Why They Hate The Patriot

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Mel
Gibson and the film-makers responsible for The Patriot, a wonderfully
exhilarating yarn about our Revolution, are quickly learning the
dangers of celebrating the original spirit of American liberty and
the Old Republic in today’s United States.

The
anti-gun lobby is up in arms not only about the scene where Mel
Gibson’s character arms his young sons with muskets, but also about
the portrayal of a band rural, arms-bearing militiamen as the film’s
heroes. Some British have complained because the film’s villain
is an especially blood-thirsty British colonel. And now a movie-critic
for the New York Post has made the unlikely charge that The
Patriot is a “fascist film” and engages in “something
close holocaust revisionism.”

It’s
never been safe to make a movie about the Revolutionary War. As
Bill Kauffman pointed out a few weeks ago in the Wall Street
Journal, Woodrow Wilson’s Justice Department sent silent film-maker
Robert Goldstein to jail when it decided that his film, The Spirit
of ’76, was undermining the war effort by portraying our World War
I British allies in a bad light. Goldstein, accused of being a German
spy, lived the rest of his life an exile from the imperial regime
that was supplanting the Old Republic portrayed in his film.

The
blacklisting of supposed German spies apparently continues. In the
online-magazine Salon earlier this week, New York Post
movie critic Jonathan Foreman argued that The Patriot exudes a “strange,
primitive politics,” that he takes great pains to link to Nazism.
“If the Nazis had won the war in Europe, and their propaganda
ministry had decided to make a way about the American Revolution,
The Patriot is exactly the movie you could expect to see,”
he writes.

Nothing
could be further from the truth. But its worth taking a moment to
see what’s behind this outrageous smear.

The
centerpiece of Foreman’s argument the scene in which a British colonel
orders the burning of a church filled with American civilians. Foreman
cites several historians who claims that nothing like this incident
ever occurred during the Revolutionary War. To Foreman the church
burning resembles “one of the most notorious Nazi war crimes
of World War II.” By making their British villains perpetrate
what Foreman thinks is a “unique historical horror” committed
by the Nazis, the film-makers have done “something unpleasantly
akin to holocaust revisionism,” Foreman argues. To make matters
worse, the director and the screenwriter are German.

The
problem with this argument is that church burning is hardly a uniquely
Nazi crime. In fact, most Americans will probably associate the
fiery massacre of civilians trapped within a church with the events
that unfolded during a siege by the federal government in Waco,
Texas rather than a Nazi war-crime against the French. It is much
more plausible that the film-makers have daringly transposed Waco
into the Revolutionary War, drawing a parallel between the imperial
tyrannies of London and Washington, D.C.

Unfortunately,
Foreman’s argument works to enforce an insidious bigotry in American
films despite its flimsy logic. Basically it leads to the conclusion
that portraying anyone but Germans as bad-guys is equivalent to
denying the holocaust. No wonder Hollywood insists on having so
many of its villains speak in German accents.

Foreman’s
other points are equally implausible, and often they’re just plain
silly. I’m still baffled by Foreman’s complaint that The Patriot
presents “a deeply sentimental cult of the family.” This
is evidence that the film is Nazi propaganda? Of course not. The
Martin family of the Patriot was no more menacing than Laura’s Ingalls
family.

The
arming of the young sons of Gibson’s character also vexes Foreman,
somehow reminding him of the Hitler Youth. Surely this is better
evidence of what is going on in Foreman’s mind than what is going
on in The Patriot. For my part, I was reminded of a book about the
Revolutionary War that I read when I was kid, Sam the Minuteman,
in which boys take up arms alongside their father at Lexington.
And again, the Nazis were hardly the first (or the last) to put
weapons in the arms of children. Its hard to see how The Patriot
children are proto-Hitler Youth members.

The
exciting scene in which Gibson dispatches a band of British soldiers
with a native-American battle axe also does not escape Foreman’s
Nazi hunt. He views this as a portrayal of the “ax- wielding
forest supermen so beloved in Nazi folk-iconography: an 18-century
equivalent of the Goth leader Arminius (aka Hermann the German)
who annihilated two Roman Legions in the Teutoburger Forest.”
Actually, it was closer to the ax-wielding forest superman Natty
Bumpo of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking
Tales
. Only by ignoring the closer home-grown parallel can
Foreman Germanize this scene to fit his Nazi charge.

Foreman’s
confusion of home-grown American culture of liberty for a foreign,
totalitarian political doctrine has deep roots. A clue is provided
when he criticizes the film for neglecting America’s political ideals
in the New York Post, and yet complains in Salon that
The Patriot “misunderstands patriotism” because it presents
Gibson’s character sees no advantage in replacing the tyranny of
one man 3,000 miles away for the tyranny of 3,000 men, one mile
away.

At
first this looks like a contradiction. How could a film whose hero
makes such a dramatic statement against tyranny in any form be accused
of neglecting our political ideals? Foreman, however, is merely
echoing a clique of American intellectuals who insist that the deep-rooted,
locally and regionally varied American tradition of liberty, stretching
back through our colonial period and beyond, doesn’t count at all.
The only political ideals worthwhile are those stated as abstract
propositions in the opening passages of the Declaration of Independence.
And clearly The Patriot slights both the Declaration of Independence
and the idea that our nation was brought forth dedicated to abstractions.

If
you think that America is a propositional nation, and that patriotism
consists of mere dedication to the official propositions, The Patriot
will indeed appear subversive and foreign. Underlying the film is
a more historically-grounded perspective. As I see it, The Patriot
is a rare phenomenon: a Hollywood film that truly understands and
celebrates the original American way as it was lived by the men
and women who fought and died for it.

July
13, 2000

John
Carney is a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law
School

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