In the movie "Red Dawn" (1984) a group of high school students defends American soil against a Communist invasion across its southern border. Courageous and innovative, they wage a desperate fight against Cuban and Nicaraguan-led professional soldiers. But the kids' war is uninspired by knowledge of what they are fighting for and therefore by any idealism. These partisans, or guerilla fighters, are defending their turf, avenging the loss of friends and families. They are merely doing what the Russians or any other peoples did, faced with invasions over the centuries.
This deficiency comes through clearly in the film's epilogue, when we read the mutilated version of the Gettysburg Address commemorating "Partisan Rock" following the war's successful conclusion. Perhaps director John Milius was suggesting that America was invaded by Third Worlders precisely because it had forgotten its identity, that its greatness came from its ideals — not from even the most dedicated love of the soil that animated all hitherto existing patriotisms.
"The Patriot" is more than another story of the rejection of an alien force committing atrocities on American soil. (Roland Emmerich also directed "Independence Day".) The themes of vengeance and love of family are all there, but they are transcended by the theme of founding a nation.
How does political life relate to human life? At the beginning of the movie Mel Gibson's character, Benjamin Martin, expresses a Tocquevillean individualism — living only for the small circle around himself and his family — born of his horrific experiences in the French and Indian Wars. But attempting to live apart from others causes the destruction of his old family.
While based loosely on the story of the "Swamp Fox," Francis Marion, The Patriot is really a story of all the wars Americans or anyone else have ever fought. It is thus both an anti-war movie and a movie that justifies war. It is about any warrior who knows the loss of loved ones, whether in the battles of the Revolution or throughout the ages of wars in Serbia. The Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam are all conflated in this movie about America's revolutionary and founding era — hence the historical anachronisms. Every war is ugly, every war gives birth to new hopes, new worlds.
How can one escape Machiavellianism that all civilized people shrink from yet adopt when it suits their advantage? Both sides struggle with that question but perpetrate atrocities against noncombatants or prisoners.
If "The Patriot" has its share of movie cliches — relieved by riveting battle scenes and extraordinary twists of fortune — they are spent largely in refuting far more serious cliches: That the Declaration of Independence had no effect on freeing the slaves and that the Revolution was less than a glorious cause.
Martin evolves to a mature American by applying his reason and refining his passions. The political wisdom for our time is not so much the friendship between whites and blacks displayed, but Martin's observation that it is as bad to be governed by 3,000 tyrants a mile away (as an independent republic) as to be governed by a single tyrant 3,000 miles away.
Can we Americans today heed this message? Can we not feel his outrage, and then take the appropriate, reasoned action? Thus, guns in the hands of his young boys make perfect sense — not a sign of Columbine terrorism — especially when they shoot with such unerring accuracy.
In the end, reason and passion are rewarded by God's grace. Even the ruins of churches offer reward. The cause of the Revolution and of the new nation is forged in churches. Martin learns Job's lessons at the dawn of a new birth of freedom.
It is unfortunate that this movie set in South Carolina appeared too late to have an effect on that state's unfortunate recent dispute over the Confederate flag. Too often much of the South today, white and black, thinks of itself as still living in the era of the Civil War. Blacks claim the right to be pitied because they are descendants of slaves, while whites feel a pride in having fought for a noble, albeit losing cause — of slavery. They think like antebellum Carolinians or Virginians (or Richmonders) or Georgians. They don't think like Americans. By contrast, "The Patriot"'s blacks, slave and free, are human — they suffer and thrive as humans, as Americans.
The Patriot's extraordinary predecessor, "Gladiator," depicted the unsuccessful attempt to restore the Roman republic. Another revenge movie that is more than that, "The Patriot" describes a successful creation of a republic, and the necessary sacrifice and suffering that must accompany this worthy endeavor.
The culmination of "The Patriot"'s teaching is seen in "Saving Private Ryan," yet another movie scorned by many conservative critics, who ignored the film's explicit reliance on Abraham Lincoln's understanding of the war. (Both movies had the same writer, Robert Rodat.) The American founding was comprehensively defended in theory and practice by Lincoln. Martin learns how to treat his family as part of a new political order ("The Cause"), just as Private Ryan acquires a higher understanding of his brothers and family, and how his soul must be judged by his duty to his greater family.
"The Patriot" does not possess the graces of what is still the best movie on the American Revolution, John Ford's "Drums Along the Mohawk" (1939). "The Patriot" does not surpass "Glory" in its attempt to show how blacks belong in America. It will not have the cult status of "Sands of Iwo Jima". And to be cosmopolitan, "The Patriot" is no "Alexander Nevsky." It is, rather, an exploration of the quality of soul that Aristotle thought makes men human and political — spiritedness. It is a quality we Americans need to think about and cultivate, and "The Patriot" is a magnificent attempt to do so.