True Action: The Patriot
As a lover of history for as long as I can remember, I often times find myself watching historical television and film and laughing my ass off at just how inaccurate they seem to make it. I know that they sometimes need to add dramatic or romantic elements to certain stories in order to appeal to women or old people, but watching them butcher some of my favorite time periods is like watching the Viet Cong torture my father on a closed circuit camera. All I ask is for these production companies to take some damned responsibility for their actions. Kids are growing up these days knowing absolutely nothing about history and thinking that some parkour dude was running around colonial American jumping from rooftops into piles of hay. Cue Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero”!
It’s not the first time that I’ve had to step up to the plate and hammer a bit of knowledge into these youngin’s. Well, today I’m going to look at a film which can probably blame its inaccuracies on the Y2K bug and get away with it. The Patriot came out in the year 2000 but it has many of the same propaganda as the newspapers being released way back in 1775. That may be because Mel Gibson has the market cornered on anti-British sentiment, or it may be that it’s really easy to hate the smugness of the British accent. I love the Brits! It seems like 60% of the good actors come from the British Isles these days and who can deny the delightful music of singer/songwriter Adele? So leave it to me to correct many of the inaccuracies and embellishments made by the writers of 2000’s The Patriot.
I’m not going to go crazy and talk about the uniforms or the hairstyles or anything that specific. The most important parts of the film, to me, are the characters and the events in which they interact. The simplest thing to say is that the war REALLY did happen and there WAS very fierce fighting in the Southern part of the Colonies. One reason was that Lord Cornwallis was attempting to use loyalist troops in conjunction with his regular army and, as many nations around the world can attest, there is no more fiercely fought war than a civil war. Contrary to popular belief, many of the British generals and those in Parliament didn’t think that the Colonies could be defeated. That wasn’t because they were so amazing on the battlefield, but instead because even when the British conquered territory, they weren’t able to hold it. They didn’t have the manpower and the longer the war went on the less the loyalists got involved. Let’s not even talk about how the British had most of their troops fighting the French and Spanish in the Caribbean and elsewhere.
What I’m trying to say is that General George Washington’s greatest achievement as a commander was not getting his army captured or annihilated. It meant that the war would last a long time, and that was ultimately what defeated the British. Sorry Mel, it wasn’t some dude stabbing people with a flag (even though that was super badass).
Mel Gibson plays the fictional character of Benjamin Martin. You could say that Martin is a combination of several actual combatants by the name of Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens, Daniel Morgan, and Francis Marion. I’m going to assume that most of you don’t know or care who any of these dead dudes are so I’ll hit a few bullet points (TM) on them and we can move on:
- Thomas Sumter was a militia leader who refused to work with the Continentals and led a spirited campaign against the British after the Battle of Cowpens. At one point, Colonel Banastre Tarleton’s British Legion burned the home of his wife and son while they watched on.
- Andrew Pickens was a militia leader with a large family and a very strict Presbyterian background.
- Daniel Morgan was a Continental officer who had fought for the British during the French and Indian War and who kicked some serious ass during The American Revolution. The tactics used in the end of the film were very similar to the ones Morgan used during the real Battle of Cowpens.
- Francis Marion was the lead character in the original scripts for The Patriot but was changed due to some possible controversies connected to the guy (he had slaves who he probably raped and beat). Marion was carrying on raids against the British before the Continentals even showed up in force and continued to coordinate with them once they arrived. Marion and Tarleton had a pretty serious rivalry during the war but Tarleton was never able to capture the “Swamp Fox”, a name that he got from his use of hideouts in the Carolina swamplands.
So you see, the character of Benjamin Martin was taken from these and possible other real-life guys and it’s usually easier to just make up a guy rather than take an existing character and change it to such a degree that it barely resembles the source (ala William Wallace).
