The ad for The Patriot, set in 1776, features an immense, close-cropped portrait of Mel Gibson's famous head, and his longish sideburns are the only real clue that the man might not be up-to-date. Accepting Gibson in a period setting has never been difficult, but the period here is a movie no-no: the Revolutionary War era. Maybe it's all those powdered wigs, or maybe the genre is too close to a high-school history class; in any event, the few movies that have taken the period on, such as Revolution and Jefferson in Paris, had most of the audience pining to be saved by the bell. The Patriot gets around the historical mustiness by turning itself into a high-minded revenge thriller that consciously echoes Braveheart when it isn't invoking the Mad Max series. It's a Mel Gibson action anthology in Colonial drag.
The period décor and costuming and production design may be in the overhoned Hollywood classic style, but the plotting is pure melodrama: Someone important is killed, revenge is taken, another biggie is offed, prompting further revenge, and so on -- a daisy chain of vengeance. Gibson's Benjamin Martin is a widowed father of seven who, word has it, committed unspeakably bloody deeds during the French and Indian War and now, repentant, lives only to peaceably preserve his brood and his South Carolina plantation. (The blacks who work the plantation are not slaves, conveniently eliminating a rather nettlesome issue.) Benjamin is introduced to us not as a patriot but as a father, and the movie initially makes the large and unconvincing point that the two are mutually exclusive. Refusing to join the Continental army to fight the British, Benjamin ends up watching one son murdered by the redcoats under the command of Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs), who makes Vlad the Impaler look like a charm-school graduate. His eldest boy, Gabriel (Heath Ledger, who has a teen-heartthrob stalwartness), is then carted off for hanging, whereupon Mel goes into Thunderdome mode for the rescue operation. It's as if Little House on the Prairie suddenly went ninja; with two preteen musket-toting sons spotting him, Benjamin slaughters an entire squadron with wraithlike finesse.
When he finally joins the militia and the revenges pile up, he seems to be engaged in a battle against the British that is more about class than about Colonial independence. Benjamin's ragtag warriors show off their earthiness and love of liberty by baring their bad teeth and their bad grammar while the British, led by General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), are sleek snoots who can't wait to get back to their gold chandeliers and Chippendale. (After routing the Colonials, Cornwallis laments that fighting these rustics takes the honor out of victory.) I hope it won't be misinterpreted as unpatriotic if I point out that the British come across about as bad in this movie as I've ever seen -- even worse than in The Messenger, where a British soldier is shown raping a French girl after killing her. The atrocities perpetrated here by Tavington, especially one involving a churchful of townspeople, don't appear to bear much resemblance to recorded history; but even if they do, it seems remiss to turn the Revolutionary War into the kind of hero-villain confrontation that might be better suited to a Sega video game. The director Roland Emmerich made Godzilla and Independence Day, so perhaps this approach should come as no surprise, but the screenwriter Robert Rodat wrote Saving Private Ryan. What's his excuse?
The French, on the other hand, who have generally been viewed in American movies as a race of Pepe Le Pews, get what amounts to a free pass in The Patriot. A Lafayette-ish character played by Tchéky Karyo is made fun of -- he insists on looking good even in battle -- but it's the kind of affectionate needling that lets you know we're all brothers under the skin (or at least under the epaulets). The sympathy quotient in this movie is so skewed in favor of the French over the British that one suspects it's the result of a studio demographic survey: Did Sony Pictures determine the English market to be a write-off for this material and therefore decide to fall in with the French?
As in Braveheart, Mel Gibson turns himself into a great big sufferer, and boy, does he get a lot to suffer about. The scenario is ruthlessly punitive; as his friends and family are systematically eliminated, Benjamin seems to bloat with pain. There's an uncomfortable element of masochism in the way Gibson serves up these recent heroes of his; the camera lingers a bit too lovingly on the racked ruination of his stellar visage. He can be powerful, but his fondness for grandiose displays of martyrdom has its unseemly side. Gibson is better when he's not so balled up in anguish; when, as in Conspiracy Theory, he lets some screwiness and wit and ardor come through.
Humorlessness, however, is a trademark of historical epics, and The Patriot is full of speeches where Colonials talk about building a new world where all men are created equal (although, presumably, only white land-owning men need apply). Meanwhile, the audience hangs in for the wide-screen battles and the inevitable close-ups of heads being sheared off. The filmmakers want to make an anthem about the founding of this country, but they also want to rack up the gross-outs. How very American of them.
A much better movie about U.S.-British relations is Chicken Run, which also features a jauntier performance by Mel Gibson, as the voice of the rooster Rocky "the lone free-ranger" Roads. This first feature-length claymation marvel from the Bristol, England-based Aardman studios -- which brought us, among other delicacies, the Wallace and Gromit shorts -- is a prison-break movie starring chickens. The idea itself is funny -- an egg-layer Stalag 17 -- but that's just where the fun begins. The hens dreamed up by co-directors Nick Park and Peter Lord embody all the biddiness and eccentricity of English spinsterhood. When Rocky, an American interloper into their barbed-wire-enclosed egg farm, struts his roosteriness, he's both caricature and exemplar, the Yank in all his high-flying pluckiness. His inamorata, Ginger, voiced by Absolutely Fabulous's Julia Sawalha, is so considerate and matronly that she can support a prison break only if all the hens are saved. Most recent animated features, such as Dinosaur and Titan A.E., are fine as long as you're looking and not listening. Chicken Run, with a script by Karey Kirkpatrick, is fun even with your eyes closed; the jokes and Britishisms and sound effects work all by themselves. It's a good thing the jokes are worthy: These chickens have crack comic timing and deserve the best.