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Author: J. Carter Wood
Title: Star Spangled Blather
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Last modified: Sunday, 03-Nov-2002 09:39:55 CST


On 7 April 1775, James Boswell faithfully recorded Samuel Johnson's famous remark that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. "But let it be considered," Boswell continued, "that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest." Within two weeks of Johnson's statement, British troops faced their first skirmishes with American colonial militias at Lexington and Concord. Thus began the conflict known, depending on where you stand about such things, as a revolution or a war of independence. With a long march forward in time-and a small lateral step from Johnson's aphorism-comes The Patriot, director Roland Emmerich's (Independence Day) and screenwriter Robert Rodat's (Saving Private Ryan) epic film set during the conflict that created the American nation. As we know, Hollywood is full of self-interested scoundrels, and it is apparent from this lumbering mess of a film that patriotism is often their refuge of first resort.

In the film, Mel Gibson finally completes his Brit-bashing hat trick, following Gallipoli and Braveheart. Benjamin Martin is a South Carolina farmer prosperously occupied in tending crops, raising his numerous children, and struggling to overcome the grief of his wife's death. The rumble of war visits the idealized rustic landscape-its amber waves of grain are beautifully filmed-and Martin's eldest sons are eager to sign up for the rapidly forming Continental army. Having witnessed war at first hand in the French and Indian War, Martin at first forbids his sons to enlist. Furthermore, at an assembly of delegates he makes a speech against South Carolina joining the war. His argument-that he would not fight to replace the tyranny of one man three thousand miles away with the tyranny of three thousand men one mile away-is nicely prescient of the issues that have continued to plague the republic, and up to this point that the film maintains an interesting ambiguity about the interconnections between political commitment, personal experience, war and freedom. Fairly soon, however, Martin's reticence is shattered by British atrocities toward his family and neighbors. The film changes tone and direction-in large measure for the worse-and begins detailing Martin's journey from pacifist to revolutionary hero.

The Patriot has predictably raised the flag of war on Fleet Street, where it has been condemned for the depiction of brutal British redcoats killing prisoners, burning houses and massacring civilians. The British forces, though shown in a disturbing light, are initially presented in a more complex manner than the indignant reactions of the tabloid press suggest. Atrocities are committed, but mainly under the direct orders of an ambitious and cruel British officer, Col. Tavington (who only requires a maniacally evil laugh to complete his image as clichéd film baddie). When ordered to shoot wounded enemy troops or kill villagers there is some prominent lip-biting reluctance among the more decent officer chaps, who prefer to fight a "gentleman's war." Early in the film, General Cornwallis gives Tavington a dressing-down for his savage treatment of the civilian population. Later on, however, Tavington's counter-insurgency tactics receive Cornwallis' approval as his South Carolina campaign bogs down under the harassment of Martin's rag-tag militia.

Several critics and historians have pointed out the similarity between some of the war crimes presented in the film with very real ones committed by German soldiers in the Second World War. In an article in Salon magazine, New York Post film critic Jonathan Foreman convincingly suggests that certain events depicted in The Patriot were modeled upon acts committed by the Nazis in France. In one harrowing scene, Tavington and his troops round up the inhabitants of a village that has been supporting Martin's militia, lock them into a church and burn them all to death. Although this incident never occurred in the Revolutionary War-in which villages and towns were indeed burned, but only when emptied of their inhabitants-an identical event occurred in the French village of Oradour sur Glane on June 10, 1944. The eighteenth-century "Oradour" depicted in The Patriot is only the worst of the numerous British atrocities that pile up with alarming, and often historically-inaccurate, rapidity.

Although there has been widespread condemnation of the brutal depiction of redcoat violence, other voices on both sides of the Atlantic have taken another view, pointing out that the British have shed an abundance of innocent blood throughout their imperial past. It may, then, be fair enough to depict British officers as embodiments of evil and to let the colonials stand in for the Irish, Indians or Zulus. At first glance there is nothing wrong with this notion. A revolutionary war film expressing the trans-historical horrors of war or the tensions inherent in commitment to a political cause could have been brilliant-and perhaps even more compelling if these atrocities had been modeled on later ones committed by Americans, replacing references to Oradour sur Glane with some to, say, Mi Lai. Unfortunately, the film Emmerich decided to make is much less smart. The violence in The Patriot does not contemplate anything deeper than predictable vengeance, and the film veers in a confused manner between war as hell and war as glory.

