Scarcely a Fourth of July goes by that I don’t watch one of my favorite America movies: Mel Gibson’s 2000 films The Patriot. A South Carolina farmer with a checkered past becomes a hero in the Revolutionary War. It’s an epic work of historical fiction based on factual events and characters, and it just gets my heart. Think Braveheart’s “FREEDOM”—except in America, not Scotland. Here’s a rundown on the historical accuracy and literary liberty of the film. Spoilers are ahead, but I’m definitely not giving you a play-by play of the story.
The Patriot is the story of Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), a veteran of the French and Indian War, trying to protect his seven children as the Revolutionary War sweeps across the South. His wife has died, and though his ideals are on the side of the Patriots, he has no intention of joining the war. The film highlights in vivid color the sacrifices that were necessary to make American freedom possible.
Benjamin Martin, a fictional character, is an interesting conglomeration of real historical figures. His history in the French and Indian War, his operation from an old Spanish mission in the swamps, and his sniper tactics and reputation as “The Ghost” are modeled after Francis Marion, who was known as the “Swamp Fox” for his hit-and-run attacks on British convoys and his operation from an island in the middle of the South Carolina swamplands. Elijah Clarke was a South Carolina militia fighter, and his heroic nature likely contributed to Benjamin’s character. A Continental Army officer, Daniel Morgan, had the idea to use the militia as a decoy at the Battle of Cowpens, like Benjamin did in the film. Benjamin Martin’s large family and strict Presbyterian faith and background were drawn from Andrew Pickens, another militia fighter who operated in the Carolina region.
In the beginning of the movie, Martin’s guilt about his own brutality in the French and Indian War compels him to resist South Carolina joining the Revolution—until the battle literally spills over into his own backyard. With one of his sons captured, another killed, and his family’s home burned to the ground by British soldiers, Martin suddenly has a vested interest in the war. It takes a while for him to turn a personal vendetta against his son’s murderer into true, patriotic heroism, but he gets there eventually.
In my view, the title of “Patriot” belongs to Gabriel Martin, Benjamin’s oldest son, brilliantly portrayed by Heath Ledger. Gabriel is a completely fictional character, but it is his courage, honor, and sense of duty that inspire his father to become a hero. When South Carolina joins the war, Gabriel eagerly enlists in the militia despite his father’s warning, and fights for several years before the war touches his family. After he is wounded, captured, and rescued, he doesn’t miss a beat: he’s ready to rejoin the fray. His father at first tries to dissuade him, but ends up joining him.
The principal enemy in the movie is British Colonel William Tavington, a cruel, sneering tyrant. His character is based upon a real British Colonel, Banastre Tarleton, nicknamed “Bloody Ban” for his sometimes cruel tactics. For instance, at the Battle of Waxhaws, he was accused of attacking surrendering American soldiers; the battle was subsequently given the titles of “Waxhaws Massacre” and “Tarleton’s Quarter.” Tarleton’s rash behavior strained his relationships with superiors, particularly General Cornwallis, who viewed him as reckless and immature. Still, some of Tavington’s actions in the film, especially against civilians, are exaggerated beyond what would have been tolerated in reality. Tarleton’s cruelty was the exception—in general, the British were quite honorable towards civilians in the colonies, despite demanding quarter in their homes early in the war.
British General Charles Cornwallis is portrayed in the film, but his character is fairly inaccurate in many ways. Cornwallis appears to be callously living the life of luxury, taking advantage of the best of everything the colonies had to offer, while his men were out doing the dirty work of the war. He is considerably vain and quite materialistic. The character of Cornwallis seems more reflective of the real General John Burgoyne. In reality, Cornwallis was an extremely competent military leader who had the respect and loyalty of his men.
Though the personal aspects of the story are fiction, they are based around factual historical events, especially real Revolutionary War battles. Although colonists in Boston were completely fed up with the British by 1776, people in the rest of the colonies weren’t ready for war, and many still considered themselves British subjects. Benjamin Martin’s reluctance to join the war was fairly common and definitely historically accurate.
