The British Are Coming! … The Perfect Blockbuster

The British Are Coming!

There has never been a successful or even halfway decent film about the American Revolution. It’s baffling. Here was the most colorful period in American history, ripe with conflicts, spies, warning lanterns hung from church steeples in the dead of night, ambushes in cornfields, Washington crossing the Delaware, Betsy Ross sewing flags of stars and stripes, the midnight ride of Paul Revere and secret meetings in the back rooms of taverns and colonial inns where we now spend expensive weekends enhanced by Laura Ashley wallpaper and Ralph Lauren paint. Laura and Ralph have turned the Revolutionary period into a cottage industry, but Hollywood has never gotten it right, and except for three disasters that automatically come to mind–Al Pacino in Revolution , Cornel Wilde and Anne Francis in The Scarlet Coat and the moronic musical 1776 –few filmmakers have even tried. Two possible reasons are 1) scriptwriters know nothing about American history and 2) macho movie hunks look ridiculous in ruffled shirts, knickers, ponytails and mid-calf nightgowns, eschewing Uzis for candlesticks and quill pens attached to pink ostrich feathers.

Courageously bucking tradition for an estimated $25 million paycheck, Mel Gibson is riding to the rescue with The Patriot , a $100 million (and counting) extravaganza about the War for Independence cleverly timed for a Fourth of July release. Sex, intrigue, sumptuous settings that take the breath away, family values, bloodshed, emotions to tug the heartstrings–this massive saga has something for everybody. If Mel can’t mine a rich historical legacy for its romantic idealism, flag-waving patriotism and box-office violence, we might as well dig up John Wayne and start all over again.

In The Patriot, the agreeably aging star plays Benjamin Martin, a widower with seven children who returns from the French and Indian War to tend his farm in South Carolina, vowing peace forever. Bad news from Boston travels fast, so when the colonials talk about fighting the British redcoats, the Martin family can’t ignore the thunder of war on the horizon. Benjamin hates taxation without representation and believes the 13 colonies can govern themselves and form a democratic government. But he’s a pacifist now (“I’m a parent. I haven’t got the luxury of principles”) who votes against raising troops and money to bear arms against the British, alienating his neighbors and his rebellious 18-year-old son Gabriel. Ashamed of his father’s refusal to fight, Gabriel (Aussie newcomer Heath Ledger) joins the Continental Army without his permission in the noble pursuit of liberty.

While Gabriel grows up fast, enduring the losses and hardships of battle, his family plows the fields at home. But despite his efforts to remain neutral, Papa is eventually forced to confront the cruel reality of war and its inevitable violence. When his plantation and crops are burned to the ground and his 15-year-old son Tom is murdered before his eyes by the psychopathic Colonel William Tavington (coldly but commandingly played without a shred of sympathy or humanity by the excellent Jason Isaacs), Benjamin finally reaches for his musket. As Mel Gibson’s eyes narrow and his lips curl into a snarl of revenge, the audience cheers.

There is no question from that moment on about who we’re rooting for. Nor is there any doubt about where this movie is going. Mel turns savage, massacring 20 British soldiers in a single ambush to save his eldest son from being hanged as a spy, and spends the rest of this three-hour epic single-handedly knocking off what seems like half of the British empire. A cross between Davy Crockett and Superman, he quickly becomes a legendary folk hero the redcoats label “the ghost,” performing feats of derring-do, outwitting and insulting the enemy who outnumber his ragtag militia at every turn.

The character is based on Francis Marion, the legendary “swamp fox” of 1776 who, in reality, spent most of his time slaughtering fellow loyalists in the South in neighbor-against-neighbor conflicts. As a revisionist vehicle for the indestructible Mr. Gibson, the not-always-heroic “swamp fox” has been sanitized into a gung-ho, red-blooded, true-blue all-American hunk with sex appeal who stays on the right side of every issue and still finds time between battles to shower his children with love and bed his own sister-in-law (Joely Richardson, wasted as the “woman who waits,” in the June Allyson tradition). It’s only a matter of time, of course, before the film pits the honorable American patriot against the brutal British colonel in hand-to-hand combat in the Gladiator tradition. No time for subtlety here, but a big slaughter quotient. (Harrison Ford turned down this movie because it was “too violent”–does this tell you something or what?)

The big dilemma facing the filmmakers: Should Mel Gibson live or die? What will it do to the film’s credibility if he takes on massive legions of England’s best-trained soldiers and survives, and what will it do to the box-office potential for summer blockbuster status if he doesn’t? The film is not without clichés, the final battle is a bit of a muddle and the big confrontation between the colonel, armed with sword and musket, and Mel, with a tomahawk and an Indian knife, is almost a spoof.

