The Patriot Scores a DVD Victory

Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs, Chris Cooper, Tcheky Karyo, Rene Auberjonois, Tom Wilkinson. Directed by Roland Emmerich. Aspect ratio: 2.35 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1. 165 minutes. 2000. Columbia TriStar Home Video 05731. R. $27.96

When the American Revolution comes to South Carolina, farmer and widower Benjamin Martin resolves not to take up arms. He believes in The Patriot cause, but feels a stronger obligation to his seven children. But when his eldest son enlists against his wishes, and tragedy strikes his other son at the hands of a vicious British cavalry commander, he has little choice but to join in the fight.

Around this straightforward plot, director Roland Emmerich and screenwriter Robert Rodat weave The Patriot, a flawed yet fascinating film. The first surprise is the unlikely pairing of Emmerich, best known for teaming with producer Dean Devlin for a succession of summer popcorn flicks (Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla), and Rodat, who wrote Saving Private Ryan. The second may be that the film's weaknesses lie in the screenplay and not the direction, which is solid.

The subplot of Martin's son wooing and winning a comely local lass slows down the proceedings (the film is already too long). The Kleenex moments with Martin's family are drawn out. The treatment of the slavery issue is unrealistic (many critics skewered this aspect of the film in far harsher language). And, last but not least, the main character is not driven by patriotism at all, but by revenge.

Despite all this, The Patriot is absorbing and rousing. The acting is uniformly fine. Apart from Gibson in the title role (possibly his best work to date), Jason Isaacs as the British cavalry officer Colonel Tavington (very loosely based on a historical character, Banastre Tarleton) does a fine job in a part that is essentially a caricature of a villain. I found the most interesting character to be Tom Wilkinson's General Cornwallis. I wanted to know more about him than the story provided, but that would have been a different movie.

There are some bracing if unnecessarily gory battle sequences, particularly the finale—a composite of several real battles, primarily the 1781 battle of Hannah's Cowpens. The climactic charge, culminating in the requisite mano a mano confrontation, is inevitably more than a little over the top, considering all that has come before.

When I saw it in a good theater, The Patriot had a ruddy, almost sepia look (except for a few night scenes that leaned toward blue). It was also a bit uneven in focus, ranging from sharp to a little soft, the latter particularly evident in medium and long shots. Yet looking at it on the DVD, I began to appreciate the work of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. While not at first glance a knockout, the transfer is beautiful; looking deeper, I realized that it is about as good as it gets. If anything, the film looks better on DVD than it did in the theater.

The sound is also amazing. The bass is solid, particularly in the percussive impact of cannon fire during the battle scenes. Distant cannon, in contrast, sound like muffled attacks followed by thunderlike reverberation, just as they should (or as I think they should, never having heard the real thing!). The surrounds are heavily exercised, and John Williams' sweeping score is beautifully recorded, with the genuine soundstage depth, sweet top end, and rich lows that are hallmarks of the work of recording engineer Shawn Murphy.

Extras include the usual trailers, deleted scenes, three featurettes (one of them an interesting but less than thorough explanation of two special effects), and a gallery of photo stills. A commentary track by director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin is more interesting than most, and addresses some of the issues raised by the film's critics, including the treatment of slavery and the apparently harsh depiction of the British. Whether or not you agree with the filmmakers' choices, the commentary reveals that the decisions were at least considered. While I have reservations about The Patriot, I'm grateful for any film about this period in American history, which has been consistently shortchanged by Hollywood. Now, Warners, about that DVD of 1776 . . . .