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