Viewing Guide for THE PATRIOT starring Mel Gibson
Captain Wasserman US History
Name:______________________________Date_______________ Period_____
1. AFTER OR MIDWAY THROUGH THE FILM: The film opens with a shot of a tomahawk and Mel
Gibson’s character (Benjamin Martin) saying: “I have long feared that my sins would return to visit me,
and the cost is more than I can bear.” What sins is Gibson’s character referring to?
Martin is referring to his actions when he was fighting on the side of the British and the American colonists
during the French and Indian War; specifically to the massacre of the French soldiers at Fort Wilderness. In the
film, Martin relates that when he and his men reached Fort Wilderness they found that the French and their
Indian allies had butchered American settlers, and raped and tortured even women and children. In vengeful
fury, Martin and his men in turn tortured and butchered the French soldiers.
2. What is a post rider?
Someone who carried the mail in colonial times (the post was the mail).
3. Where is the children’s mother?
She is dead, and buried on the plantation.
4. What is the setting of the film (time and place)?
The film is set/begins in South Carolina in 1776.
5. Who are the Continentals?
The American “rebels” – the American army.
6. What is the modern name of Charles Towne?
Charleston
7. What is the mood of the people in Charles Towne at the beginning of the film?
The people shown are angry at the British – they are burning an effigy (dummy) of King George.
8. RESEARCH QUESTION: In your own words, describe the French and Indian War. When, where,
why, between whom, its beginning and how it ended. This question must be done for homework – you
can find this information online or in any of several history textbooks.
*The French and Indian War was fought between 1754 and 1763. (The first shots in the war were most likely
fired by a very young and almost totally inexperienced George Washington, who botched his diplomatic
mission to the French, asking them to withdraw beyond the Ohio River).
*The French and Indian War was fought between British soldiers and American colonists on one side, against
the French soldiers and traders and their Indian allies (the Huron, in particular) on the other.
*The main cause of the conflict was that British settlers (American colonists) were pushing westward into what
was considered Indian territory, territory that French traders relied on to stay pristine and unsettled, as this was
the source of animal pelts the Indians provided the French for trade.
*the French and Indian War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763 – the French gave Canada to England and
surrendered all its American land claims east of the Mississippi River, except for New Orleans, a major port. In
a secret treaty, the French had given New Orleans to Spain the year before. The British exchanged Cuba, which
they had captured during the war, for Florida (a deal with the Spanish).
Although they fought side by side during the French and Indian War, and despite their victory, this war
actually damaged relations between the British colonists (the American settlers) and their British
“protectors” – British soldiers and especially the British commanders, members of the British landed gentry,
often despised the Americans and referred to them as uncouth backwoodsmen, barbarians, and uneducated
bumpkins. The British provided their American allies with lousy weapons, and often ignored these seasoned
Indian fighters’ well-grounded advice. British military tactics were not well-suited to fighting a guerilla war
against an enemy who could literally fade into the woods, and Americans in turn came to despise the British
high command for ignoring the realities of warfare on the ground and displaying poor military judgment.
Many historians believe that the rift that developed during this war between the British and the Americans
laid the groundwork for the Revolutionary War and the American move towards full independence in 1776.
9. Why is the Declaration of Independence expected to be issued from Philadelphia – why not Washington,
D.C.?
Washington D.C. did not yet exist – Philadelphia was the new nation’s capital.
10. What does it mean that “eight of the thirteen colonies have levied money for the support of a Continental
army?” What does “levied” mean, and what is the significance of those numbers?
“Levied” means a vote to pay money out – in this case, 8 of the then 13 colonies’ colonial legislatures (lawmaking bodies) had voted to support independence by taxing their inhabitants and using those monies to pay the
soldiers in the Continental Army. Thus, a majority of the colonies supported a war for independence.
11. What does Colonel Harry Burwell mean when he says that “If you value independence you must vote
for war. It has come to that. There is no other way.”? Was there anything the colonists had done to try
and avoid this war?
This is really a research question – but the colonies had repeatedly petitioned King George and Britain’s
Parliament to repeal various taxes and to sit down and negotiate liveable and workable taxation terms. Most
notable was the colonies’ OLIVE BRANCH PETITION, which the King tossed away, unread.
