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The Problem with 'The Patriot'


I was in London when the latest summer blockbuster, Roland Emmerich's 'The Patriot' opened in theatres there. It was assaulted by some of the most strident negative comments I've seen in a long time. The core allegation was that the film represented a 'blood libel' against the English people.

Strong, even hysterical language, and I remember being amused, seeing this as yet another example (during a month spent in the U.K.) of a curious defensiveness in the English media. Well, I've since seen the film. The reaction seems a tad less hysterical now.

To summarize for those who haven't seen Mel Gibson's protrayal of an American patriot in Emmerich's film of the Revolution, the hue-and-cry turns on the conduct of a particularly nasty Colonel in the English army of General Cornwallis. The colonel in question is named William Tavington. He is very clearly modeled on a real fellow named Banastre Tarleton. Tarleton lived, fought in the war and seems to have ordered the shooting of some surrendering soldiers on a battlefield at one point. The details are unclear and historical consensus today seems to exonerate him from out-of-the-ordinary conduct during the war. We know that he returned home, with honour, to be painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. (Not that returning with honour implies no vicious conduct, or that Reynolds' chose his subjects for their virtue.) His descendants, however, are outraged by the film. They have some cause.

Colonel Tavington falls squarely into the tradition of odious, sadistic villains, familiar to movies from their inception, and to romance and spy thrillers equally. Indeed, this psychopath is pretty high up on the list. He's effectively played by Jason Isaacs, who has a splendid sneer, among other necessary attributes for the part.

In his pursuit of the Gibson character, a plantation owner who turns militia leader after Tavington kills one of his sons (a fifteen year old boy) and is about to hang the lad's older brother, the colonel happily slays women and children and wounded soldiers and achieves his villainous apotheosis in a scene where the citizens of a small (idyllically charming) little town are herded into a church and burned alive as they pound on the barred doors and windows and smoke pours in and the cinematopher shows his skill with close-ups.

The Nazis did that, fifty-six years ago, in the French town of Oradour sur Glane. On June 10, 1944, to be precise. There were no cinematographers on hand. It was an action that came to stand as one of the most vivid symbols of their atrocity. The English did not do it in the Revolutionary War. Most particularly, Banastre Tarleton never did anything remotely resembling such an action. Emmerich knows it, Gibson knows it, the writer, Robert Rodat, and the producers know it.

So, does it matter? Is there any cause for fuss and furor?

Emmerich and Gibson (bravely) faced the British media shortly after the film was released. The director's principal reply to the charges was to note that the actions of Tavington were shown in the movie to be seen by his fellow soldiers, and by General Cornwallis, as contemptible and wrong.

A dishonest answer. It is true that Cornwallis is permitted a rebuke of his intemperate officer early in the film, but later, after the uppity Gibson has had the audacity to steal a couple of the good General's favourite dogs and burn a ship and trick him into an exchange of prisoners, Cornwallis specifically instructs Tavington to use whatever means are necessary to capture the dastardly fellow. 'I can never go back to English society if I do this,' Tavington notes. 'There will be land here for our brave soldiers,' Cornwallis reminds him (blithely ignoring the future interests of Sir Joshua Reynolds). Colonel Tavington smiles. 'Tell me about ... Ohio,' he murmurs, in what is probably the most unintentionally hilarious line in a film with more than a few of them.

The point is that Emmerich's defense doesn't wash. In fact, his film makes Cornwallis - who is not, of course, given a pseudonym or a 'based on the character of' - formally complicit in Tavington's church burning. (Is there a War Crimes Tribunal handy?)

Mel Gibson offered a blunter and more effective rejoinder. 'Lighten up.' he essentially told the assembled and outraged scribes, 'It's just a movie.'

Sounds reasonable. Why should we expect accuracy from Hollywood? From any segment of pop culture? Since when are the movies or television or romance thrillers held to any standards of truth?

Well, it seems to me a good question, not a rhetorical one.

Why are they not held to such standards? Why are these frothy little summer entertainments ($100 million dollars worth) deemed immune, as Gibson suggests they should be, to allegations that they are lies? Insidious ones. Lies that erase and obliterate for huge numbers of people any vaguely accurate notion of events, or that diminish the terrible reality of a 20th century atrocity by making it seem to audiences that it was the sort of thing that also happened in an entirely different kind of war.

This last point is important. Transplanting so specific, so appalling a horror as Oradour to the18th century can only serve to blur the viciousness of it. This kind of historical freehand revisionism blunts and muffles our culture's response to the actual. It gives Oradour a history and context that flows straight from the allegedly civilized English, and it is utterly false.

I am deeply aware that 'truth' in history (or, indeed, in contemporary events) is elusive. That history is written by the winners, that past events may be seen in widely differing lights. That appalling things have been done over the centuries, by Huns, Vikings, Mongols, Conquistadors, warriors in so many holy wars ... That we cannot always know what is really the truth.

We can know, however, what is a lie. The English did not perform a Gestapo church burning of innocents two hundred years ago. Cornwallis never gave any permission to a psychopathic officer to act in such a way. No such action was ever taken. Nothing even close to it occurred.

English armies have most certainly performed repellent actions in warfare during their history (I'd say every country has, if you go back far enough) but that is no defense to an allegation that a particular action never happened and that showing it is a disgraceful lie. In a way it is as much an assault on the victims of Oradour as on the descendants of the British officers shown or implied.

Nor, it seems to me, should we so mildly accept the 'just a movie' retort. The implied premise of this is: everyone knows it isn't true, it is just for fun. The film industry seems to want it both ways. On the one hand they claim (with cause) to exert a hugely potent influence on the mores and thinking of our culture. On the other, whenever they are taxed with abusing that role, they retreat into 'it's just a movie.' Why should popular entertainment be granted free rein to distort and mangle? Have we so completely accepted that our society will play fast-and-loose with such things? Is it our indifference that creates the climate for this? If so, might it not be time to reconsider such indifference?

There's also a broader issue here, one that has less specific connection to teleporting a specific Nazi atrocity to the American Revolution. It has to do with ... pumping up the volume. The obvious belief on the part of all suppliers of mass market culture that the only way to get a response from us is to explode a bomb under our seats. That we are so jaded, apathetic, slack, that in order for us to hate a screen villain it isn't enough for him to kill children, shoot wounded prisoners, sneer with the best of them ... he has to do ... something worse! Much worse! Something the Nazis did! That will get a reaction. That's the way to make sure everyone hates the man and properly cheers his slow-motion demise.

Is it true? Are they right, these focus-group analyzers, these 'artists' protecting their genuinely risky $100 million investments (a film can be 'dead' 48 hours after it opens, these days), these suppliers of our summerlong or winternight entertainments? I begin to fear they are. That the old saw about never going broke by underestimating an audience is truer than it ever was ... or else we'd be reacting against the deafening hysteria, instead of flocking to expose ourselves to it.

Downmarket culture has always been with us. Shakespeare's clowns played to the 'groundlings' mugging and improvising; around the corner from his Globe Theatre bear-baiting and cockfighting and dwarf-tossing drew hordes of politically incorrect Elizabethans. Somerset Maugham, in his days as a playwright, argued that a play had to appeal to 'the shop girl in the second balcony' or it would close.

There's nothing new about this. What's new, it seems to me, is the noise level. The ratcheting up of the ante, to the point where hundreds of extras have to burn in a movie scene before the makers believe the shop girl will pay any attention. Or be able to spot the bad guy.

Anyone feel insulted?





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Bright Weavings: The Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay