenge fires his outrage. Only near the film’s end, when he gallops with the Stars and Stripes in hand, does Martin symbolically make his personal and the larger cause one.

If the filmmakers give us a hero untainted by ideology, they also ensure that he is unsullied by the Revolution’s central contradiction, chattel slavery. 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.

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. Nor do they learn of the slaves who boldly appropriated the rhetoric of the Revolution in petitioning for an end to slavery, or who by the thousands took advantage of wartime conditions to liberate themselves by running away.

Contrary to what some have written, "The Patriot" is most definitely not to the Revolution what the movie "Glory" is to the Civil War. Where the latter film put race and the struggle of black men for freedom, dignity, and manhood at its center in a complex way, "The Patriot" treats the story of blacks and the Revolution in a way that feels obvious and tacked on.

In the end, "The Patriot" presents a flattened story of the Revolution. Still, it is a welcome respite from the usual summer celluloid fare, especially if it prompts Americans to pause this Fourth of July and ponder the revolutionary origins of the United States—and the ways in which the Revolution, as the cinematic and historical Cornwallis understood, changed everything.

Gregory L. Kaster is professor of history at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.