12. What is the significance of Colonel Harry Burwell‘s statement: “This is not a war for the independence
of one or two colonies, but for the independence of one nation.”?
The question is now no longer one of an individual colony’s grievances against the British government, but of
creating a unified nation to stand against the greatest land and sea power then in the world.
13. Who is the “tyrant 3000 miles away”?
King George III
14. Mel Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin, says: “Why should I trade one tyrant 3000 miles away, for
3000 tyrants one mile away? An elected legislature can trample a man’s rights as easily as a king can.”
15. What does the above sentence mean – what two forms of government is Martin comparing? What is he
saying about both forms of government?
Martin is comparing monarchy and democracy or republican democracy to each other, and pointing out that
both forms of government can lend themselves to misuse – a corrupt legislature, or any elective body that is led
by dishonest or incompetent leaders, can become as autocratic and dictatorial as any divinely appointed ruler
(king, queen, emperor, czar).
Martin is also expressing a major concern of all of our Founding Fathers – an innate distrust of “the
people” en masse, a belief that most people are uneducated and unable to truly comprehend the delicate and
difficult issues of statecraft and nationhood. Our Founding Fathers truly feared “mob rule” – the
unfortunate tendency of large groups of people to make irrational decisions based on emotions, not facts.
Our Founding Fathers were afraid that large and ill-educated groups of people, too busy scratching out a
living to have the leisure or the intellectual capacity for rigorous logical training, would be too easily swayed
by gifted orators, and would vote with their too-easily inflamed emotions rather than their brains.
16. “But mark my words, this war will not be fought on the frontier, or on some distant battlefield, but
amongst us. Among our homes. Our children will learn of it with their own eyes. And the innocent
will die with the rest of us.”
17. What does that statement mean – how will this war with England be different from the French and
Indian War?
The French and Indian War was fought on the distant frontier, away from most colonial towns and villages.
The fighting was far away from where most colonists lived, and so it was easy to support that war because the
fighting did not affect many people, nor were most people’s property endangered. Martin was warning his
colleagues that fighting the British would bring this new war right to people’s backyards, and it would affect
everyone – even the children, who would hear and see the sights and sounds of battle up close and personal.
18. What do you think of Benjamin Martin’s declaration: “I will not fight. And because I will not fight, I
will not cast a vote that will send others to fight in my stead.” Is this a cowardly or an honorable
decision? Explain your thoughts.
Answers will vary – what is most important is that students be able to justify their assessment of Benjamin
Martin logically and to elaborate on why they have characterized this as an honorable OR a cowardly decision.
19. How old is Thomas?
15
20. When does his dad say he can enlist to fight?
In two more years, when Thomas is 17.
21. What is Thomas’ objection to this?
Thomas is afraid that the war will be over by then, and he’ll have lost his chance for glory.
22. What are dispatches?
Battlefield orders and messages to other commanders/information about troop movements and enemy strength
23. What is important about Gabriel being a “uniformed dispatch rider” carrying “a marked case”? Why
does Benjamin Martin insist to the British colonel that this means his son cannot, by the rules of war, be
hanged as a spy?
Wearing a uniform indicates that Gabriel was operating openly as an enemy combatant, declaring himself an
enemy of the British, and not a spy skulking about and trying to obtain information dishonorably.
24. What is the point of destroying Martin’s home, and seizing his livestock and servants?
The point is to actively discourage other colonists from aiding the American rebels by showing everyone that
even by giving simply first aid and food to the rebels, colonists can and will be stripped of all they own.
25. What does “aim small, miss small” mean?
Answers will vary – if you aim for the heart (a small target) and miss, you’ll still likely hit the chest/torso, and
thus disable the enemy.
26. What is the term for an American colonist who supported the British side in the Revolutionary War?
Loyalist or Tory
27. Why does Colonel Tavington distrust the colonial captain?
Tavington believes that a man who will betray his friends and neighbors will also betray his “new” friends –
that a man who has turned traitor against those he grew up with will eventually turn traitor to those he has now
sided with.
