(director: Roland Emmerich; screenwriter: Robert Rodat; cinematographer: Caleb Deschanel; editor: David Brenner; cast: Mel Gibson (Benjamin Martin), Heath Ledger (Gabriel Martin), Joely Richardson (Charlotte Selton), Jason Isaacs (Col. William Tavington), Chris Cooper (Col. Harry Burwell), Tcheky Karyo (Jean Villeneuve), Rene Auberjonois (Reverend Oliver), Lisa Brenner (Anne Howard), Donal Logue (Dan Scott), Tom Wilkinson (General Cornwallis), Gregory Smith (Thomas); Runtime: 158; Columbia Pictures; 2000)
“I had an ugly feeling when I left the theater, like someone was trying awfully hard to sell me on patriotism.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

There have been very few films about the American Revolution and most of them have been terrible, with one of the few exceptions being D.W. Griffith’s 1924 epic “America.”

German-born director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day/Godzilla) and screenwriter Robert Rodat (he also scripted “Saving Private Ryan”) combine to work their mindless view of history on this corny, flag-waving, dumb film, which tries to make the American Revolution fit into the politically correct thinking of the 21st century. They make this story into a personal revenge movie and pull all the strings out for popular consumption. At least, they kept it moving at a brisk pace but, unfortunately, they used a good deal of violence in keeping it moving. There were a multitude of choreographed battle scenes, face-to-face combat scenes, and sweeping panoramic shots of the beautiful countryside, which should take your mind off all the empty messages of the film. The filmmaker even made slavery appear as not such a bad thing by having the slaves seem more like workers than slaves, they just seemed to be having themselves ‘a good old time’ on the plantation. When the 158-minutes are up, you might not have much of an historical perspective of the war but you should feel good that the arch villain got his just desserts.

The Revolutionary War in 1776 brings a South Carolina farmer and pacifist, Ben Martin (Mel Gibson), who is a widower with seven children into the conflict, against his initial feelings to keep out of the war. The age fortysomething farmer is reluctant to go to war after becoming a hero in the previous French and Indian war, where a bloody massacre at Fort Wilderness occurred that he wants to forget about.

Mel’s reason for getting pulled into this war is personal. When his headstrong son Gabriel (Heath) comes home wounded from the war and the British soldiers come to his plantation to fetch him, Mel’s other teenage son Thomas (Gregory Smith) is unnecessarily shot when he tries to release Gabriel from being hung by the British. Then Mel’s house is torched by the mean-spirited villain in the film, British Colonel Tavington (Isaacs).

The colonel’s villain role is about as one-dimensional and predictable as it gets for such a villain, whereby he becomes more cartoonish and less menacing as the story rolls on. Somewhere after the halfway point in this epic (sic!), Mel tells him that he’s going to kill him and it then becomes a matter of how and when. And there you have the plot, which is not much on history and not much on character development, but great on revenge.

Mel becomes known to the British as “The Ghost” after he kills twenty of them in an ambush of the patrol bringing Gabriel to the British command, where he is to be hung. Mel gets the help of his young boys to shoot the officers, while he gets a chance to use his Cherokee tomahawk from the French and Indian War to hack the soldiers to death. After that attack, Mel sends the kids to stay with his wife’s sister and he joins with his old friend Col. Harry Burwell (Chris Cooper) and leads the local militia in guerrilla-type attacks against the British patrols. He becomes a growing menace to the Redcoats – so much so, that even General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson) orders that he must be captured by any means possible.

Everything is so predictable about this glossy photographed film, everything is so banal, everything seems so dishonest; and, the dialogue is so disparaging. It is a morbid attempt at history. The story itself is a questionable one, since the Mel Gibson character is loosely based on Francis Marion whom historians credit with being a racist.

Everything was flat — from the acting to the script. The obligatory romance Mel has with his wife’s sister (Joely), simply had no magic. Everyone was reduced to a cardboard figure, and the war seemed to be a manufactured one as if this film was made as a TV episode. The story lacked vitality, only scoring points for its fine costumes and John Williams’ musical score. The film always seemed to be an unhealthy mixture of mawkishness and carnality, offering nothing but shallow responses for all its preaching about freedom. No scene seemed truly honest; the most honest scene is when Mel is embracing his children and the most dishonest is showing him with the Negroes who just love being his slaves.

This film resembles those other exploitative Mel Gibson movies, where someone dear to him gets hurt and he gets revenge. Only this film comes with some bogus history lesson thrown in, which makes it more shamefully exploitative; it’s a “Payback ” with the Redcoats as the gangsters. I had an ugly feeling when I left the theater, like someone was trying awfully hard to sell me on patriotism: using children, the flag, a horrid villain, all to shamelessly stir me up.