The movie, The Patriot, is the story of a South Carolina plantation owner, Benjamin Martin, who leads a local militia against British troops in the South during the beginning of the American Revolutionary War. Martin, who is a widower with six children and a veteran of the French and Indian War, wants nothing to do with the war until a brutal British Colonel, William Tavington, kills one of his sons and takes his eldest son, a member of the Continental Army, prisoner. Martin, who’s character is loosely based on Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, uses guerrilla warfare to cut British supply lines and attack outposts in an attempt to slow General Charles Corwallis from joining British forces in the North. While the primary purpose of the movie is to entertain, it does mostly follow historical events of the early years of the Revolutionary War. However, numerous details within the movie were changed to improve the drama and action. These were most notable in some ways they depicted colonial society and details surrounding the war itself. First, the movie was not accurate in how it depicted slavery in South Carolina.
Benjamin Martin was a small plantation owner and the movie showed him having a group of free black workers. If this was true, he would have probably been the only one in South Carolina. Second, there were few slaves shown on either side of the battles when both sides used slaves as soldiers. One soldier in Martin’s militia said he was offered five schillings a month and freedom after 12 months of service by George Washington. While Washington did consider an incentive for black soldiers, none was every offered (citation). Indians were also left out of the movie altogether when Indians fought on both sides particularly with the British. Finally, the movie has Martin and his family going into a secluded black colony for protection. When they arrive, they are met with open arms. While there were colonies of free black men and women at the time, the likelihood of them welcoming a group of white plantation owners is unlikely.
Another societal inaccuracy in the movie was how they changed the dialogue to be more entertaining. In some of the scenes, the characters speak in the King’s English, which would have been common during the period. However, a letter written from Martin’s oldest son to his girlfriend is quite conversational and informal. Perhaps the director thought the emotion in the letter might not be as strong written more formally. Lastly, the movie has a scene where a young woman stands up in church to chastise the men for not supporting the cause for freedom. Women were important members of most colonial churches and some were even allowed to speak from the pulpit (citation). However, such a young women would not likely be allowed to address the congregation and certainly not permitted to speak down to its male members. The director made numerous changes to details regarding the war to make the movie more enjoyable to watch.
During a 1775 town hall meeting, Martin said, “Massachusetts and Virginia are at war, but not South Carolina.” In fact, Massachusetts was at war with the British, but Virginia didn’t join the conflict until 1777 (citation). Battle scenes in the movie show a large contingent of the Continental Army in formal uniforms. However, few members would have had the formal uniform and most would have been dressed in militia uniforms (citation). The battle flags in the movie also were not entirely accurate. A few of the battles show state militia flags which were appropriate, but one flag shown was not even created until years later. Martin’s son is shown mending a flag he saved from a battlefield, which Martin uses in the final battle scene to rally the troops. The flag shown is the Betty Ross flag with thirteen stars in a circle. This flag was not created until 1779 (citation). Another thing inaccurately added to the battle scenes was exploding munitions.
These added to the action on the screen, but Lieutenant NameShrapnel would not invent exploding cannon balls until date (citation). The movie also added some drama to how brutal the British troops were to the rebel’s families. While it is recorded that rebels did lose their homes as a price for being disloyal, it was more often done by loyalists within the colonies and not the British (citation). The scene that was most sensationalized was the burning of the church with the congregation locked inside. Had this really occurred during the Revolutionary War, it would be in every history book and would have become a battle cry similar to “Remember the Alamo!” The absence of loyalist in South Carolina and in the British army is also an oversight.
While the movie does show one officer, who is a native South Carolinian, the state was known to be fairly split between rebels and loyalists. Surely there would have been more than one local person among the British troops. Despite being almost three hours long, I thought The Patriot was extremely entertaining. I didn’t find the historical inaccuracies distracting at all and probably wouldn’t have considered them had I not taken this class. Two things that the movie brought to my attention were the number of French and Indian War veterans on both sides of the conflict and how close the battles were fought to people’s homes. The scene where Benjamin Martin puts his children to bed and then goes to the front porch to watch a battle unfold in a nearby field was particularly moving. Overall, I think The Patriot is a decent historical novel.