28. Why does Charlotte tell Benjamin, “You’ve done nothing for which you should be ashamed”?
Charlotte thinks that Benjamin is upset about losing control and running amok when he butchered the British
soldiers in his effort to free Gabriel – she is telling Benjamin that what he did was necessary to save Gabriel’s
life.
29. What does Benjamin mean when he replies, “I’ve done nothing. And for that, I am ashamed”?
Benjamin is not actually concerned about butchering the British soldiers who were holding his son, but ashamed
that he did not take a public stand against the British much earlier. He is ashamed that Thomas died thinking
his own father a coward, and concerned that by withholding his own military experience and expertise from the
American cause, he may have set back the fight for independence and even contributed to Thomas’s untimely
death.
30. Why does Benjamin say, “That Gates is a damn fool. He’s spent too many years in the British army.
Going muzzle to muzzle with Redcoats in open field – it’s madness. This battle was over before it
began”?
Gates, an American/rebel commander, is using outmoded and inappropriate tactics to fight a larger, more
powerful, better trained enemy force (the British). Gates should abandon European-style tactics and use the
guerrilla methods that are better suited to the terrain and his own unprofessional troops.
31. What does Lord/General Cornwallis mean when he says that fighting “these rustics” almost takes the
honor out of victory? Who are the “rustics”? Why does Cornwallis despise them?
Cornwallis is well aware that the Americans are poorly trained and unprofessional soldiers – just farmers who
are fighting for a cause they believe in, and no real match for the well-trained and well-equipped British army.
Cornwallis feels that a victory over these poorly trained and poorly led and poorly armed farmers is unsporting,
like shooting a sitting duck. But being a man of his time, Cornwallis also believes in the superiority of ancestry,
family, and good blood lines – the natural superiority of the aristocracy over the plebeians, the natural
superiority of the gentry over the common man. The rustics that Cornwallis despises are the American farmers
– the commoners whom he and many British aristocrats consider the great unwashed and illiterate louts that the
aristocrats were born to rule. In England and Europe at the time, a man’s ancestry and family background was
far more important than his individual talents and abilities.
32. Why is Benjamin Martin skeptical about the French promise to send troops and munitions to the
Continental Army?
Martin remembers that just a few years ago the French were the enemy he and his fellow Americans were
fighting and he finds it difficult to understand that French hatred of the British, their long-standing enemies,
would supercede French anger at their former foes, the American colonists.
33. What is Martin’s task as a colonel in the Continental militia? What is he supposed to do and why?
Martin’s task is to personally recruit men for the militia, and to keep Cornwallis and his forces busy fighting the
Americans in South Carolina, thus giving the rest of the American forces time to train and strategize and move
into favorable positions.
34. What will Lord Cornwallis receive as a reward, and from whom, for winning the war?
When England wins, the King will grant Cornwallis almost 100,000 acres of American (rebel) land in Ohio
35. What does Cornwallis mean when he tells Colonel Tavington, “This is how His Majesty rewards those
who fight for him as gentlemen”?
The King, like his courtiers, is a gentleman, obeying certain unwritten rules of conduct (don’t rape women of
good family, don’t shoot the injured, take other gentlemen’s parole or promise not to try to escape after being
captured, etc.). Cornwallis and his fellow officers, including Tavington, are all drawn from the aristocracy, and
have been trained in such “civilized” conduct for generations. Tavington is breaking these rules, and
Cornwallis is letting him know that such behavior, even though it results in a victory, will be frowned upon
back in England.
36. Explain what Lord Cornwallis means when he says, “His Majesty, like history, judges us not only by the
outcome of the war, but by the manner in which it was fought. . .We serve the Crown, and we must
conduct ourselves accordingly. Surrendering troops will be given quarter, and these brutal tactics must
stop.” Use specific details from the film in your answer and explain what the term “quarter” means.
For Cornwallis and the King, and the gentry/ aristocracy of England and Europe, victory is less important than
the civilized manner in which the victory should be achieved. Winning at any cost was definitely frowned upon
– in fact, not until the American Civil War, when Generals Sherman and Sheridan adopted the policy of “total
war” was the idea of making civilians actively suffer, on purpose, in a war, approved military tactics. Sherman
and Sheridan believed that using the tactic of total war (“leave them nothing but their eyes to weep from”)
would break the will of the South to continue fighting, and that by demoralizing the civilian population, the
citizens of the South would agitate for an end to the fighting, even if that meant that their side lost.