Emmerich offers up painstakingly re-created battle scenes that effectively present the absolute insanity of eighteenth-century warfare with its long lines of men firing into massed ranks a mere fifty yards away from each other. However, Emmerich seems to find the guerrilla tactics of Martin and his band of scruffy good old boys far more raucous and enjoyable. In the climactic battle of the film (as in the conclusion to Saving Private Ryan) the balance shifts decisively and absurdly toward the glorious. The film's slide into a trite patriotism is precipitous, and it is signaled by the way that an American flag itself-a tattered piece of cloth that by the end of the film has gone beyond all reasonable call of symbolic duty-literally becomes a weapon against tyranny.

In line with a recent filmic trend, and I'm thinking here of Fight Club and Gladiator, violence and masculinity are connected by an unambiguously direct line. There is no justifiable position in this film for either the pacifist or the British loyalist. Martin eventually states that his earlier, more ambivalent, stance toward the war was a mistake and the only loyalist character is an oily quisling who ends up participating in the film's ultimate horror. The far more interesting uncertainty that Martin had originally expressed about the American cause is lost, drenched in blood and overworked symbolism. The argument appears to be that men, real men, are unquestioning patriots and are furthermore willing (and able) to wipe out limitless quantities of redcoats in order to prove it. When Martin and his militia cohorts shoot down surrendering British troops, the latter's previous atrocities or the heat of battle serve as the necessary justification (just as it did for the shooting of surrendering Germans in Ryan).

The role of the "British" atrocities is in fact a very simple one: to fuel a revengeful homicidal frenzy on the part of Benjamin Martin. It is symptomatic of this film-and other recent historical epics-that it reverses the venerable feminist slogan that the personal is also the political. In The Patriot, the political is presented as merely personal. For instance, throughout the film Martin has little interest in politics. His initial political speech makes it clear that taxation without representation does not inspire him to political revolt. "I'm a parent," he states, "I haven't got the luxury of principles." In fact, it is Martin's role as parent that seems to provide his only principle, and the filmmakers tirelessly manipulate images of his domestic tranquility in order to provide a justification for his metamorphosis from farmer to killing machine. We're forced to endure long, soppy scenes of Martin the Good Father as he stokes his paternalist fires prior returning to the field of glory. It is, in part, the surfeit of sentimentalism toward his children that is one of the most grating aspects of the film. It might be argued, however, that a poor patriot is he who needs to have two of his sons killed before decisively signing on to the cause of liberty. By comparison, Gladiator's background musings on the ideal of the Roman republic are breathtakingly complex political theory.

The Patriot-oddly for a film without any sense of irony about its title-has little to say about patriotism. It is clearly a deeply right-wing film, full of images of God, family and country, but other films have had far more to say about patriotism, political commitment and the contradictions inherent in the ideals that motivate a war for ideals. Perhaps surprisingly, one of these films comes from the left.

Ken Loach's Land and Freedom is set during the Spanish Civil War. It maintains a constant discourse about the tensions between idealism and Realpolitik and raises questions about the connections between the personal and the political. At the opening of the film, David Carr (Ian Hart) leaves England to join the loyalist Spaniards in their war against fascism. He doesn't need ghoulish fascists to wipe out his family in order to risk his life for the republican cause, merely a rousing speech and film about the struggle. While the countries and particular causes that serve as the settings of each of these films are far different, the issues are very much the same. Patriotism, after all, is a function of an imagined notion of nationhood. As Benedict Anderson's book Imagined Communities suggests, there is nothing inherent or essentialist about the nation-state: it is the idea of the nation that serves as a motivation for patriotic action. This notion has particular relevance to the American war, as it was part of the creation of a "nation" that did not exist when the war began in 1775. Socialist commitment to an imagined workers' state has proved more ephemeral, but no less significant as a motivation for action.

While both The Patriot and Land and Freedom concern themselves with patriotic wars (and, less interestingly in both cases, with war-time romance) one of many things that sets the latter film apart is that the ambiguity between the personal and the political-and between patriotic ideals and cynical pessimism-is never fully resolved. In fact, one of the things that connects these films may be that their flaws are mirror images: where The Patriot ignores the political, Land and Freedom runs rather lightly over the importance of the personal. David's initial commitment to the Spanish cause is shown in largely unproblematic terms. What personal motivations, one wonders, drive him to walk out on his English life to fight for a country he knows little about in pursuit of a phantasmic patriotic ideal? Does his commitment to the cause (and by extension the commitment of others on the left to their various causes) conceal other motivations, perhaps less "noble": a desire for adventure, a feeling of power or plain school-boy heroism? The depiction of war in Land and Freedom is worlds apart from the glory of The Patriot. Loach largely presents combat as a chaotic, frightening and sickening exercise. However, the issue remains that David's initial motivation for joining the cause remains strangely devoid of personal idiosyncrasy.

The films' subjective narratives run in contrary directions: The Patriot takes us from ambivalence to certainty whereas Land and Freedom runs from comfortable absolutes toward a painful ambiguity. Unlike Benjamin Martin, David Carr-challenged by the complexity of vicious left-wing division-becomes more interesting as the film progresses, and his questions force us to consider our own complacency regarding our politics and ideals. As part of this questioning we're led to consider the patriotic fervor inherent even in the most internationalist of left-wing thought, which has long disregarded what it regards as a retrograde and inherently conservative patriotism. However, the avowed internationalism of the loyalist brigades notwithstanding, it has always mobilized a flag-waving, anthem-singing patriotism whether it has been to propagandize the Spanish cause, or to agitate for the Vietnamese, the Cubans or the Nicaraguans, among so many others. Keeping the imagined aspects of patriotism and nationalism firmly in mind, Land and Freedom is arguably a deeply patriotic film: patriotic to republican Spain, to the ideal of a workers' state, and to la lucha.

The left tends to regard patriotism with mistrust at best and scornful derision at worst, and turn this patch of the ideological battlefield over to the mindless flag-wavers so evident in The Patriot. However, worlds away from Johnson's London, comes a very different and impeccably left-wing voice on the subject of patriotism:

"Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same. It is the bridge between the future and the past. No real revolutionary has ever been an internationalist."

The voice is that of George Orwell in his 1940 essay, "The Lion and the Unicorn," itself an effort to define Englishness and argue for the importance of a revolutionary and patriotic version of it amid the pressures of war. Orwell was no stranger to the cause and disillusionments of fighting Spanish fascism, having detailed the tortured struggles of republican socialism in Homage to Catalonia, his memoir of fighting both Franco and the internecine battles on the left. For Orwell it was clear that flags, and the ideals behind them, were powerful and important parts of the political world.

Although it may seem odd, if not perverse, to juxtapose the Spanish Civil War with American independence, recall that in its time there were strains in the American cause-particularly of the Paineite variety-that fed radical politics on both sides of the Atlantic, most notably in France, for decades to come. It is a travesty that such a truly revolutionary tradition-Paine, for instance, was not only against kings but also the churches that supported them-is reduced in The Patriot to the story of a single man living out his personal revenge tragedy. British radicals argued for political liberties by depicting state tyranny as "un-English" and contrary to the "rights of freeborn Englishmen" while the American left has periodically framed its struggle as a true successor to the populist spirit of the revolution. Similarly, Orwell was to become a vociferous proponent of left-wing engagement with patriotism, attempting to wrest it away from the grip of the defenders of the state and the status quo. This tendency appears to have died a very decisive death in the Anglo-American left. However, continuing his argument in 1940, Orwell suggested, "patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again."

I, for one, think his argument continues to resonate. Viewing The Patriot, however, that magical day has yet to arrive.