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The savage soldiers in “The Patriot” act more like the Waffen SS than actual British troops. Does this movie have an ulterior motive?

The week before “The Patriot” opened in the United States, the British press lit up with furious headlines. “Truth is first casualty in Hollywood’s War,” read one in the Daily Telegraph. Another story, about the historical model for Mel Gibson’s character was titled, “The Secret Shame of Mel’s New Hero.” The accompanying articles complained that the new Revolutionary War epic portrays British redcoats as “bloodthirsty and unprincipled stormtroopers” and “bloodthirsty child-killers.”

The prizewinning historian and biographer Andrew Roberts called the film “racist” in the Daily Express, and pointed out that it was only the latest in a series of films like “Titanic,” “Michael Collins” and “The Jungle Book” remake that have depicted the British as “treacherous, cowardly, evil [and] sadistic.” Roberts had a theory: “With their own record of killing 12 million American Indians and supporting slavery for four decades after the British abolished it, Americans wish to project their historical guilt onto someone else.”

I can only imagine how much angrier Fleet Street’s pundits will be after they have actually seen the movie. “The Patriot” will not open in England until August, but when it does, Brits will see a supposedly authentic historical epic that radically rewrites the known history of the Revolutionary War. It does so by casting George III’s redcoats as cartoonish paragons of evil who commit one monstrous — but wholly invented — atrocity after another. In one scene, the most harrowing of the film, redcoats round up a village of screaming women and children and old men, lock them in a church and set the whole chapel on fire. If you didn’t know anything about the Revolution, you might actually believe the British army in North America was made up of astonishingly cruel, even demonic, sadists who really did do this kind of thing — as if they were the 18th century equivalent of the Nazi SS. Yet no action of the sort ever happened during the war for independence, but an eerily identical war crime — one of the most notorious atrocities of World War II — was carried out by the Nazis in France in 1944.

As a film critic for the New York Post, I found “The Patriot” well made and often exciting. But I also found it disturbing in a way that many weaker, dumber films are not. It’s not just that it willfully distorts history in a manner that goes way beyond the traditional poetic license employed by Hollywood, it’s the strange, primitive politics that seem to underlie that distortion.

“The Patriot” is a movie that doesn’t “get” patriotism — in either a modern or the 18th century sense of the word. The only memorable, explicit political sentiment voiced comes when Gibson’s character makes the rather Tory comment that he sees no advantage in replacing the tyranny of one man 3,000 miles away for the tyranny of 3,000 men, one mile away. The deliberate lacuna demonstrates a total lack of understanding of, or even a kind of hostility to, the patriotic politics that motivated the founding fathers.

You could actually argue without too much exaggeration that “The Patriot” is as fascist a film (and I use the term in its literal sense, not as a synonym for “bad”) as anything made in decades. It’s even more fascist than “Fight Club,” that ode to violence, barely repressed homoeroticism and the rejection of consumer capitalism.

“The Patriot” presents a deeply sentimental cult of the family, casts unusually Aryan-looking heroes and avoids any democratic or political context in its portrayal of the Revolutionary War. Instead of such context, it offers a story in which the desire for blood vengeance — for a son shot by a British officer — turns Gibson’s character into a “patriot.” Meanwhile, the imagery piles up:

In one scene towheaded preteens are armed by their father and turned into the equivalent of the Werwolf boy-soldiers that the Third Reich was thought to have recruited from the Hitler Youth to carry out guerrilla attacks against the invading Allies.

In the film’s most exciting sequence, Gibson is provoked by the foreigner into becoming one of those bloodied, ax-wielding forest supermen so beloved in Nazi folk-iconography: an 18-century equivalent of the Goth leader Arminius (aka Hermann the German) who annihilated two Roman Legions in the Teutoburger Forest.

The black population of South Carolina — where the film is set — is basically depicted as happy loyal slaves, or equally happy (and unlikely) freedmen.

But the most disturbing thing about “The Patriot” is not just that German director Roland Emmerich (director of the jingoistic “Independence Day”) and his screenwriter Robert Rodat (who was criticized for excluding British and other Allied soldiers from his script for “Saving Private Ryan”) depict British troops as committing savage atrocities, but that those atrocities bear such a close resemblance to war crimes carried out by German troops — particularly the SS in World War II. It’s hard not to wonder if the filmmakers have some kind of subconscious agenda.

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