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The Patriot brings harrowing realism to the Revolutionary War.

By Debbie Gilbert

JULY 10, 2000:  Maybe I wasn't paying attention in school, but I've never really thought about how the nation I live in actually came into existence. I guess I assumed Thomas Jefferson and his pals wrote their declaration, men shot at each other with muskets for a while, and eventually King George threw up his hands and said, "Okay, you can have your stupid country! You're not worth the trouble."

What I didn't consider was that in order for the United States to emerge, ordinary people had to suffer unspeakable atrocities. And unlike the wars we're familiar with, in this case the bad guys weren't "over there." They were right in our backyards. Today it's difficult to imagine what it must have been like to be invaded by a faraway country on our own turf.

But The Patriot spells it out for us, entertainingly and persuasively. Though the Civil War has been done to death cinematically, this is Hollywood's first serious attempt to tell the story of the Revolutionary War, and it leaves even the most jaded moviegoer with some appreciation of what our predecessors went through.

Beautifully filmed in South Carolina by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel and bolstered by a fine score from John Williams, The Patriot is equal parts historical epic, family drama, and action flick. Don't be scared off by the "historical" part -- there are a few talky scenes, but not enough to impede the story.

More annoying is the schmaltz factor. There's an excessive number of sunlit, feel-good scenes, and screenwriter Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) never met a cliché he didn't like. But just when you think you're going to gag on false sentiment, along comes a moment that is genuinely moving. There are also some very funny bits, which help enormously; a little humor counts for a lot in a story this grim. And for every plot turn that you can see coming a mile away, there's another that takes you by surprise.

For most of this movie's flaws, I blame director Roland Emmerich, best known for directing Independence Day, one of the most derivative sci-fi movies of the past decade. Emmerich wouldn't know subtlety if it slapped him in the face.

But The Patriot transcends most of its shortcomings, thanks to strong performances by much of the cast, including Mel Gibson, who is expected to carry the picture and does not disappoint. He plays Benjamin Martin, a widowed father of seven and member of the South Carolina assembly who votes against going to war with England. Essentially it's the same character he played in Braveheart: a peaceful farmer who wants nothing more than to stay home with his family, until a tragedy drives him to take up arms and lead men into battle. The difference is that Martin still has children to worry about while he's off fighting the war, and like any single parent, he feels torn between his kids and his "job."

At least for a while, another of Gibson's famous characters -- the vengeful, psycho cop from Lethal Weapon -- resurfaces. After one of Martin's children is killed, he loads himself with weaponry and takes two of his younger sons to help him slaughter a whole squad of British troops, telling them to aim for the officers first. Then, in a scene of ferocious intensity, he commits an act of such extreme bloodiness that it leaves the audience momentarily in shock -- not to mention the two little boys, who are standing there watching their dad go berserk.

But Martin is harboring a dark secret: Years earlier, during the French and Indian War, he did something even more barbaric that made him a local legend but has haunted him ever since. This dichotomy between the loving father and the madman gives the character tremendous depth and complexity, and Gibson makes us believe that those dueling personas could exist in the same individual.

The Patriot is, understandably, being marketed as a star vehicle, but it's really an ensemble piece. Australian newcomer Heath Ledger, as Martin's 20-year-old son Gabriel, gets almost as much screen time as Gibson. Against his father's wishes, he joins the Continental Army, and is later chagrined when he gets assigned to his dad's command. Martin's own commanding officer is Col. Harry Burwell, nicely played by Chris Cooper, whom you'll remember as the homophobic Marine from American Beauty.

But the key to the movie's success is Jason Isaacs as the cold, calculating, conscience-free British commander, Col. William Tavington. Every action picture needs a villain you love to hate, and Isaacs provides it. On the scale of arrogant cruelty, he ranks right up there with the Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars. When Martin vows he will kill Tavington before the war is over, you spend the rest of the movie waiting for the two to have at each other.

It's a shame that this film's high level of violence will prevent most young people from seeing it. Without claiming to be historically accurate, The Patriot brings the spirit of the American Revolution alive more than any textbook ever could. It also demonstrates why the Second Amendment was so necessary in 1776 -- and why it's not necessary anymore. If the colonists had been unable to take up their guns and form militias, we would still be under British rule today. But now that the United States is the most powerful nation in the world, it's ludicrous to think that we would again be invaded in our own backyards.

You're free. You're safe. Put the guns away. But go see this movie.

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