But The Patriot has scope and passion, the sweep of an adventure yarn that is reassuringly old-fashioned, a defined hero and a hiss-worthy villain (the foppishly dashing Mr. Isaacs, as Tavington, steals the picture right out from under everyone else, in my opinion) and enough manipulative sentimentality to guarantee there’s not a dry eye in the house at the end.

Roland Emmerich, the director of Independence Day and Godzilla , does his best work to date controlling the traffic in the trenches, and the great director of photography Caleb Deschanel’s camerawork is exceptional–from the awesome battle sequences to the moss-covered trees leading to plantations in peril. Even the swamps are bathed in a blue haze. Through gardens of billowing anemones to fields where balls of unpicked cotton waft through the skies like bloody feathers, a grand sense of place and setting is evoked as screenwriter Robert Rodat ( Saving Private Ryan ) explores not only the bravery but the principles and guts it took to be a patriot on home soil in 1776. As a log-cabin Braveheart , Mel Gibson makes three hours pass painlessly for escapist summer audiences accustomed to breezier stuff. If anyone can take a chapter from history and make its butchery relevant to the world today (think Bosnia), he’s the man. It would be treason to think otherwise.

The Perfect Blockbuster

Competing in an even draw for Summer Hit of 2000 is The Perfect Storm , another two-fisted triumph of digital processing and computer technology with a $120 million price tag that could cure cancer. Nothing should cost that much, but under the tense, focused direction of Wolfgang Petersen, every dime has been used to generate the kind of supersonic thrills that, by comparison, make Twister look like a Fedders commercial.

Based on the nonfiction bestseller by Sebastian Junger, the film charts the tragic Halloween weekend in 1991 when the Andrea Gail , a swordfishing boat from Gloucester, Mass., hit the unparalleled storm of the century in the North Atlantic. Ignoring all weather advisories, the six-man crew headed for dangerous waters for a record catch and landed in a watery hell only the technology of modern filmmaking techniques could attempt to approximate. The movie takes its time getting into position while we meet the fishermen, suffer long goodbyes with their worried families, and watch them follow their captain, a veteran salt of the sea plagued by a recent run of bad luck (George Clooney), who stubbornly risks their lives for money and glory (and disaster) at sea.

This particular trip is plagued with mishaps from the minute the Andrea Gail lifts anchor–one man overboard, a fishhook embedded in a hand that requires crude surgery without anesthesia and a tetanus shot, two crew members who hate each other. But even a narrow escape from a marauding shark is nothing compared with the gales of approaching Hurricane Grace. With a broken ice machine and 60,000 pounds of fish to keep fresh, the men are forced to make it home in time for market, through 50-foot waves. Horrifyingly, a once-in-a-century collision of meteorological factors suddenly, without warning, joins Hurricane Grace with a Canadian cold front. The result is a storm of catastrophic proportions that churns the ocean into waves as high as the Rockies and drags the Andrea Gail straight for its eye, making even Coast Guard helicopter rescues impossible.

The rest of the movie, shifting between the plight of three stranded tourists on their way to Bermuda, the desperate men on the fishing boat, the Air Force and Coast Guard rescuers risking their lives to save them, and the people back in Gloucester waiting for news on the weather station, delivers enough non-stop, hair-raising, nerve-frying thrills to keep you frozen in your seat. Here, I predict, are next year’s Oscar winners for sound effects (howling winds, lashing waves, fiery lightning and ear-splitting thunder) and for split-second editing. It’s a movie about technology, not acting, although a game cast that includes Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, John C. Reilly, William Fichtner, Cherry Jones and Karen Allen performs admirably in the close-ups.

Inevitably, in a film where screams for help and furrowed brows are forced to do the work of characterization, the waves generate most of the thrills. For the six men whose fates I am asked not to reveal, I can only wonder why. Didn’t everybody read the book? As a literary adaptation, the screenplay by William Wittliff is a brilliantly executed boys’ book adventure. For the audience, it’s a marvelous, testosterone-fueled lark. And it looks like a fun job for the overpaid actors who stay dirty, act tough, cuss, earn millions and don’t have to shave. As for George Clooney, I can only refer to two babes in a heated discussion following the screening of The Perfect Storm : “I do not buy him as the skipper of a swordfishing boat!”

“Why the hell not? You bought him as a brain surgeon, didn’t you?”

The British Are Coming! … The Perfect Blockbuster