History and the Movies: The Patriot and Glory

Mackubin T. Owens

July 1, 2000

In 1995, Richard Bernstein wrote a piece for the New York Times entitled “Can Movies Teach History?” Noting that “more people are getting their history, or what they think is history, from the movies these days than from the standard history books,” he then asked, does “the filmmaker, like the novelist, have license to use the material of history selectively and partially in the goal of entertaining, creating a good dramatic product, even forging what is the sometime called the poetic truth, a truth truer than the literal truth?” In other words, “does it matter if the details are wrong if the underlying meaning of events is accurate?”

The recent furor raised by the release of Mel Gibson’s Revolutionary War epic, The Patriot, gives currency to such questions. Although the movie has done reasonably well at the box office, it has been attacked for its historical inaccuracies, particularly as they relate to race relations during the Revolution. The director Spike Lee charged that ” The Patriot dodged around, skirted about or completely ignored slavery.” While some might question Mr. Lee’s own commitment to the truth, his view differed little from that of the distinguished historian David Hackett Fisher, author of the incomparable Albion’s Seed among other first rate books, who wrote that ” The Patriot is to history as Godzilla was to biology.”

There is no question that The Patriot takes liberties with the historical record, but so does another recent epic, Glory, which was not attacked for serving up bad history. In the case of Glory, critics recognized that there was what Mr. Bernstein called “a truth truer than the literal truth” and were therefore willing to forgive historical inaccuracies. Perhaps the Glory standard should be applied when judging The Patriot.

Glory, the epic account of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first all-black regiments in the Civil War, contains numerous historical inaccuracies. Some of them are minor. For instance, the regiment’s climactic assault against Battery Wagner, the Confederate stronghold guarding Charleston harbor, actually took place from south to north, rather than north to south as depicted in the movie.

But many of the inaccuracies are major. Robert Gould Shaw, played in the movie by Matthew Broderick, was not Governor Andrew’s first choice to command the regiment. When the command was offered him, he hesitated before deciding to accept. More seriously from the standpoint of historical accuracy, the 54th, portrayed in the movie as made up largely of runaway slaves like John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) or Private Trip (Denzel Washington in a role for which he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor) was in fact, a regiment of freedmen, like Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher), recruited not only from Massachusetts but New York and Pennsylvania as well. Two of Frederick Douglass’s sons were among the first to volunteer for the 54th and Lewis Douglass, the elder son, served from the outset as the regiment’s sergeant-major.

The deeper truth of Glory is illustrated by the contrast between its view of slavery and that of a story recounted by the Greek historian Herodotus. At the beginning of Book Four of The History, Herodotus tells of the return of the nomadic Scythians from their long war against the Medes, during which time the Scythian women had taken up with their slaves. The Scythians warriors now find a race of slaves arrayed against them.

Having been repulsed repeatedly by the slaves, one of the Scythians admonishes his fellows to set aside their weapons and take up horsewhips. “As long as they are used to seeing us with arms, they think that they are our equals and that their fathers are likewise our equals. Let them see us with whips instead of arms, and they will learn that they are our slaves; and, once they have realized that, they will not stand their ground against us.”

The tactic works. The slaves are bewildered by the whip-wielding Scythians, lose their fighting spirit, and flee in terror. The implication of Herodotus’s story is clear. There are natural masters and natural slaves. A slave has the soul of a slave and lacks the manliness to fight for his freedom, especially if a master never deigns to treat him as a man.

At the time of the Civil War, most Southerners believed that blacks were naturally servile. But there was doubt about their manly spirit in the North as well. In the movie, a reporter from Harper’s Monthly says to Matthew Broderick’s Col. Shaw, “will they fight? A million readers want to know.” To which Shaw replies, “a million and one,” illustrating the fact that in 1863, even elite New England abolitionists had their doubts about the manliness of blacks.

By inaccurately depicting the 54th as a regiment of former slaves, Glory reveals the deeper truth that blacks in general were not the natural slaves that Southerners believed them to be and that abolitionists feared that they might be. “Who asks now in doubt and derision, ’Will the Negro fight?’” observed one abolitionist after the assault of the 54th against Battery Wagner. “The answer is spoken from the cannon’s mouth…it comes to us from…those graves beneath Fort Wagner’s walls, which the American people will never forget.”

What of The Patriot? The deeper truth of this movie was well stated by David Horowitz. The Patriot, he writes, “reassembles the elements of the national myth into a powerful homage to liberty and to the American colonists who gave their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to its cause.” The Revolutionary generation, after all, fought not only for its own freedom but also for that of all the generations to follow.

There were, as Spike Lee points out, imperfect men among the Founders, including slaveholders. One was Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” upon whom Mel Gibson’s character is loosely based (the charge that Marion hunted the Cherokee for sport and routinely raped his slaves is recycled British and Tory propaganda). But while the Founders, out of necessity, compromised on the issue of slavery, they established the principle of human equality as the basis for government, an unprecedented achievement.

Washington, Jefferson, and numerous other Founders acknowledged that slavery was incompatible with this principle and it still required a terrible Civil War to abolish the contradiction between principle and practice. But without the commitment the Founders had made to the proposition that all men are created equal, it would have been impossible to mobilize a national majority against slavery in the 1850s.

The link between the Revolution and the Civil War, and therefore between The Patriot and Glory was articulated by Abraham Lincoln. “The expression of [the principle that all men are created equal], in our Declaration of Independence, was most happy and fortunate. Without this, as well as with it, we could have declared our independence of Great Britain; but without it, we could not, I think, have secured our free government, and consequent prosperity. No oppressed people will fight, and endure, as our fathers did, without the promise of something better, than a mere change of masters.”

What Mr. Lee and others like him seem to ignore is that without the principles for which the Revolution was fought, there could be no basis for criticizing slavery, or any other action, no matter how monstrous. Only the creation of the American Republic on the basis of the principle of equality makes moral condemnation of slavery possible. Slavery, after all, was a manifestation of what the Greeks called ananke (necessity). The spirit of ananke is captured by Thudydides’ account of the Athenians at Melos before they sacked the city, killed all the men, and enslaved the women and children. “Questions of right arise only between equals. As for the rest, the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.”

Rejecting ananke, Marion and the other members of the Revolutionary generation fought to establish a Republic on the basis of dike, or justice. The Patriot, like Glory, while inaccurate in its historical details, distills the essence of the nobility, sacrifice, and suffering necessary to found and keep such a Republic.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.