General Cornwallis is the living embodiment of the smug British elite in The Patriot. He constantly complains about everything from the weather in South Carolina to the style of his jackets. His real story is one that paints a totally different picture, though. Unlike his movie version, the real Cornwallis wasn’t the pre-Madonna sissy that The Patriot makes him out to be. In fact, it was not uncommon for General Cornwallis to be seen doing routine inspections of his men’s redoubts or physically leading troops into battle. More than Generals Howe, Clinton, or Burgoyne, Cornwallis was easily the most successful of the British command and if he hadn’t been forced to send many of his men down to fight the French in the Caribbean, who knows what he may have accomplished.
To put it this way, it took a surprise advancement by the French fleet and a forced march by General George Washington’s Continental Army to trap Cornwallis in Yorktown. By the way, Yorktown was one of two places that General Henry Clinton had told Cornwallis that he needed to defend so it wasn’t even his idea! The biggest thing that the film got right is that Cornwallis was a true military genius. He was a ‘man of the army’ and was one of the only British leaders to come out of the war with his reputation intact or better than before.
Jason Isaacs plays the dashing Colonel William Tavington. While the name is different there is no doubt that the character is based off of Colonel Banastre Tarleton. Early on, the filmmakers were attempting to get Kevin Spacey to play the character but Mel Gibson was owed too much money and they just couldn’t afford the veteran actor. For historical purposes, I think that Isaacs plays a much better Tarleton as he was a very young man and I just can’t imagine Spacey going toe-to-toe with Gibson.
Tarleton was every bit the dashing figure that the film or this rad painting shows him to be. A young man by the norms of the day, Banastre did use somewhat unconventional and sometimes controversial tactics in order to quell the rebellion in the South. The scene involving the burned down church filled with civilians is a total farce (possibly taken from a similar case in Nazi controlled France) but Tarleton was known for his swift and brutal attacks on the enemy. The killing of Benjamin Martin’s kid obviously never happened because Martin wasn’t a real person. What did happen is that Tarleton had burned down the home of Thomas Sumter while he forced Sumter’s wife to sit in a chair and watch. Sumter had already been an active militia leader early in the war but had resigned his commission and stopped fighting. After some raids by an unknown group (not Sumter), Tarleton had burned his home, causing him to rejoin the war. Backfire!
The Battle of Camden
The film shows Benjamin Martin and his son Gabriel watching a battle unfold; maybe calling it a rout would be more accurate. In the scene, they talk about how General Gates is using the wrong tactics to face the British, and then they see Colonel Tavington and his dragoons charge the fleeing Colonists. The battle on screen is in fact the Battle of Camden. It was a rout by the British, one in which General Horatio Gates fled so fast (not stopping for 30 miles) that he outran his troops before realizing that he couldn’t reform them to fight again. One of the characters in The Patriot actually mentions Gates fleeing the battle on his horse. The only differences that the film shows compared to the real battle is that the Colonial army was made up of much more militia than is portrayed in the film.
The Battle of Cowpens
The battle scene where Benjamin Martin and Colonel Tavington finally face off is in the historical Battle of Cowpens. The battle was led by Daniel Morgan in real life and it was a total victory for the Colonial troops. The tactics used at the end of the film are pretty realistic to what happened. General Morgan had instructed his militia to fire two volleys before retreating back to the other lines of men. When Banastre Tarleton saw this, he charged his dragoons in and was almost annihilated.
The film version of the Battle of Cowpens also had elements of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse (the ruins in the middle of the battle) as well as some other goodies. The biggest change from the real battle featuring the characters to the movie version is the death Colonel Tavington/Tarleton. The film ends with Benjamin Martin avenging the death of two of his sons by stabbing the shit out of Tavington with everything from a tomahawk to a flaming bayonet. He also killed Tavington’s prized horse with an American flag, which is something I’ve never said before. In real life, Tarleton lived far beyond the end of The Battle of Cowpens and was able to tell the story of how he met Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger for years after.
The Patriot isn’t exactly the most historically accurate film of all time. As I said earlier, much of the stuff that happens in the movie actually did happen. It just didn’t all happen to one guy in South Carolina. If you’re looking to learn about The American Revolution then there are probably better places to start but if you’re a film/history buff and you love to watch Mel Gibson kill people with a tomahawk then The Patriot is probably your best bet.