It’s summer, 1776. Rebellion is in the air. Benjamin Martin, a hero of the French and Indian Wars, is a widower who has settled down to the life of a farmer in South Carolina. Something from his war experiences haunts him, and he has renounced violence.
When the Charleston Assembly votes to join the rebellion, a friend from Benjamin’s past, Col. Burwell, tries to recruit him to join the Continental Army. After all, Burwell says, everyone still remembers Benjamin’s exploits at Fort Wilderness during that war. But Benjamin wants nothing to do with the looming hostilities. "I have seven children," he says. "My wife is dead. Who’s to care for them if I go to war?" But his eldest son, Gabriel, has no such qualms; he defies his father’s will and joins the army. You know it’s only a matter of time before Benjamin, too, is drawn into the fighting—in this case, courtesy of the cruel British cavalry leader, Col. Tavington.
Positive Elements: The colonists often show true selflessness, joining to fight against near impossible odds in order to secure a better future for their families. Snitches and traitors are clearly shown to be despicable characters. Soldiers risk their lives to save wounded comrades. One of the Martin children offers to have himself executed to save the others. Benjamin is a loving father and a man of prayer. The film displays respect for Christian faith and includes a religious wedding ceremony. In a moment of introspection, Benjamin humanely asks, "Why do men feel they can justify death?" When Col. Tavington executes wounded rivals, he is called to account by Cornwallis who states, "You serve me and the manner in which you serve me reflects upon me" (a great illustration of Christians’ need to reflect the character of Christ while performing service in His name). The sin of pride ultimately undoes Cornwallis. Benjamin and Gabriel share a loving father/son relationship and a dedicated professional one. Benjamin shows honor to a black slave by having him represent himself in the enlistment process. A bigot is rescued by the slave-turned-soldier he belittled, and the two develop a friendship based on mutual respect. When Gabriel spends the night at the home of his sweetheart, he is sewn into bed by the girl’s mother—a Revolutionary method of preserving modesty and chastity. After witnessing his father���s brutal hatcheting of a Redcoat, one of Gibson’s younger sons is appalled at Benjamin’s vicious lack of self-control. Benjamin carries the scars years after violent heroics that earned him unwarranted celebrity. Benjamin puts himself at risk when he visits Cornwallis to plea for the lives of innocent women and children.
Spiritual Content: There is much Christian imagery throughout the movie, and the Rev. Oliver joins the militia saying, "I’m a shepherd, and someone needs to fend off the wolves." A church is burned down, and amid the smoke and rubble the camera focuses on the cross still standing high above the damage. Frequent quick prayers are said before battle.
Benjamin truly seems vexed by his past. "I have long feared that my sins will come to visit me and that the costs will be more than I can bear," he says at the beginning of the movie, as he’s seen packing away his instruments of war. Later in the movie, he says, "Not a day goes by that I don’t ask God’s forgiveness for what I’ve done." On a mystical note, two of the younger Martin children point to the North Star and comment that it is their dead mother. "She looks down and protects us forever," one says.
Sexual Content: Ambiguous at best. Gabriel openly courts Anne Howard with her father’s permission. When Anne’s father frets about the attention the handsome young Gabriel is showing his daughter, her mother makes a remark about how he was worse in his youth, implying that they’d had premarital sex. To the movie’s credit, Anne and Gabriel are married in an explicitly Christian ceremony. The widower Benjamin relies on his sister-in-law, Charlotte, to hide his family, but it is implied that they have sex, as she is seen later in the movie carrying a newborn.
Violent Content: A lot of killing done in battle, with explicit scenes of soldiers being mowed down by musket fire and men being bayoneted. A few stand out, however. [Warning: plot point revealed] After ambushing a British patrol that has just killed his son, Benjamin runs down the last soldier, who is trying to flee, and kills him with a metal tomahawk, hacking at the body repeatedly in his fury for revenge. He also kills a soldier by flinging the tomahawk into his forehead. A soldier has his head blown off by a cannon ball, and another his leg. A fair amount of gore with wounded having limbs amputated. Several scenes of both British and Americans killing soldiers who are trying to surrender. Civilians are rounded up and locked in a church, which is burned down with them inside. A member of the militia, after returning home to find his wife and son murdered, puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger.
Crude or Profane Language: Minor. Nearly a dozen uses of "h---" or "d--n."
Drug and Alcohol Content: British officers drink wine. A tavern scene shows men downing flasks of beer. Colonists smoke pipes.
Other Negative Elements: While many of the Americans clearly are motivated by patriotism, it is unclear what drives Benjamin, but revenge seems to be a key element. Benjamin utters a line that, though intended to show what a high priority his children are, clearly doesn’t jibe with a Christian view of parenting: "I’m a parent. I haven’t the luxury of principles." Also, it should be noted that our friends across the pond have expressed outrage over the historical inaccuracy of the film and their lopsided portrayal as 18th-Century butchers.
Summary: Think Braveheart meets George Washington, except the Mel Gibson character here seems genuinely conflicted and haunted by his past. He has an aptitude for fighting, and he is reluctant to join a war, but once the fighting affects his family, he turns into a killing machine. While many people know of his fame from a battle during the French and Indian War, they don’t know the specifics: We find out late in the film that his fame was won, not by an act of heroism, but one of particular savagery.
The movie is loosely based on real characters; Benjamin is modeled on Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox." But it is ambivalent on the subject of justified killing. Benjamin is consoled at one point by a man who says, "You did what you had to, and there was no wrong in it." Some of the British are gentlemen, others are cruel. Some Americans are gentlemen and patriots, some are cruel. If nothing else, this movie captures the evil of war and removes any sense of supposed glory from it (though the final battle features disturbing, bloody combat elevated by the victorious swell of a John Williams score). This movie definitely earns its R rating for frequently brutal violence. Indeed, war is never presented as the tidy affair sometimes shown in other movies.