- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2000

In 1995, Richard Bernstein wrote a piece for the New York Times titled, "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 sometimes called the poetic truth, a truth truer than the literal truth?"
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."
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.
"Glory," which recounts the exploits of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first black regiments in the Civil War, contains numerous historical inaccuracies. Some of them are minor, but many of the inaccuracies are major. The 54th, portrayed in the movie as made up largely of runaway slaves like John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman) or Private Trip (Denzel Washington) was in fact, a regiment of freed men recruited not only from Massachusetts, but New York and Pennsylvania as well. Two of Frederick Douglass' 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 implication of Herodotus' story is clear. There are natural masters and natural slaves.
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." Shaw replies, "A million and one," illustrating the fact that in 1863, even elite New England abolitionists had their doubts. By depicting the 54th as a regiment of former slaves, an historical inaccuracy, "Glory" reveals the deeper truth that blacks in general were not natural slaves.
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."
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. 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.
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.
"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, R.I. Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

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