Cornwallis is appalled that Tavington (in the film, although not in real life) is killing enemy troops who have
surrendered, instead of capturing them and confining them (giving them quarter), and also furious that
Tavington is attacking noncombatants. These vicious tactics give the British a reputation for cowardice and
dishonor – anathema to the entrenched aristocracy, who prided themselves on living and behaving like
“gentlemen”.
37. Explain what Cornwallis means when he says, “These Colonials are our brethren. And when this
conflict is over, we will reestablish commerce with them.”
Cornwallis is well aware that the American colonies have been the economic backbone of Britain’s economy.
The concept of “mercantilism” was the belief that a colony is created only to supply the economic needs of the
mother country, and England heartily adhered to this policy. Cornwallis knows that one way or another, the
Americans and their abundant natural resources are vital to England’s continued economic health. He is telling
Tavington that trade WILL be resumed with the colonies when the war is over, and thus it is ESSENTIAL to
treat captured or defeated American “rebels” courteously and considerately, so that it will be easier to
reestablish economic ties after the war, without too much lingering hatred and bitterness.
38. What does the minister mean when he says “A shepherd must tend his flock. And at times, fight off the
wolves.”
The minister is defending his decision to leave his church and to fight with those of his parishioners who oppose
the British. He is comparing the British to ravening wolves, preying on his American sheep/congregants, and
taking his metaphorical role as a minister who shepherds his flock by guiding and advising them on religious
matters to a literal meaning – he is now the shepherd, who, like David in the Old Testament, will physically
fight off the wolves who are trying to destroy his flock.
39. How does Benjamin Martin prove to his French companion that the tavern was “the right place” to
recruit militia men?
When Benjamin deliberately calls out “God save King George” he is trying to provoke the very angry, antiBritish reaction he gets from the patrons. This proves to Martin and his French companion that the men in the
bar are indeed fiercely pro-American, and good candidates for the “rebel” militia.
40. What does Benjamin do with Thomas’ toy soldiers?
He melts them down into bullets.
41. Explain why Benjamin tells Gabriel, “They’re exactly the sort of men we need. They’ve fought this
kind of war before.” Include the following in your answer:
a. what particular war was he referring to?
The French and Indian War
b. what is the difference between the men Gabriel has recruited, and the men Benjamin has found?
Gabriel has recruited well-educated, well-spoken, soft-living “gentlemen” from the colonies’ towns and cities.
Ben has recruited tough, no holds barred fighters who may not know how to parse a Latin verb, but who are
used to living rough and fighting rougher.
c. what kind of war will these militia men be fighting, as opposed to the kind of war the “regulars” will
fight?
The American militia will be fighting a guerrilla war, a hit-and-run-away, live-to-fight-another-day kind of war,
as opposed to the more formal European style warfare that the “regular” Continental army will fight (lining up
directly against the British troops and marching in step to meet the enemy).
42. What does the Frenchman mean when he tells the southern militia man, “Your sense of freedom is as
pale as your skin”? What has provoked (caused) this exchange?
The Frenchman is simply reflecting what many British politicians felt – the great Samuel Johnson himself said,
“How is it that we hear the greatest cries for ‘liberty’ from those who drive Negroes?” – meaning that many
believed the American colonists wanted freedom only for white, middle-class, educated adult males – certainly
not for blacks, women, or Indians – all of which was, unfortunately, true.
What provoked this comment from the French officer was the white militia man’s sneering comment on
enlisting and arming black men, even slaves, to fight for the “rebel” cause. Many Southerners did fear that
giving blacks arms and military training would result in a slave revolt – and even George Washington himself,
like Abraham Lincoln many years later, at first strenuously resisted enlisting blacks into the American army.
43. What is the difference between the American militia and the British army?
The British army was a professional army – well-trained men for whom soldiering was their only profession.
The Americans were ordinary farmers and tradesmen, who looked forward to going back to their farms and
businesses when the war was over.
44. What does Cornwallis mean when he tells Colonel Tavington that Tavington himself “created this ghost
-- your brutality has swelled” the ranks of the American militia? Who is this “ghost”?
