The audience broke into applause at the end of the movie "The Patriot." Why the spontaneous outburst? The critics have been lukewarm at best, referring to its "cartoonish weight," Joely Richardson's "cow eyes" as Gibson's sister-in-law and love interest, and Spike Lee's irritation on slavery.
The film is a bit of a "Lethal Weapon" with period costumes and South Carolina scenery. Mel Gibson, as Benjamin Martin, farmer turned bloody revolutionary, despite being triangle- hatted and knickered, manages to head-butt an evil British officer, Rambo-ambush British platoons and dish up lots of knife-to-neck combat. The Brits are depicted as ruthless.
Critics, who adored "Braveheart" with more violence, mooning Scots and foul language, are shrill in their denouncement of the film's violence and sentimental story line. These same folks had no problems with "Saving Private Ryan," with its non-stop violence and less plausible story line. Why the change of heart on the Revolutionary War? There is something about "The Patriot" that causes critics' disdain but makes audiences cheer.
"The Patriot" offers the stark contrast between the new world of 1776 and the new world order of 2000. "The Patriot" is a painful reminder of our prissy trends. Children circa 1776 are obedient, well-mannered and not on Ritalin. Children tote and use guns, and there is no bonneted or bustled Rosie O'Donnell, mouth flapping.
There are enough churches, mentions of God, prayer and religion to drive David Souter, Ruth Ginsburg, et al. to take tranquilizers with their writs of mandamus.
"The Patriot's" critical disdain is a reaction to the humiliation history, when it rears its ugly head, heaps upon us. Our lives of alleged stress seem shallow. Rage over a delayed flight? Benjamin Martin watched a son murdered. Fussing over too little vacation time? Try watching your home burn, living in the fields and swamps and hiding from tyrants. Stress is relative, and USA Today's daily anguish over it seems silly when compared with the lives and war of the colonists. We haven't known stress, let alone sacrifice and honor, since World War II.
When the movie ends, the applause erupts because, in addition to the movie's stark contrasts to the whiny lives of today, there is a strange reassurance that comes in the historical revelation that there was a time of absolutes and courage. A time when people spoke aloud of their religion and prayer as comforts in times of unimaginable tragedy. A time when romance and abstinence trumped desire. A time when tyranny was quelled because citizens were armed.
"The Patriot" has not been to the Revolutionary War what "Saving Private Ryan" was to World War II because we see not a battle on foreign shores but battles here by the common man. The reality of tyranny and the role militia played in defeating it are uncomfortable for elite critics but reassuring for audiences. For many, it is their first exposure to the dates and reasons for the Revolutionary War. Men battled despite near-certain death because King George was a tyrant.
Those freedoms for which blood was shed are eroded now. In the movie's debate on the war, the one-third tax rate is described as oppressive, and we're having a heck of a time today repealing a 50 percent estate tax. Our upper bracket was reduced to one-third during the Reagan years. Ask Dr. Laura about freedom of speech. Our courts have banished religion.
We have lost much. Too self-absorbed and all too ignorant of history, we have let our freedom wane. The tyranny of George doesn't look too much different from the tyranny of 2000. Perhaps applause springs from hope for a limited government, honorable citizens and convictions for which we would die. Mel regrets his delay in joining the fray with one line, "I have done nothing, and for that I am ashamed." The audience relates. Critics fear the inspired common man. "The Patriot" plants far too many ideas in hearts and minds. It's about time.
Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Her e-mail address is email@example.com