July 3, 2015
Both the 2000 film The Patriot and the current AMC television show TURN are historical fictions based upon the Revolutionary War. The main characters of each began as pacifists, but were forced by events to enter the war. Colonists and farmers, these men simply wanted to till their lands, provide for family and live a quiet life. However, in both cases, the path of war interrupted their quiet lives. After all, how can one possibly live peacefully when war is being waged around them? Under the great idea of ‘War and Peace’, the Syntopicon states, “In the tradition of the great books, war and peace are usually discussed in political terms of the relation of men to one another, individually or in groups. But the psychologist, the moralist, and the theologian sometimes use the word ‘peace’ in another sense to signify an inner harmony – peace of mind on earth or the heavenly rest of the blessed in the presence of God.” In other words, war confronts both the external situation as well as the internal balance of man.
Man’s inner landscape is not always serene, and according to Hamilton, it was not meant to be. Hamilton states that if we “judge from the history of mankind, we shall be compelled to conclude that the fiery and destructive passions of war reign in the human breast with much more powerful sway than the mild and beneficent sentiments of peace; and that to model our political systems upon speculations of lasting tranquility, is to calculate on the weaker springs of human character.” Labelling peace as a weak notion does not fully square with today’s idealistic standards, but the point may be more reflective of the past. We can still hold idealistic goals for the future, while being faithful, honest and accepting of the past.
In a complex sense, war is, ironically, extremely idealistic. People often want great, sweeping, revolutionary and positive changes immediately during or after a conflict. The truth of change and the details of conflicts, however, are never short, neat and comforting. The individual details of war are heartbreaking, sinister and extremely ugly. A win for one side is a devastating loss to another. This type of story moves us as humans. We like to understand motivations, however complex they may be, and this is how historical fictions such as The Patriot and TURN gain popularity.
Historical fiction is a nice way to package the complexity of war itself. It offers individual perspectives while also furthering the larger view of an argument. It is more complex than that, however. The motivations of a person are separate from the motivations of a people. Hegel believes that since states are not ‘private persons’ they may pursue a goal that does not adhere to our perception of morally correct behavior. He states, “[W]hen politics is alleged to clash with morals…the doctrine propounded rests on superficial ideas about morality, the nature of the state, and the state’s relation to the moral point of view.” So, in a war like the Revolutionary War, Benjamin Martin of The Patriot (Mel Gibson) enters the war only after his son was killed, a final straw in a series of difficulties. This death convinced Martin of the moral injustice of the British soldiers. Likewise, in TURN, Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) becomes a spy slowly, over the course of many events in which he witnessed injustice on the side of the British. He is motivated by ill treatment of family and friends, by his inability to produce and sell a crop deemed illegal by the British and by friends now turned soldiers. Neither character rashly chose to enter the war. Instead, the characters are as complicated as the situations.
The celebration of independence offers us a chance to celebrate, but also to remember the complexities that brought us to this moment. And to remember the devoted men and women caught in the difficult ebb and flow of war. Both the film and the current television series offer a way to view an important piece of our history.
“The American Revolution was a beginning, not a consummation.” — Woodrow Wilson
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