Patriotism at the Multiplex
All movies are not created equal
Jul 17, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 41 • By KEN MASUGI
In the 1984 movie Red Dawn, a group of high school students defend American soil against a Communist invasion. Courageous and innovative, the kids wage a desperate fight against Cuban and Russian professionals -- but they are inspired by no knowledge of what they are fighting for, and therefore by no idealism. These young Americans are merely defending their turf and avenging the loss of friends and families. They are merely doing what the Russians or any other peoples did when faced with invasions over the centuries.
The deficiency comes through most clearly in the epilogue, when we read the mutilated version of the Gettysburg Address commemorating "Partisan Rock" following the imaginary war's successful conclusion. Perhaps director John Milius was suggesting that America was invaded precisely because it had forgotten its identity, that its greatness came from its ideals -- not from even the most dedicated love of the soil.
There's another movie with this theme, called The Patriot, currently playing in theaters. But The Patriot is more than just another story of the rejection of an alien force committing atrocities on American soil.
Directed by Roland Emmerich (who also made Independence Day) and telling a historical romance about the Revolutionary War, the film does offer vengeance and love of family as motives for rebellion -- but they are transcended by the theme of founding a nation.
At the beginning of the film, the character Benjamin Martin (played by Mel Gibson) 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 proves to be what causes the destruction of his family.
Loosely based on the real-life adventures of the "Swamp Fox," Francis Marion, The Patriot is at bottom a story of all the wars Americans have ever fought. It is thus both a movie rejecting war and a movie justifying war. The Civil War, World War II, and the Vietnam War are all conflated into a film about the revolutionary and founding era. The historical anachronisms are glaring -- but so is the historical truth that every war is ugly and every war gives birth to new worlds.
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 held by fashionable academics: that the Declaration of Independence had no effect on freeing the slaves, for instance, and that the American Revolution was less than a glorious cause.
Martin evolves to a mature American by applying his reason and refining his passions. The political wisdom offered in the film lies less in its picture of friendship between whites and blacks, and more in Martin's observation that even democracy offers occasions for abuse: It is as bad to be governed by a republic's three thousand tyrants a mile away as by the British monarchy's single tyrant three thousand miles away.
What The Patriot offers is a chance to feel Martin's outrage. Guns in the hands of his young boys are not a sign of Columbine terrorism, but a rational response to deep feeling. And in the end reason and passion are rewarded by God's grace. The cause of the new nation is forged in the churches, and 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 irrational Confederate flag dispute. Too 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. They think like antebellum Carolinians or Virginians 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 screenplay for The Patriot was written by Robert Rodat, who also wrote Saving Private Ryan -- and as Saving Private Ryan relied on Abraham Lincoln's understanding of America to explain and justify World War II, so The Patriot relies on Lincoln's understanding to explain and justify the creation of the American republic. Martin learns how to treat his family as part of a new political order, just as Private Ryan acquired a higher understanding of his family and how his soul must be judged by his duty to his greater family.
The Patriot does not possess the grace of the best movie on the American Revolution, John Ford's 1939 Drums Along the Mohawk. Neither does it surpass 1989's Glory in showing how blacks belong in America, nor will it have the cult status of the 1949 Sands of Iwo Jima. But it is an exploration of that quality of soul Aristotle thought makes men most human and political: spiritedness. It's a quality we need to think about and cultivate, and The Patriot is a magnificent attempt to do so.
Ken Masugi is the director of the Center for Local Government at the Claremont Institute.