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The Patriot

Last modified: 2015-07-28 by peter hans van den muijzenberg
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The Mel Gibson film "The Patriot" has a lot of flags, produced under the guidance of Whitney Smith to "assure absolute authenticity".

The Smithsonian Institution was the principal historical advisor on the film. Unfortunately the result is an adolescent and very historically offensive romp through an impressive array of authentic museum pieces, many of which are used very inappropriately.

As tempting as it is to trash this dreadful movie, I will confine myself to the flag content

The British in the film also carried very accurate regimental Colours (flags), but had no idea what to do with them. Most, if not all, British infantry in the film wore red coats with dark blue facings (collars, lapels and cuffs). The facings are supposed to match the Regimental Colour (the whole idea being ease of identification and a rallying point in the very thick smoke of battle), but the "blue" movie troops carried a variety of white, green and yellow flags sprinkled around liberally as colourful decoration. (This is, after all, what movie makers call "set decoration".) One flag fell ignominiously to the ground (a sign to the viewer that things are not going well for the British!) and was ignored by Brits and Americans alike. In reality, a cluster of British soldiers would have sacrificed their lives to keep it aloft and out of American hands, and the Americans would have fought just as hard to capture it. Capturing enemy Colours was the greatest battlefield prize and generated the most incredible heroics.

And then there is the solitary French soldier (inspired by Baron von Steuben) with a beautifully accurate French marine Colour (of a unit not seen in North America after 1763!) staked outside his tent. Horrors! These are not personal camp flags; they are the sacred symbol of a regiment. Another museum piece abused.

For an intelligent review of the film as art and social commentary (but without the historicity problems) see: 

And Rotten Tomatoes has an impressive display of good and bad reviews, adding up to a consensus that it is a rotten movie:
T.F. Mills, 6 July 2000

First - I would not have ever used the Smithsonian as the historical consultants for the film - not with the problems they have had of late properly dealing with history (e.g. the Enola Gay fiasco for one). The latest issue of their magazine has an article about the film "The Patriot" that even mentions how they could not agree among themselves if the "Betsy Ross" style flag was ever used by Continental regiments. The film's producers decided to go with the "Betsy Ross " flags as they were something that modern American audiences could relate to.

According to the definitive book on Rev War flags ( Edward Richardson's "Standards And Colors Of The American Revolution") such flags were not used (though variants of Stars and Stripes flags were though mostly by naval units). The proper Continental Army colors only showed up once in the film that I could see - those of a Rhode Island re-enactor units that was in the movie. There were no Rhode Island Continental units in South Carolina (some Virginia, but mainly Maryland and Delaware line).

Other than these, the rest of the American battle flags were patriotic colors - like the one with "Liberty" along the bottom of a blue flag that was probably inspired by the Ft. Moultrie flag. Others had the coiled rattlesnake and slogans about them. While these are period flags I don't know how many of such colors ever were used as battle flags for even militia units - and I highly doubt they saw service with Continental regiments (who by 1781 were supposed to have some flags that at least conformed to Von Steuben's 1779 regulations).

The re-enactor consultants seemed to have had a hard time with the film's producers as well as the Smithsonian consultants (I have read one report by one of the primary re-enactor consultants that ripped the Smithsonian pretty well over several inaccuracies they were trying to put in the film.). Some of them walked off the set in disgust it seems.

As such, though the battle scenes look great - there are lots of things wrong with them. The movie "Gettysburg" at least listened to their re-enactor consultants (other than for the Confederate flags - which were mostly later bunting issues that were not yet in existence at Gettysburg - thus incorrect). Tom Mills has well described the problems with the British colors and the lack of uniform facings to match them (I suspect this has more to do with budget than anything else - but may be wrong) and the lack of protecting a fallen flag.

Other military inaccuracies include exploding shells (only solid shot - a few were properly shown - and grape were used in battle); the British guns were at least 32 pounders (not suitable for field use - only forts and siege guns); the uniforms of Tavington's (nee Banastre Tarleton's) British Legion were red in the film - in actuality they were green (which was even mentioned in early film dialogue! The producers did this to make them look more "British".); and some of the battlefield tactics were incorrect (there is no way militia would EVER charge bayonet armed British regulars - they almost always ran the other way - unless the British had been routed and they had the proper support of Continental troops). The last big battle scene is a composite of The Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse (the Americans winning the former and barely losing the latter in reality) - but this just goes along with the composite nature of some of the film's characters (like Mel Gibson's being a composite of Andrew Pickens, Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion).

While we can quibble over other parts of the film for problems (do keep in mind that this is Hollywood - not a documentary), the parts Tom and I have covered show that there were some problems in places where there should not have been any (or relatively few). If a war film cannot get the combat scenes right (as in "Saving Private Ryan", "Gettysburg", "The Crossing", "Revolution", "Glory", etc.) then something is indeed wrong.

The Smithsonian has now formed a film consultancy firm for historically based movies. Based on their debut - I would hire loads of others before I worked with them.
Greg Biggs, 6 July 2000

I don't know about any Whitney Smith connection (and doubt whether most potential viewers would perceive any enhancement in prestige from a name they probably wouldn't recognize), but the Smithsonian Institution did provide vex and other historical advice for the film.

There's a cover article in the current edition of Smithsonian magazine that explains how the SI people told the producers about this flag's being unhistorical, but that the producers decided to use it anyway because of its recognizability and emotional content for American audiences.

William Wallace probably never wore a red-and-black Wallace tartan, either, but there's no denying the emotional (and political) impact Braveheart has had in Scotland.
Joe McMillan, 6 July 2000

The link from "The Patriot" website's set decoration page shows a Continental Color which we supplied to Set Decorating. This page allows one to infer that they made these flags but they did not.

We supplied this and 44 of the other flags and hardware used in the film. They sent us copies of sections of Whitney Smith's report which ran in excess of 80 pages. Based upon the sections of the report we were sent they disregarded most of his recommendations as well as the information he provided. They even attempted to second guess him

The person in charge of purchasing the flags was the Drapery Foreman. He requested all the American flags to be fabricated from cotton. The British and American Camp colors and some of the British flags were cotton. Some of the British and all of the French flags were a faux-silk polyester. A few of the flags were painted in Hollywood and others were locally acquired. The rest were digital.

We also pointed out the error of using the Betsy Ross flag and even sent sample alternatives but it quickly became clear that the set dressers and directors had already made up either minds.

They also disregarded the historically recommendations of other reputable uniform and equipment suppliers.
James J. Ferrigan III, 6 July 2000