Older Americans uncomfortable with Mel Gibson's playing of patriot game

 

Hollywood has had problems portraying the American Revolution, when the colonials kicked out the British after a bloody war of independence over 200 years ago.

One problem is getting modern Americans to relate to this period of wigs and quaint speech. Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, for example, had a rule: "I don't want any pictures where they write with feathers."

US historian David McCullough says: "A lot of us have trouble at first perceiving these people as real because of their clothing and the wigs and their mannered way of speaking. They are like characters in a costume pageant."

Another problem is that older Americans are apparently not comfortable with films showing their English cousins - allies in two world wars - as the villains.

Much more acceptable are heroic feats against Germans with monocles and guttural accents and Japanese or Vietnamese with sing-song voices and nasty bayonets.

Saving Private Ryan provoked a rush of second World War nostalgia and pride in what is now called "the greatest generation". Robert Rodat, the screen-writer of that epic, has now written The Patriot, a gory depiction of the American Revolution starring Mel Gibson, who has gone from slaughtering the English in Scottish hills in Braveheart to hacking them to pieces in the swamps of South Carolina. Gibson's historical counterpart was Francis Marion, a guerrilla fighter who had the nickname "the Swamp Fox".

The Patriot, just released here in time for Independence Day and showing in Ireland since yesterday, portrays the British troops as an 18th-century version of Hitler's Death's Head SS Division.

There is a sadistic English Col Tavington who incinerates women and children in a church, torches homes, shoots and hangs rebels and enjoys his job.

Tavington is based on a historical figure, Col Banastre Tarleton, who later ended up as an MP for Liverpool. As Hugh Linehan wrote last week, even before the film crossed the Atlantic there have been protests in Britain at what is seen as a distortion of the historic record.

"Maybe the war was dirty and violent at times, they [the critics] say, but their soldiers certainly never shot children or minced around in the creepy manner of Nazi generals," a New York Times correspondent reported the reaction from London.

For Irish viewers there is the interesting historical detail that the sadistic Tavington's superior was Lord Cornwallis, who commanded the British troops in the southern colonies. Cornwallis, of course, went on to further his career in Ireland after he lost the New World for the mother country.

As viceroy and commander-in-chief in Ireland, he had better luck in crushing the 1798 Rising. He also had a revenge on the French, whose Gen Humbert got his come-uppance with the Irish rebels at Ballinamuck. In America, it was the arrival of the French fleet off Yorktown that made Cornwallis's surrender inevitable.

Mel Gibson's exploits against the foppish Cornwallis have seemed over the top to US film critics, but audiences seem to be getting a kick out of the rustic militias making mincemeat (literally) out of the redcoats. The film got a round of applause in the cinema where I saw it.

The film is a fresh look for Americans at a war that is taught in the history books as largely fought in the northern colonies under George Washington. In Don't Know Much About History - "everything you need to know about American history but never learned" - author Kenneth Davis sums up the average impression of Americans about their revolution against King George III.

"Somebody dumped some tea into Boston Harbour. Somebody else hung lights in a church steeple. Paul Revere went riding around the country at midnight. Jefferson penned the Declaration. There were a few battles and a rough winter at Valley Forge. But George Washington kicked out the British."

Hollywood has now personalised this "Birth of a Nation" saga through Mel Gibson as the Swamp Fox pitted against the dastardly Tavington. The Irish equivalent would be to make a film about the War of Independence which concentrated on Gen Tom Barry routing the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries in Cork, while ignoring what Michael Collins was doing in Dublin.

There was a problem with the Swamp Fox, as in real life Francis Marion was an avowed racist, hunted native Americans or Indians for sport and raped his slaves. The film has changed his name to Ben Martin and portrays him as only employing "freed slaves" on his plantation, almost 100 years before the abolition of slavery. The respected Smithsonian Institute which was used as a historical consultant has okayed this whitewash.

The film is rated "R" which means anyone under 17 has to be accompanied by a parent or adult. There is no sex in the film so the restriction is due to the gory scenes, but also because it shows two sons of Gibson aged about 10 and 11 using their father's muskets to blast redcoats. Children handling guns is a touchy subject for Americans after a series of school shootings, such as at Columbine in Colorado over a year ago.

But these kids are presented as "patriots": guns are good in their hands when it's for the Stars and Stripes. You just need an adult sitting beside you in the cinema to explain the difference between shooting redcoats and your schoolmates.