Roland Emmerich has the distinction of directing both the single most indispensable Fourth of July movie ever made and the single most shitgiggling insane Fourth of July movie ever made, because the man is a confounding enigma. I am of course referring to the blessed duality that is 1996’s Independence Day and 2000’s The Patriot, respectively, and because I am a man of very specific principles, I am going to spend the next few thousand words focusing entirely on the latter.
The Patriot, released in June of 2000 and currently available to stream on Netflix, is easily the greatest Revolutionary War film, partially because there are surprisingly few blockbuster movies about the subject, and partially because The Patriot is not at all concerned with historical accuracy. Curious whether or not a crazed militiaman axed an entire British platoon to death in 18th century South Carolina? Doesn’t matter, because it fucking happens in The Patriot. Was Lord Cornwallis a bitter old general who ordered his men to lock people in churches and burn them alive? Who gives a shit, as far as we’re concerned he’s Grand Moff Tarkin. This is The Patriot, baby.
It stars Mel Gibson, the granite-faced superstar of yesteryear, as the reluctant hero Benjamin Martin, who wants nothing more than to avoid the coming war and live on his plantation with his approximately 37 children. I swear to god a new Martin child is introduced every scene, to the point where I’m not unconvinced that Benjamin isn’t just setting traps near neighboring schoolhouses. He’s been afflicted with a tragic case of Dead Wife Disease, and is the only person who can care for his ever-expanding child hive. But Benjamin’s headstrong son Gabriel (played by Heath Ledger with more bright-eyed earnestness than I have ever seen captured on film) is determined to join the Continental Army to fight for American Independence. You can sense from the moment we’re introduced to his youthful optimism and virtuous sense of justice that Gabriel is going to get shot and/or stabbed right in the heart, and that is 100% what happens to him. But not before his younger brother Thomas takes a fatal musket ball to the back courtesy of Colonel William Tavington, played by Jason Isaacs with such sexual electricity that I’m not sure I would’ve joined the Revolution. Yes folks, The Patriot is also the hottest movie about America’s war for independence, and I think that’s one of its most important qualifiers.
Mel Gibson’s days of being a sex symbol are long over, and after two decades of self-inflicted character assassination it’s hard to picture him doing anything in a bedroom beyond guarding his Nazi memorabilia like an angry dragon. But there was a time when People Magazine voted Mel the Sexiest Man Alive and nobody disagreed with them. Heath Ledger is more adorable than handsome in this particular role, but he’s also only a year away from achieving smoldering brilliance in A Knight’s Tale, another historical action film that understands the importance of both hotness and total ignorance of actual history. But Jason Isaacs surpasses them both, oozing through this movie like a sexy British panther. Plus he kills two of Mel Gibson’s children, which technically makes him the hero of the film. If you like your epics to feature supernaturally handsome men beating the shit out of each other on a colonial battlefield, it’s hard to top the scene in which Gabriel and Tavington face off in glorious slow-motion. Also, that’s just a really bitchin’ scene.
But let’s get back to the elements that make The Patriot totally insane. Martin is extremely evasive about his involvement in the French and Indian War, specifically the role he played at the French-held Fort Wilderness. We can tell from Martin’s brooding gaze that it’s something he doesn’t care to discuss, and he would much rather focus on raising his 47,000 children to be morally upright people. After roughly 100 different characters allude to Martin’s actions at Fort Wilderness only to be met with dramatic silence and some variation of “…well that was a long time ago,” Gabriel finally makes his haunted old man tell him what happened. And I am not exaggerating when I say that Martin is an actual serial murderer.
He stares dolefully into the middle distance as he recounts what happened at Fort Wilderness, and “what happened” is he and his men mutilated the French soldiers alive and sent their eyes, fingers, and tongues to the Cherokee as a warning to convince them to exit the war, which they understandably did. Martin, his face the waxen mask of a man who has violently destroyed countless human bodies, unblinkingly tells Gabriel that he still hears their screams. And then nobody mentions his past again. The Patriot gives its protagonist a brutally ignominious backstory and then just… doesn’t address it. The completion of that arc is he tells his son about his atrocities so that Gabriel may also carry the burden. Listen, he feels really bad about it, ok? We don’t have time for introspection, this is The motherfuckin’ Patriot.
There’s a bizarre romantic subplot between Martin and his late wife’s sister, Charlotte (played by Joely Richardson, doing her best to disguise her accent and coming off like a time traveler just gave her a bunch of Quaaludes). They spend a night together at a rebel camp – Charlotte on one bed and Martin on another, buried beneath his inestimable children – and they just lay awake for hours staring at each other. I suppose this might do it for you if you like your romances to be bone-chilling, but otherwise they just look like a couple of spiders searching for an opening. Also, Charlotte has a ton of slaves. The movie does not address this. However, the movie does solve racism once and for all by having an antagonistically racist militiaman make friends with a Black soldier. The Patriot is nothing if not bold in its simplicity.
Like in any Roland Emmerich film, the comedy in The Patriot teeters between broad slapstick and an Animal House style rivalry against an authority figure. In this case, it’s stuffy old Lord Cornwallis, who all but shakes his fist at the plucky militia as they steal his dogs and blow up his shit. Cornwallis (played by Tom Wilkinson, who is considerably older than Cornwallis actually was during the Revolutionary War but eat shit, this is The Patriot) is literally having a fancy party when Martin and his pledge brothers raid an English ship and detonate it in front of all of the general’s guests. Martin ribs Cornwallis again by tricking him into trading a bunch of his captured men for half a dozen scarecrows dressed in British uniforms. Cornwallis responds by nudging Tavington to start murdering all of their families, which is a direction Animal House notably decided not to go in. There’s also a weird comedic beat in which Martin’s French ally (Tchéky Karyo) jokes that he will have to kill their British prisoners when Martin isn’t looking, and they share a chortling laugh. If you told me this movie was filmed in another dimension and somehow slipped into theaters through a tear in our universe, I would accept it without a single follow-up question.
In the film’s climactic battle scene at Yorktown, Martin rallies his fellow soldiers by grabbing the American flag and howl-sprinting into the British forces. Let me express that this moment is extremely funny, and the only way it could be more hilarious is if Martin screamed “SYMBOLISM!” as he shoulderblocks the absolute soul out of a Redcoat. This display of fearless oblivion is enough to convince the militia not to flee, and America wins the war. In addition, Martin finally gets his vengeance by killing Tavington with a bayonet to the throat, despite the fact that Tavington is based on an extremely real dude who extremely did not get killed in the war. The Patriot is, without hyperbole, the greatest movie ever made.
There’s something to be said about a movie so aggressively insane that it simply refuses to be classified as a bad film. And it’s waiting right there on Netflix to help those Fourth of July hot dogs and beers dance all the way down. Did any of it actually happen? Nope, but therein lies much of the film’s beauty. Forget it, Jake. It’s The Patriot.
And if that doesn’t cut it, check out our full list of the best movies to watch on the 4th of July.