Old leatherface gets blood on his hands

The Patriot (15) | Roland Emmerich, 167 mins

Antonia Quirke
Tuesday 16 May 2000 00:00 BST

Really, the only thing that can explain our indulgent chuckling and fond groans over even the most moronic of films is the aura of innocence which still clings to cinema. Because film is the most innocent of media. Ed Wood! Chuck Heston, forever unaware that his Ben-Hur has been turned, by foxy Gore Vidal, into a thwarted homosexual!

In this forgiving mood, The Patriot might be dismissed as harmless "hokum"; like so many historical action films, it's that kind of movie. But no fond chuckles, please - it's abominable. And to take any pleasure in it would be to resemble those followers of pro-wrestling who know it's all fake but still cough-up top-dollar to get ring-side and holler. In The Patriot, Mel Gibson stars as Benjamin Martin, a Carolina farmer and single parent. A veteran of the Seven Years War, what Martin has seen and done disposes him towards pacifism at the start of the American Revolution. In fact, the only thing that can rouse him from his rocking-chair and send him out, raging in cheese-cloth, into that familiar world of the slo-mo "Nooo!" is his family. An evil British colonel (Jason Isaacs) kills one child, abducts another, and torches the Martins' house. The logic behind such excessive wickedness is, of course, to allow us to enjoy the forthcoming frenzy of blood-lust and murder with a clear conscience. It seems politics won't do this. So family will have to do. (This suggests a lack of confidence in the Declaration of Independence, surely one of the few things that's ever been worth fighting a war over.)

In one extraordinary scene, Martin goes berserk with a hatchet, taking apart a British soldier. Drenched in the dead man's blood, he is a frightening sight for his children; but their shocked-but-accepting gaze mitigates - sanctifies, even - their father's behaviour by presenting the whole thing to us as a familial rites of passage.

Gibson is the only star I can think of who looks older than he actually is (44 - surprised?) These days his skin is pleated, desperately thirsty, grubby with erotic mystery. There are several things you can always catch Gibson doing, and The Patriot is no exception. If he has to say a line of jumpy sarcasm, he will bob his head from side to side as though he's speaking from his sideburns. But he is not an excessive actor. Usually he's pretty still, poaching our attention with the tantalising air of someone who's decent but knows felonious secrets - and all the time the cannons boom in the background, applauding his charisma. But the eyes stay the same: mad. What he also has is authority, along with perhaps only one other, Daniel Day-Lewis. All in all, Gibson looks like the greatest movie star in the world, looks like he might do something so heartstopping, so artistically articulate and sly that it comes as a real shock when he doesn't (or when he didn't for two hours as Zeffirelli's Hamlet.)

Not only does he look all of these things, he sounds them, too. When you hear him ticking people off somewhere off-screen, you wish someone would just hand him a copy of the Old Testament and be done with it. This voice is a great, and underused, instrument, not quite Wellesian, but almost. There Gibson is, speaking in a perfectly normal speech pattern (unlike, say, John Malkovich or Al Pacino who, like be-bop musicians, scatter their emphases), but the note is so epic, so packed with a kind of unhappy public dignity that he can say lines like "I'm a parent, I haven't the luxury of principles" and not appear a fool. You don't hear the line, you hear the voice. Thank God.

This is all very sad, because The Patriot is mainstream, absolutely so - the sort of Ordinary by which cinema's health, and average expectations of it, might be judged. It's precisely the type of movie you might go to see because it's raining and you've got nothing on, and the idea of a decent, ordinary film with a big star and an exciting context and perhaps a bit of instruction is just what you feel like. In short, you like going to the movies.

A typical film, then. The score by John Williams is very typical, and typically disruptive. (when Gibson's eldest son gets married on a beach amongst freed slaves - a Caribbean utopia more rigorously dealt with on the cover of a Sandals' brochure - Williams essays an 18th-century steel band disco tune which recalls his Ewok Victory Party Theme.) The cinematography is very typical, and dishonest (so hysterically back-lit are the rebels that you think their cause isn't liberty but Ready Brek.) The action is very typical (solemnly sanguinary in deference to the current thinking which goes as follows: while the usual howlers and anachronisms prevail elsewhere, bloody frankness on the battlefield shows respect for the past. It's opportunism dressed up as reverence, an excuse for a gore-fest.)

The film's free-and-easy history is very typical, and unpardonable. Director Roland Emmerich blithely attributes a famous Gestapo atrocity to George III's army, and even contrives to sneak in the impression that slavery has been abolished with Independence. Yes, it's all very typical and all doubly awful because, whether Emmerich knows it or not, in The Patriot the contemporary mainstream has collided with cinema's first instinctive vocation.

Spectacular myths of origin, tales of the tribal forefathers, popular history: these comprise the project that first made cinema stretch its amazing powers. In Russia Eisenstein and October, in France Abel Gance's Napoléon, in England Olivier's Henry V, in Germany Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of The Will, in America Griffith's The Birth of a Nation. Now this - one feels the art form saying to itself - is what I was invented for. And this is what we want! The popular mainstream! Well, here is the popular mainstream, and it's no good.

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