`Patriot' history is hit and miss

June 29, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

To modern eyes, the battle scenes in "The Patriot" look pretty ludicrous, with columns of marching soldiers advancing upon one another across open fields. Why, one good strafing run, and all those soldiers are toast.

But there was no such thing as a strafing run in the 18th century, when the American Revolution was fought. And, as suicidal as such formations may look today, they were far less so 200 years ago. What you see on screen, it seems, is pretty much what you would have seen on the day of the battle itself.

Score one for Hollywood.

"It was really very accurate in that regard," says Frederick resident Timothy J. Shannon. "The movie does a good job in depicting 18th-century tactics."

When it comes to guys in three-corner hats shooting muskets, Shannon knows what he's talking about. A specialist in early American history, he teaches at Gettysburg College and can be seen on the History Channel's "History or Hollywood" tonight, discussing how well "The Patriot" corresponds to reality.

It turns out that "The Patriot" does pretty well depicting the specifics of battle scenes. But beyond that, the movie has problems - particularly when it comes to who was fighting whom, who carried the day, and why.

In "The Patriot," Mel Gibson plays Benjamin Martin, a militia leader based largely on Francis Marion, the famed "Swamp Fox," whose guerrilla tactics helped keep the war alive in South Carolina, where conventional solders on the colonialists' side were not faring well. According to the film, it was the untrained, ragtag soldiers of the citizen militia who made the American victory possible, preying on British soldiers who may have known how to shoot and march in formation, but little about taking on real fighters.

Not quite, Shannon says.

"The film attempts to show how you've got these dunder-headed Brits versus the much more savvy Americans, who knew how to handle a musket and a rifle," he says.

"The Patriot heroes of the film are the militiamen, who hide out in the swamps and learn how to take advantage of the British. But what was even more important to winning the American Revolution was the Continental soldiers learning to fight on the British model. The Patriot cause was really helped when George Washington concentrated on turning his army into a group of professional soldiers."

Shannon says the militia didn't know how to engage in precision drills or take commands. "They were not very good at facing up to pitched battle against the British," he says. "The militia, when faced with well-trained, well-armed British troops, threw down their arms and ran away."

At one battle, Shannon notes, the American commander lined up the militia with their backs to the river, specifically to make it more difficult to flee.

How embarrassing! But wait - there's more.

"The Patriot" suggests that the vast majority of Americans supported the Colonial cause, which is also a stretch. In fact, battles often pitted Americans against Americans, particularly in the South. "The war often degenerated into rival bands of Patriot and Loyalist militia duking it out with each other," Shannon says.

But perhaps no aspect of "The Patriot" has raised a ruckus with purists more than the two main characters: Gibson's Benjamin Martin and his cruel nemesis, Col. William Tavington, portrayed with sneering imperiousness by Jason Isaacs. Martin is depicted as a pacifist family man who fights only after his son is killed; who treats black slaves as his equals; and who runs rings around the stuffy British Gen. Charles Cornwallis.

Tavington, in part based on real-life English soldier Banastre Tarleton, is a tyrant who kills his prisoners, shoots young boys, and, at one point, herds an entire community inside a local church, padlocks the door and burns it down. His conduct is contrasted with Cornwallis, who insisted that his soldiers fight with honor. Critics on the tea-drinking side of the Atlantic are incensed, claiming that Francis Marion was, in real life, a slave owner who raped his slaves. Tarleton, says the London Times, was a "dashing officer loved by his soldiers. He was no bloodthirsty villain."

Shannon says he can't corroborate claims that Marion forced himself on his slaves, but he says it's a safe bet that the real-life counterpart to Gibson's character didn't view black people as equals. He also doubts that a family of freed blacks living on an island off the shore of South Carolina would welcome their former owner with open arms, as happens in "The Patriot."

But Shannon says he's most disturbed by the film's treatment of slavery. Few whites were as enlightened in 1777 as they are portrayed in "The Patriot." In fact, slaves had a better chance of earning their freedom by joining the British cause than the American - England's King George III promised to free slaves who fought on the British side.

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