A cultural conservative watching The Patriot, Mel Gibson's movie about the American Revolution, can hardly believe his eyes. It is all here: the passionate commitment to family; the celebration of America and its heritage; the cultural impact of Christianity. Even the subtler issues that non-conservatives can never understand-the dangers of gun control, the impulse to honor the flag-are here, in a Hollywood summer blockbuster.
Conservatives are not used to seeing a movie in which their values are presented positively. Neither are the Hollywood establishment and mainstream liberal movie critics. "The Patriot is right-wing hogwash," harrumphed Arion Berger of the Washington City Paper. "Now the disgruntled, home-schooling, SUV-buying, pro-militia-but-cautious-suburban-family-values working man has a movie to call his own."
And it's about time. But it is little wonder that the media elite think this is a bad thing. The characters in the movie-and in history-are not the sort usually deemed worthy of respect. As film critic Michael Medved said, the movie depicts "folks that Hollywood would think are 'right-wing Christian gun nuts.'"
But who fought the revolutionary war if not disgruntled, homeschooling, family-values Christian working men with guns?
The movie includes a scene in which Mel Gibson hands out muskets to his two young sons, who then help him ambush the bloody British after they have burned their home and murdered their brother.
A loud gasp could be heard from the audience at a pre-release screening when the 11-year-old started picking off redcoats ("the officers first," advises his father, "then work your way down"). It was this scene-not the battlefield gore-that provoked the normally permissive Motion Picture Association to slap the movie with an R rating.
The movie's portrayal of guns might offend Hollywood's current pieties, but it captured the spirit behind the Second Amendment and why so many Americans keep and bear arms: the primal imperative of protecting their families.
The media elite think the essence of freedom is the right to make pornographic movies, but freedom in The Patriot has to do with being liberated from controlling elitists. The cultural left thinks visual images are powerfully symbolic and so should be protected, but it hasn't a clue why the characters in this movie and in the audience would cherish and want to protect the flag.
Furthermore, the characters in The Patriot are churchgoing, praying, forgiveness-seeking Christians. In a scene reminiscent of the Lutheran divine Henry Muhlenberg taking off his vestments after a service to reveal the uniform of the Continental Army, even the minister goes to war.
Not that the colonists have a mere jingoistic civic religion: They agonize over the morality of war and pray not for victory but for forgiveness for the sins that the war brings out in them.
Since cultural conservatism is unfamiliar territory, for both moviemakers and audiences, the film might be forgiven its excesses. Conservatives need to realize that it is not necessary to idealize the past to recognize its value. And they should never adopt the liberals' conviction that truth can be reconstructed at will.
George Washington, sadly, did not decree, as depicted in the movie, that slaves who fought for a year would be given their freedom. Many slaves did fight in the place of their masters, and many were given their freedom for their exploits on the battlefield, but that was up to their masters. It was the British who offered freedom to any slaves who would join their army, an offer which seems to have had few takers and which only infuriated the white colonists even further, few of whom treated their slaves with the egalitarianism shown in the movie.
There were indeed atrocities in the Revolutionary War. The movie's Colonel Tavington was based on an actual officer, Banastre Tarleton, who made a practice of executing soldiers who surrendered. Though the British burned lots of homes and were responsible for much carnage and oppression, there are no records of them actually setting a church on fire with the parishioners locked in, or deliberately setting out to murder women and children, as the movie depicts. Those would be traits of modern warfare.
The movie consulted with the Smithsonian to get the uniforms, the decor, and the 18th-century ambience just right. The battle scenes, including the reenactment of the Battle of Cowpens, used digital technology to multiply the troops into a cast of thousands, accurately depicting the tactics, formations, and vast scale of a genuine battlefield. And the characters, with Mr. Gibson playing a composite of "Swamp Fox" Francis Marion and other revolutionary guerrillas, had much of history in them. Such attention to fact left no excuse for the non-historical inventions.
And the movie deserves its R rating, not just for the cannonballs knocking people's heads off, but for the intense agony of watching wives and children get killed.
Still, what makes the movie a triumph of a distinctly conservative approach to culture is that the final emotion viewers feel from the movie is inspiration, a sense of exaltation and gratitude for America, its heritage, and the lives that were laid down for its cause.
The Patriot was written by Robert Rodat and produced by Mark Gordon, the same pair responsible for Saving Private Ryan, whose celebration of D-Day heroism also touched primal patriotic chords. The director, ironically, was not an American at all, but the German filmmaker Roland Emmerich, who perhaps came without the political baggage of his American peers. "I started crying as I read the script," he said. "The American Revolution was a big subject taught in school in Germany because it was the first formation of a democratic society since the Greeks, so I had a real connection to the material." Sadly, the American Revolution is not a big subject in most American schools.
Perhaps The Patriot will spark a new interest in America's history and its ideals, both in schools and in the media. And maybe Hollywood will be inspired to make more movies that resonate with "disgruntled, home-schooling, SUV-buying, family-values working" Americans, the ordinary Christian folks who, despite being scorned by the current cultural elite, were the ones who founded this country in the first place.