Student Question

Analyze a fact-based or documentary film about a key event or theme in US history from 1600 to 2000. How does the film depict its subject and address popular myths?

Quick answer:

The Patriot (2000), starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger, is an interesting film for analysis given that it portrays a lesser-known phase of the War of Independence. It is also a mixture of fact and fiction, like most historical films, and although it attempts to show certain aspects of the American Revolution in a way that conforms to more recent historiography, it ends up perpetuating a number of false and even pernicious ideas widely believed by Americans.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The blockbuster film The Patriot (2000) dramatizes the later phase of the American Revolution in which major operations occurred in the Southern states, principally North and South Carolina. In the story, Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) is a planter who initially wishes to remain neutral in the conflict, but events draw him into it and make him an aggressive guerrilla fighter for the Patriot side against the British.

Martin, though a fictional character, is based vaguely on the real-life Francis Marion, the Patriot officer known during the war as "the Swamp Fox." Though in some sense, the film accurately conveys the realistic violence of warfare and the divided loyalties in the Southern colonies in 1780–81, it also introduces historical inaccuracies that perpetuate much of the mythology Americans have traditionally accepted about the war.

Unlike Francis Marion, who was a slave owner, Martin is shown in the film as having freed his enslaved people, who continue to work his plantation peacefully until the British arrive and force them to leave. Later in the film, there is a reference to an order given by General Washington to free any enslaved person who enlists to fight against the British. In reality, no such general order was given by Washington. Although many African Americans did fight on the Patriot side, the manumission of enslaved people at the time was haphazard.

The effect of these distortions in the film is to attempt to minimize the fact that the Revolution did little, if anything, to help the enslaved people and virtually nothing at all for those South of the Mason-Dixon line. The long-term effect of independence was, in fact, that the Northern states in the aftermath of the Revolution passed gradual abolition laws, but during the war itself, the British probably freed more enslaved people than the Patriots did, not out of humanitarian concerns but because it was a strategy to defeat the rebellion.

The Patriot gives a caricatured view of the British, showing them locking a huge crowd of people in a church and setting fire to it. No such event occurred in the war. The incident in the film may have been based on the allegations that the British Col. Tarleton's practice was to lock animals in barns and set them afire. Various atrocities were committed by both sides throughout the war, especially in this Southern phase.

It is true that all historical fiction, simply because it is fiction, misrepresents things and shows events that didn't take place. The Patriot does at least mention the issue of slavery in a way that is sympathetic to the enslaved people, so it is not another Gone with the Wind. It also shows Martin as a troubled, conflicted man who regrets actions he had carried out during the earlier French and Indian War. Despite its flaws, the filmmakers should be given credit for the realistic way in which these issues are portrayed.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial