Cynical, demeaning and violent rubbish

'The Patriot shouldn't be criticised for insulting our forefathers; it should be booed off for insulting our intelligences'

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On Monday I went to the cinema to see what the latest manufactured fuss was all about. There were four people in for the 4.10pm showing of
The Patriot, and two of us made it all the way through. Bugger Mel Gibson, we were the heroes. But I don't blame the guys who went home: war is hell, and not everyone can take it.

On Monday I went to the cinema to see what the latest manufactured fuss was all about. There were four people in for the 4.10pm showing of The Patriot, and two of us made it all the way through. Bugger Mel Gibson, we were the heroes. But I don't blame the guys who went home: war is hell, and not everyone can take it.

Before we even got to the first ad for the kind of chocolate that gives models orgasms, we had sat looking at the curtain and fumbling with our pop-corn buckets as the loud-speakers blared out "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", and a song that was probably called "America: The Dream Goes On", and which sounded as though it had been sung by the massed choirs of the Idaho Militia.

So my back was well up long before the laughing children came running through the ripening corn of a prelapsarian idyll - the essential dramatic precursor to massacre and mayhem since Westerns began. I was ready to examine the film closely and critically for the historical jiggery-pokery that had - supposedly - traduced the British, relegated the blacks and blanked out the native Americans, while still claiming to have some relationship to fact.

But I soon realised that that is all nonsense. You might just as well complain that the various versions of Robin Hood are too nasty about the Normans. Do the inhabitants of Caen ever write indignantly to their newspapers about how Guy of Gisborne is always depicted as violent and tyrannical when, in fact, it was the Norman barons who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta?

Besides, our claims to having been slandered and belittled would come way down the list for processing behind Muslims, Indians, Africans, Germans, or even the French (Inspector Clouseau, anyone? Beau Geste?). In 1956, at Nehru's suggestion, the Indian government banned a number of films, including the Oscar-winning The African Queen, because they presented a "disparaging" account of life in Africa, and perpetuated the myth of the white man's burden.

Filmically we Brits had been used, over time, to having our tummies tickled by Hollywood and our own British film industry. Alexander Korda, the director of Thirties and Forties movies such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, was once described as having "instantly grasped that the English have a seemingly unlimited appetite for a comforting version of their island history". Now that comforting version is unavailable, but how can the nation of It Ain't Half Hot Mum credibly complain? We lapped it up when Zulu depicted our heroic imperialism, so we can hardly moan now.

So The Patriot stands exonerated, and everyone can go and see it and feel happy? Only if they're a moron. Because what got missed among all the synthetic expressions of indignation, is what a truly dreadful movie The Patriot is, and how dismally typical it is of what Hollywood is churning out these days. It is clichéd, disgustingly violent, silly, badly acted, badly written, improbable and utterly without humour. The word is "cynical".

In 1939 John Ford made Drums Along the Mohawk, starring Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert. The idea of reluctant border folk fighting an 18th-century war which, at times, came close to home and which was often brutal, is the central feature of The Patriot as it was in Ford's original. But in the Mel Gibson version the motivation is the need for personal revenge that only then becomes patriotism - just as it was in Rob Roy and Braveheart: gentle men roused to savage violence by an oppressor. And if this sounds familiar it is, of course, lifted wholesale from the story of Robin of Locksley.

Except in modern Hollywood the idea of revenge becomes an excuse for enjoying fabulous amounts of violence, all done in the name of good. You can bash a guy's brains out with your ol' Indian tomahawk until your face looks like a two-year-old who's been eating bolognese, and still be the goodie.

To really get off on the slaughter, however, you need a feud with a worthy, brilliant, utterly cruel baddie. Most of The Patriot's British officer class is made up of Boris Johnson lookalikes, who bluster and say "I say" and wear inappropriate clothes. Except for the Queen's Dragoon (Get it? The slightest hint of gay sado-masochism?) who kills the eldest two of Mel Gibson's two children, and whose capacity to cheat death through gory battle after blood-filled fight takes up almost an hour of the film. You've seen it so many times before that you could write it yourself.

It's all so daft. Thirsting for vengeance, Gibson kills 20 redcoats singlehandly in an ambush using one of the most inaccurate weapons known to humanity: the musket. Every shot he fires kills, every shot they fire, misses. There is no subtlety and no surprise. He then takes to the woods where he and his band (including a clergyman, a thin Tuck) live an alfresco existence, ambushing wagons, including the personal treasures of General Cornwallis (the Sheriff of Nottingham). Whose dogs go over to the sexy Gibson, just as the bride to Edward did in Braveheart. There is another scene lifted from Taras Bulba and the burning church atrocity is straight out of the Holocaust.

And who writes this stuff? "He has the trust of the people. They protect him," Cornwallis says of the William Tell-like Gibson. Gibson himself is in the general's tent. "You trust the French?" he asks incredulously. " Absolument!" says a French general who has - until then - been sitting, unnoticed, in a corner of the tiny bivouac. Later this officer of the despotic Louis XVI shouts " Vive la liberte!" I laughed.

The climax is the most cynical bit of all. And if you intend to go and see the film and therefore don't want to know the ending then, (a) you haven't been paying attention and (b) you should look away now. Gibson's murdered son painted lead soldiers that his dad then melts down one by one for musket balls. Then he gets to the last one, and you just know it has the dragoon's name on it. But that's not enough these days. You need three goes at it, three opportunities to get the audience near orgasm, not just one. The bullet gets the baddie in the arm. The tomahawk flies uselessly into the air. It's the old disguised "bayonet in the belly, when all is lost" trick that finally does it. Repulsive.

So there you are, not a scintilla of sincerity, not a sniff of art. Nasty, calculating and demeaning for those who see it and those who worked on it. And does Gibson really need the money? Did Joely Richardson not read the script? It's repeated time after time. I usually see these films late, when the hype has died down, and almost every time I find myself watching a movie that is far worse than the critics have suggested. Chicken Run, for example, is not a good film - something intrinsically worthwhile and pioneering has been robbed of much of its humour and vitality. American Beauty was nothing like as wonderful a film as has been claimed, its early promise degenerating into melodrama and cliché, until it presented just another version of the "thekids-are-OK-it's-the-adults-who-are-screwed-up" zeitgeist.

They can do it, if they want to. Election and Rushmore in the cinemas, The Simpsons, The Sopranos and The Larry Sanders Show on TV. But stuff like The Patriot shouldn't be criticised for insulting our forefathers, it should be booed off for insulting our intelligences.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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