As I watched this movie, I kept thinking of the tagline from “Jaws 4:” “This time it’s personal.” Mel Gibson plays Benjamin Martin, a veteran of the British army who was a hero during the French and Indian war. Twenty years later, he has no love for the monarchy but some skepticism about the alternative. He asks, “Why should I trade one tyrant 3000 miles away for 3000 tyrants one mile away?” and “I haven’t got the luxury of principles.” More than that, his memories of the atrocities of war, his own as well as the enemy’s, and his passion for protecting his seven children won’t allow him to fight again.
But that would not be much of a movie, would it? And we get a portent in the very first scene, when Benjamin fails in his umpteenth effort to make a rocking chair for himself. And there is a long Hollywood tradition of reluctant heroes who are forced into violence, thus giving us the best of both worlds with a hero whose heart is in the right place, but whose muscles and gun are, too. So, Benjamin has to find a reason to fight. It would have been nice if that reason had something to do with liberty and democracy, but instead it is about revenge. Benjamin’s son is killed by a British soldier. So Benjamin throws guns to his younger boys, straps several onto himself, and goes off to fight his own personal war, a sort of Robin Hood crossed with Terminator. The only heartfelt struggle for independence in the movie is teen-age rebellion.
It’s one thing when producing/directing team Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich give us a movie like “Independence Day,” with bad guy aliens who are pure evil. But it is another thing when they take an actual historical event and actual historical characters and play fast and loose with the facts. The bad guy in this movie is Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs), a villain so reprehensible that he not only burns down a church filled with civilians, he enjoys it. He makes Austin Powers’ Dr. Evil look small-time. This level of cartoonish exaggeration makes it harder for us to engage with the characters.
That aside, though, this is a very enjoyable summer popcorn movie, sumptuously and excitingly filmed, and rousingly entertaining. It faced quite a challenge, because there has never been a successful movie about the Revolutionary War. One reason is that it is not very cinematic. The dress and weaponry of that time seems more suited to 4th of July parades than to an action movie. The muskets took forever to reload. And there are other troubling issues. Many of the heroes of that era were slave holders, and thus impossibly unsympathetic by today’s standards. Those issues are handled capably. The action sequences play well, and the black characters are treated with as much dignity as possible. A French soldier says to one of the slaveholders, “Your sense of freedom is as pale as your skin.” And a slave who is given to the militia by his owner demonstrates his courage and honor, becoming a valued colleague.
Gibson delivers, as always. He is utterly compelling whether he is hacking an opponent to death, looking tenderly at a tiny daughter who will not speak to him, or agonizing over his past sins. Fellow Aussie Heath Ledger is superb as oldest son Gabriel, at first impatient to join the fight, later a brave and mature soldier and an ardent suitor. Lisa Brenner, as the object of his affection, is radiantly lovely. Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography perfectly captures the colors and textures of the era.
Families who watch this movie should talk about the real origins of the Revolutionary War. They might want to look up Francis Marion, known as the Swamp Fox, who, like the fictional Benjamin Martin, defeated the British soldiers by using his knowledge of the local topography and by staying away from open-field battles. It is also worth talking about the notions of rules within wartime, as shown in the negotiations between Benjamin and Cornwallis. How do enemies agree on rules? What should those rules be? Why did Benjamin refuse to give his name? Why did Cornwallis care about limiting the damage to civilians?
Parents should know that this is a very violent movie, with many graphic battle scenes, vividly portrayed. A character commits suicide when his family is killed. There are some gentle sexual references in a scene depicting the colonial custom of “bundling bags” for courting couples.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “The Friendly Persuasion” (about a Quaker family during the Civil War) and the most successful Emmerich-Devlin production, “Independence Day.”