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Lethal Musket II: Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger take on the British in 'The Patriot.'

Boiling Point

Mel Gibson's revolutionary hero gets hotter and hotter in 'The Patriot'

By Richard von Busack

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY WAR hasn't lent itself to epic filmmaking, probably because it was a type of civil war--and civil wars look inconclusive on screen. (Gone With the Wind uses its war as a background to the war between Scarlett and Rhett.) The Patriot zeroes in on one part of the Revolution: the Carolinas Campaign of 1780­81.

Mel Gibson's Benjamin "The Ghost" Martin, based very loosely on the real-life Francis "The Swamp Fox" Marion, is a propertied South Carolinian and the father of seven. Early in the film, the British kill one of his children and drive Martin off his property. These losses make Martin renounce his pacifism, even though he harbors bad memories of war atrocities he committed during the French and Indian War.

Martin heads for the swamps and becomes a Robin Hood­style militia leader, raiding the British convoys. There's food for a swashbuckler here, but director Roland Emmerich aestheticizes the violence and pumps up the emotions, rendering this epic as huge and slow-moving as a mammoth.

True, the director executes battle scenes with sturdiness and pace, reminding us what a test of nerves it was to fight wars the old-fashioned way, when one marched straight into a line of enemy soldiers, standing upright in the face of their gunfire. The first skirmish, in which Martin and two of his sons pick off a squadron of British soldiers, roils with an energy that The Patriot never regains except in the final battle.

Tom Wilkinson's irritable Cornwallis is a witty creation. The great cinematographer Caleb Deschanel truly makes it look like morning in America, and the battles and nighttime bombardments are almost mystically luminous. Yet Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla) is an ox when it comes to crowd scenes and intimate moments alike, especially the wearisome courtship of the young lovers Heath Ledger (playing Martin's son Gabriel) and Lisa Brenner.

Robert Rodat, who did the maudlin script for Saving Private Ryan, has produced a long, predictable and ahistorical script that never really explains what the war was about beyond "The British burned our house."

They call it The Patriot, but it might better be called The Revenger. Menacing a family member to get a hero to act smacks of primitive screenwriting, but Gibson the star is really to blame for the overstuffed quality of The Patriot. He's long lost that sick-humored merriness that used to make him so enjoyable.

Lately, as Gibson becomes a more ambitious actor, the ratio of suffering to mania in his characters has grown and grown. Since we know he'll work himself up to a cathartic outpouring of violence, The Patriot presents a case of waiting around for Gibson to start boiling, as if he were the proverbial watched kettle.

And The Patriot is more than two and a half hours long, so we must endure fresh atrocities every now and again to replenish Gibson's righteous fury. Gibson has played this dogged, reluctantly driven-to-bloodshed man one too many times. In the end, Emmerich makes us wait too long to watch him get colonial on the British.


The Patriot (R; 164 min.), directed by Roland Emmerich, written by Robert Rodat, photographed by Caleb Deschanel and starring Mel Gibson, plays at selected theaters countywide.

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From the June 28-July 5, 2000, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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