Before “Midway,” Emmerich’s only war film was made in 2000, and set during the American Revolutionary War. While casting, as noted, is not usually Emmerich’s strong suit, at least in “The Patriot” he had the secret weapon of Heath Ledger, who elevates things considerably. This was also produced when Mel Gibson was still able to elicit some emotion in his acting roles, and he’s effective here as Benjamin Martin, a widowed father of seven reluctantly drawn into war when it comes to his door (not unlike Jimmy Stewart in “Shenandoah”). Joely Richardson unfortunately isn’t in many scenes, but she is a highlight — as Benjamin’s sister-in-law.
On the British side, there is Tom Wilkinson as Cornwallis, a general with good military tactics, but of course, Benjamin still manages to get the better of him. And there’s Jason Isaacs, in full scenery-chewing villain mode. His tactics of shooting children in the back and setting fire to churches full of people were criticized upon release as not historically accurate, but let’s face it, these scenes create a character you love to hate, and for over-the-top entertainment, which is what you come to Emmerich for. As with “Midway,” this war movie covers many years and a lot of ground, with the passage of time from one event to the next not being very clear. It would have benefitted from focusing on fewer key events in Benjamin’s guerrilla warfare campaign against the British. Nevertheless, “The Patriot” is a solid, well-acted drama with a fantastic villain in Isaacs, and a lovely Ledger performance.