Rated R - Running Time: 2:44 - Released 6/28/00

The Patriot is an epic war movie in every way, from its nearly three-hour running time to its cast of thousands to its beautiful scenery to its brutal and emotionally charged battle scenes. It's the story of a war veteran turned family man who is forced to take up arms when his children are threatened during the American Revolution. Mel Gibson's performance doesn't live up to the grandeur of this film, but he has his moments, and the talent that surrounds him tends to create a buoying effect. The film is directed by disaster-lover Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla), a notable step up for him, and written by Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan), a definite step down. Rodat's screenplay is adequate at best; there are times when one feels as if one is watching an after-school special.

Benjamin Martin (Gibson) is a South Carolina landowner and veteran of the French and Indian war, and at the film's outset in 1776, we see him putting away his Cherokee tomahawk while asking God for forgiveness. Now that his wife has died, leaving him with seven children, he feels no desire to join in the impending struggle against the hated British. But his eldest son Gabriel (Heath Ledger) is more hawkish in his politics; he enlists without his father's permission and is soon taken prisoner. During a scuffle involving his capture, the brutal British Colonel William Tavington (Jason Isaacs) not only orders the boy's death, but kills Benjamin's second son, Thomas (Gregory Smith). This re-ignites Benjamin's killer instinct, and he ambushes a group of 20 redcoats, earning him the nickname "The Ghost." Next he is heading up the local chapter of the South Carolina militia, with a ragtag group of friends, farmers, and former slaves, as well as his own son Gabriel following his lead. So begins a bitter rivalry between Benjamin and Col. Tavington that lasts for the remainder of the war.

This film is beautifully shot; Emmerich's directing choices mesh nicely with Caleb Deschanel's cinema (Anna And The King) for a piece rich with flavor and authenticity. Deborah Lynn Scott's costume design (Titanic) and John Williams's music add majesty to the proceedings. It's a pity the film's star doesn't do more to deserve such a vehicle. Gibson's delivery is uncomfortable during the moments when he's supposed to be enveloped in familial love — ironically, the battle scenes (you know, the ones where he's supposed to be uncomfortable) are where he seems most at ease. On the other hand, good performances explode all around him like so many cannonballs landing on the field: Ledger distinguishes himself well as Gabriel, showing not only the fierce war stance of an incensed teen, but the playful charm of a lover as well. Chris Cooper puts forth another heartfelt performance as Benjamin's friend and fellow veteran Col. Harry Burwell, the commander of the regular Continental army. Isaacs is over-the-top evil as the villainous Tavington, and Tom Wilkinson is studied and regal as the proud-but-beleaguered British General Cornwallis. Rene Auberjonois plays Benjamin's chaplain like Father Mulcahy from M*A*S*H*, and lastly, Joely Richardson is fetching, with just a hint of sex, as Benjamin's sister-in-law Charlotte.

Like Gibson, Rodat's script seems most comfortable on the battlefield, with thrilling scenes of gore and mayhem, and an interesting take on the invention of guerrilla warfare. During many of the interior scenes, however, especially a recuitment scene in church, one must make a conscious effort to stifle a gag. ****

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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