When Benjamin first joins the Army, he catches up with Gabriel in a ransacked plantation home. From an upstairs window, they witness a battle that likely represents the Battle of Camden, which took place just outside of Charleston, SC on April 16, 1780. The British regulars face the militia lines in an open field, in a barbaric form of set-piece warfare. The cinematography of this particular sequence is interesting. A focus on the terror and confusion in the faces of the mere boys comprising the militia lines and images of several bloody deaths seem to emphasize the horror of the unequally-matched war.
At one point in the film, the murderous Colonel Tavington herds an entire village of unsuspecting civilians into a church, bars the doors, and burns the church to the ground. No such event ever occurred, as such a horrific and barbarous act would never have been tolerated in what was considered a “gentlemanly” form of warfare in many ways. Of course, plenty of barbaric things did take place, but nothing on such a massive scale, especially involving civilians.
The final, decisive battle of the film is modeled after the Battle at Cowpens, which took place on January 17, 1781. The patriots use the militia, led by Benjamin Martin, as a decoy; when the outnumbered militiamen retreat over the hill, the British break rank in their eagerness for victory, charge over the hill, and find themselves running headlong into the artillery fire of the Continental Army. The real Battle at Cowpens actually happened like that, with the British chasing retreating militia into an overwhelming force of American Continentals.
The battle in the movie breaks from reality in a few places. For one thing, the British troops in the movie are commanded by General Cornwallis, who wasn’t even at the Battle at Cowpens; his final defeat was at the hand of General Washington at Yorktown. Colonel Tarleton, the inspiration for Tavington’s character, was in command of the British troops. In the movie, Benjamin Martin, head of the militia, rallies the Americans in dramatic fashion and holds the line despite the fury of the British bayonet charge. In reality, the Americans were under the command of Brigadier General Daniel Morgan. The Americans suffered only minor casualties, while the British force was almost completely wiped out. Colonel Tarleton escaped with roughly 200 men, only to be chased down by American Colonel William Washington, determined to get revenge for past wrongs—just as Benjamin Martin sought revenge against Tavington in the film. Historically, the men faced off in hand-to-hand combat, and Tarleton escaped. Just as it is portrayed in the film, the Battle of Cowpens really was a turning point of the war in the South; it the Americans to hold the Southern front until they could receive aid from the French.
The importance of family is a key theme throughout the film. Benjamin struggles with seemingly conflicted interests: stay and protect his family for the short term or go to war and fight for their long-term freedom while risking their immediate safety. Arguably, it’s his refusal to take action when Gabriel is captured that impels young Thomas to charge at the redcoats and become the target of Tavington’s wrath. He ultimately chooses to fight for freedom, however, and has to bear the loss of another son. Both sons died as heroes. Near the beginning of the film, Thomas is seen painting small lead redcoats, then lining them up and “shooting” them. Benjamin’s conflict of interest is represented in an emotional way as, each time he is about to lead his militia into a battle, he takes several of those lead redcoats and melts them into musket balls. He is destroying his son’s playthings and using them to create something that will help him fight the man who killed his son; it’s a cathartic expression of his inner journey as he moves from a vengeful approach and into his true patriotic idealism.
It is worth noting that Benjamin Martin does not own slaves; instead, he has freed his slaves and they now work as hired hands on his property and in his home. Obviously, his benevolence is not representative of the majority of South Carolina farmers in 1776, but it was not entirely unheard-of: the Founders recognized that slavery was incompatible with the fundamental principles of the nation they were creating. I think it’s fair to say that if the moral convictions and courage of the Founding Fathers had been shared by more leaders in succeeding generations, slavery would have ended much sooner.
“They call this the new world. It’s not. It’s the same as the old. But we will have a chance to build a new world—a world where all men are created equal under God.”
This is the hope foreseen by young Gabriel Martin, the brave and honorable warrior who gives The Patriot its name. It is also the goal striven for by all of the militiamen, continental soldiers, political leaders, church leaders, and families during the American War for Independence. The sacrifices of individuals like Benjamin Martin and his family were not in vain—America did become a better world; now it is our turn to make sacrifices in the fight to preserve it.