Cornwallis is pointing out that Tavington’s vicious tactics have driven even the “fence-sitters” (those
Americans who were not committed to the War for Independence) into allying themselves with the “rebels” –
simply as a form of self-defense against Tavington’s shoot first and ask questions later tactics. Since Tavington
seems to hold all Americans in contempt and suspicion, his actions have caused many colonists to join the cause
for independence for protection from his troops and his brutal orders. The “ghost” is, of course, Benjamin
Martin.
45. What are “bundling bags” and what purpose did they serve?
Bundling bags were a kind of sleeping bag that were actually sewn around a courting young man, so that he
could “safely” spend the night with his betrothed, without any sexual hanky-panky occurring. They sprang up
because originally there were few inns where travelers could safely or affordably stay on the American frontier.
They were never as common or as popular as this film portrays. In this case, they serve as dramatic or comedic
license.
46. What was Fort Wilderness, and what happened there? (look back at question 1) Who were the enemies
that Benjamin Martin and his men were fighting then?
Fort Wilderness is the name the filmmakers have given to the frontier fortress where Benjamin Martin and his
men caught up with the French soldiers who had butchered helpless women and children, during the French and
Indian War. This was where Martin and his men took a terrible revenge on the French forces.
47. Why doesn’t Benjamin Martin tell General Cornwallis his name?
Martin is well aware that if Cornwallis or any British officer learns who he is, his home and his family and
friends will be at risk of capture or death, in an effort to force him to surrender.
48. What reason does Benjamin Martin give Cornwallis for deliberately targeting British officers during
every battle?
Martin says that as long as British officers attack noncombatants (women, children, the elderly and other
civilians), he will continue to order his men to take them out by killing or wounding these officers.
49. What bargain does Cornwallis make with Tavington?
Enraged at what he perceives to be his humiliation at Martin’s hands, Cornwallis tells Tavington to use
whatever tactics he sees fit to destroy Martin. Tavington, knowing that if he follows Cornwallis’s orders he will
never be able to show his face in London society again, agrees to do so if Cornwallis will give Tavington part of
his future grant from the King – so that Tavington will be able to live like a wealthy man in America, without
having to return to England and face condemnation for his brutal actions back home.
50. According to the film, why did the Americans place the militia at the center of the line in the last battle?
The militia had a poor military reputation in fighting fixed, formal battles – they were good guerrilla fighters,
but usually broke and ran in more regular military actions. The British were well aware of this, as Martin knew.
Thus, Martin hoped to trick the British into attacking the American’s center line, by placing the militia there –
Martin hoped to draw the British into the center, where they would then be enveloped by the main American
forces. This was all an attempt to fool the British into thinking that the Americans were military idiots.
The Patriot
Extra Credit Research Questions
Do NOT write on this sheet – use your own paper. Restate the questions in your
answers.
As always with extra credit and research work, cite your sources! Answer all questions in your
own words, and use complete and correct sentences.
i.
EXTRA CREDIT RESEARCH QUESTION: The character of Colonel Tavington is based
on a real British officer. Who was this man and what happened to him? Did this officer ever burn a
colonial church crammed with civilians? What atrocities was he accused of committing?
ii.
EXTRA CREDIT RESEARCH QUESTION: Where did the custom of “bundling bags” come
from? How long were they used in this country? Was their use confined to one particular region?
iii.
EXTRA CREDIT RESEARCH QUESTION: What was the difference between Cornwallis’
surrender and Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the conclusion of the Civil War?
iv.
EXTRA CREDIT RESEARCH & ANALYSIS QUESTION: Analyze and compare the
American colonies’ actions in declaring independence from England with South Carolina’s actions in
1861. Address in what ways the two cases were alike, and in what ways different. How were the
causes that led to secession or independence similar? How were the results different? Form a
conclusion about whether or not you believe either the colonists or the South had the right to declare
independence from their mother countries. Support your conclusion with specific details and theories of
government (like the Contract v. the Compact Theory of government, John C. Calhoun’s views of
government, the 1832 Ordinance of Nullification, and anything else you feel will support your
conclusion.
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Viewing Guide for THE PATRIOT starring Mel Gibson