The hero of "The Patriot" is a South Carolina farmer, a devoted family man, a veteran of the French and Indian War, and a believer in liberty for all.
But first and foremost, he's a Mel Gibson character, and the movie swirling around him - all $80 million worth - is dedicated to the proposition that watching Gibson shoot guns is one of the great American pastimes. Judged as an action-movie spectacle, it's passable fare. Judged as a lesson in American history, it's as deep as you'd expect from the director of "Godzilla" and "Independence Day."
Not that Roland Emmerich doesn't know his craft. He moves the adventure at a reasonably swift pace, and his carefully aimed cameras keep Gibson squarely in view for most of the picture. This makes good economic sense, since a quarter of the movie's budget reportedly entered the star's pocket. It also ensures that we'll see plenty of what we came to see: Gibson shooting guns.
Or muskets, to be precise. They're the firearm of choice for well-regulated militias in 1776, when our story begins on Benjamin Martin's plantation. He sympathizes with members of the Charleston Assembly who want to drive away the British and organize a new nation, but he's a widower with seven kids to feed. He'd rather stay home - until Redcoats barge onto his land and slay one of his youngsters. Cue the film's first round of crackling musketshots, adroit guerrilla maneuvers, and bloody demises of every Englishman in sight. Benjamin is a warrior again, so deft and deadly that his enemies think he's literally a ghost.
"The Patriot" pays lip service to the idea that war breeds violence and excess on all sides, even allowing that Benjamin himself participated in an atrocity during his previous combat tour. But the movie works differently on an emotional level, suggesting that the Colonial lads are basically decent sorts while the Redcoats harbor more than their share of monsters.
What might have been a treat for history buffs and a refresher course for the rest of us turns into just another occasion for watching a gun-toting Gibson - who also throws knives, and swings tomahawks, and wreaks other kinds of havoc on adversaries we've been primed to hate.
Some may call it patriotism, but a more accurate label is Hollywood flimflam with a vengeance.
*Rated R; contains war-movie violence.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society