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In one scene in “The Patriot,” the British regulars murder wounded American POWs. In another, they order the execution of an American soldier captured in uniform. Both were common occurrences on the Eastern Front of World War II, but such war crimes by regular troops “never happened” in the Revolutionary War, says American Heritage magazine editor Richard Snow. (Of course, irregular militias, terrorist bands allied to both sides and Indian proxies did do some very nasty things.) And, sure, spies and traitors, such as Nathan Hale (American) and Major John Andre (British), were hanged. But regular troops on both sides observed the law of war that distinctions should be made between the former categories and uniformed combatants. “[‘The Patriot’] is inventing a context of atrocities when what really happened was much more interesting,” he says.

Snow says he understands the outrage in the British press. “I think that [they] should be upset. I would be pretty sore if I saw a British production of Shaw’s ‘Devil’s Disciple’ and it had Americans bayonetting the wounded after the Battle of Bennington.”

The most outrageous of “The Patriot’s” many faults is the way Emmerich and Rodat show the British troops committing a war crime that closely resembles one of the most notorious Nazi war crimes of World War II — the massacre of 642 people (including 205 children) in the French village of Oradour sur Glane on June 10, 1944. The film mimics the horrible event with clear accuracy and turns it into just another atrocity committed by redcoats in 1780.

At Oradour, the Waffen SS “Das Reich” division punished local resistance activity by first shooting all the men and boys. Then they rounded up the women and children, locked them in the town church and set it afire. (You can see Oradour today exactly as it was just after the Nazis carried out the ghastly mass-murder — the French have left it to remain an empty memorial.)

There was one major case of British regulars burning a town during the Revolution. It was Groton, Conn., and the troops were under the command of Benedict Arnold. But the houses they burned were empty. Yet in “The Patriot” fictional British dragoons do exactly the same as the real life SS did at Oradour. They lock scores of civilians, most of them women and children, into a church and set it afire. According to both historian Thomas Fleming and Snow, no such incident took place during the Revolution. As Snow says, “Of course it never happened — if it had do you think Americans would have forgotten it? It could have kept us out of World War I.”

By transposing Oradour to South Carolina, and making 18th century Britons the first moderns to commit this particular war crime, Emmerich and Rodat — unwittingly or not — have done something unpleasantly akin to Holocaust revisionism. They have made a film that will have the effect of inoculating audiences against the unique historical horror of Oradour — and implicitly rehabilitating the Nazis while making the British seem as evil as history’s worst monsters.

Of course, Emmerich and Rodat would probably counter that they’re just trying to show how nasty war can be. But the fact remains that in the real Revolutionary War the regular armies of neither side behaved in this way — even in South Carolina in 1780 — and only the Brits are shown committing unprovoked acts of bestial cruelty.

So it’s no wonder that the British press sees this film as a kind of blood libel against the British people. To understand the import, just imagine a hugely successful foreign film (French, British, Chinese) about the Vietnam War that depicted Americans using thousands of Vietnamese children for medical and scientific experiments.

If the Nazis had won the war in Europe, and their propaganda ministry had decided to make a film about the American Revolution, “The Patriot” is exactly the movie you could expect to see — minus the computer-generated effects, of course. (Doubters should take a look at Goebbels’ pre-Pearl Harbor efforts at inflaming isolationist Anglophobia.)

It’s just as well for Sony-Columbia that Emmerich, Rodat and Gibson didn’t make a film that painted the French, the Chinese or even the Arabs into ur-SS war criminals. If they had there would probably be official government protests, popular demonstrations and boycotts. But they have still told a big lie about the war that brought the United States into existence, one that feeds an even greater lie about the war and the enemy the U.S. and Britain fought half a century ago. It’s a shameful way to make money.

And it’s particularly insidious when a film that goes to such lengths to avoid anachronism in Revolutionary period clothing, weaponry and battle tactics takes such license with the nature of the war. In the past, Hollywood has played with historical details in order to make a narrative more compelling or the look of a film more appealing. But it has been an unwritten rule of the American film industry that you try to hew vaguely to the generally accepted account of how things were in the past.

It’s hard to define, but there is clearly a point where dramatic and poetic license shade into something much more sinister. If you made a film in which the slave trade was shown as two-sided with Africans shown as raiding Europe for slaves to bring to America, or one in which Jews were shown provoking pogroms by drinking the blood of gentile children, you would have passed that point, even if such films were exciting, well acted and starred Gibson.

I don’t blame Gibson so much; he’s only an actor and it’s no surprise when actors either willfully or ignorantly overlook historical accuracy for a good role. (Especially when they receive $25 million for their trouble, as Gibson did for “The Patriot.”) But I’d like to introduce Emmerich and Rodat to the families of those massacred at Oradour.

July 03, 2000

See also my The Film That Says We’re Nazis. Daily Telegraph July 6, 2000

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