Thursday, August 11, 2022

War Month and The Patriot

The Patriot

To understand director Roland Emmerich’s telling of the American Revolutionary War, it helps to remember that he is also the director of Independence Day. The films have much in common, though ID is perhaps a more subtle film, and the outer space invaders are presented more sympathetically than the British who never stop twisting their metaphorical waxed mustaches in The Patriot.

Set in South Carolina in 1776, the film starred two very pretty male movie stars. Heath Ledger portrays a young colonial hothead named Gabriel Martin, who wants to join the Continental Army. He is the son of Captain Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), who fought brutally in the French and Indian War but refuses to join the side of the colonies against the British. He still regrets the atrocities he committed in the previous war (“I have long feared that my sins would return to visit me and the cost us is more than I can bear.”). 

That choice doesn’t hold. The British kill his son (not Gabriel, yet) and so he goes all Mad Max… I mean Mad Martin, and almost single-handedly takes on the Red Coats.

As the war goes on, the British commit increasingly vile atrocities, and Mel has to be increasingly clever and savage to win the war that George Washington is apparently letting slip through his fingers.

But this blog is about clergy and churches. Sorry, Mel, we need to focus on the Reverend Oliver rather than your wild escapades.

Gabriel goes to the local church to recruit for the Continental Army -- a church where the British have hanged several people accused of conspiring against the Crown. The Reverend tells him, “Son, we are here to pray for the souls of the men hanging outside.”

Gabriel asks the men of the congregation to join his cause but doesn’t get much of a response. A young woman at the church, Anne Howard (Lisa Brenner), challenges the men to live up to the principles of freedom and justice she’s heard them espouse (“I ask only that you act on the words of which you have so strongly spoken.”) And one by one, they stand to join, until most agree to fight for the cause, including the Reverend Oliver (played by Rene Auberjonois who memorably prayed a priest in another war film, M*A*S*H).

The Reverend explains his decision to fight, “A shepherd must tend to his flock, and at times to fight off wolves.” There were certainly Christians who believed the best way to be true to God and the Bible was to stay loyal to England (citing Romans 13’s command to submit to authority), but the Reverend is admirable for his willingness to sacrifice for the cause he believes is right.

Reverend Oliver fights alongside Captain Martin, who has recruited a number of scalawags and ruffians. During a battle with the British, Martin’s men shoot men who were trying to surrender. The Reverend is outraged and brings the matter to Martin, “This is murder!” 

The men defend themselves, ”Hell, Reverend, these were Redcoats. They earned it!” And they ask the Reverend, “What do you know about war? Go back to church!”

But Captain Martin takes the Reverend’s side, “He’s right. In the future, full quarter will be given to British wounded and any who surrender.” When his men protest, pointing to the atrocities committed by the Brits, Martin responds, “You have my sympathy, but your order stands. While you’re here, you will obey my command or I will have you shot.”

One of those men, John Billings (Leon Rippy), opposed the Reverend but eventually becomes a close friend. When Reverend Oliver and Billings are captured by General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), Billings asks the Reverend to write a letter to his wife and son because he is illiterate. The pastor agrees to write the letter, but also asks Billings to join him in prayer. He happily agrees, praying the Lord’s Prayer. (Martin does engineer a rescue of the men.)

When the men go back to their homes. Billings finds that the British have killed his wife and son. The Reverend tries to calm his friend by telling him, “This is not a time for vengeance -- it is a time for mourning.” But Billings turns this pistol on himself, committing suicide.

The Reverend plays a more cheerful role in the film when he presides over the wedding of Gabriel Martin and Anne Howard. But the film doesn’t allow a joyful mood to go on too long.

The most vicious of the Brits, Col. William Tavington (Jason Isaacs), goes to the Reverend’s hometown to retaliate against Martin’s success in battle. He has all the civilians in town gather in the Reverend’s church. He bars the doors and burns down the church, killing all inside. Tavington’s evil deeds are not done, though. In a major battle, he kills both Gabriel and the Reverend.

For his willingness to give up his life for his cause while continuing to serve as a pastor, we decorate the Reverend Oliver with our highest Movie Churches award of Four Steeples.

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