Last night once again I watched the movie “The Patriot” starring Mel Gibson. It’s one of my favorites. I’m not a movie critic so I will not debate the historical accuracies or inaccuracies of the film. The character Gibson plays Benjamin Martin is loosely based upon the lives of some very real Americans like Francis Marion known as the Swamp Fox who fought a guerrilla war against the British in South Carolina and is regarded as one of the heroes of the American Revolution.
Say what you want about Mel Gibson the actor, he might have issues with alcohol and bigotry but the characters he plays in his movies are emotionally visceral, and stir the passions of most audiences. That’s something a good movie should do in my opinion. When I first watched this movie back in 2000, when it came out, it provoked an interest for me in a period of our country’s history I was not really familiar with, specifically the Revolutionary War and its battles in South Carolina.
The danger of course is that a movie’s portrayal of historical characters can and often does mislead the audience, into thinking they understand what really happened. Oliver Stone’s movie JFK comes to mind. I bet there were thousands of Americans after watching the movie, who were fully convinced once they left the theater that a conspiracy to kill Kennedy had existed and that Oswald had not acted alone. However, I would argue that a good movie like a good book opens doors to the minds of its audience stimulating interest in topics that would not otherwise never be explored. How many of you knew who William Wallace was before the movie Braveheart came out? Maybe you still don’t really know after watching the movie but I’m sure there was more than one person who actually took the time to look up who the real William Wallace was and through their own research actually learned something about him. That interest in the topic would not have been there but for the movie.
Similarly I came across a television mini-series years back on BBC television set during Britain’s war with France in the early 19th century. Subsequently I wanted to learn more about the source of the movies and its central character Richard Sharpe and discovered the gems written by Bernard Cornwell who is a master at writing historical fiction. Through this author’s work an entire period of world history came alive for me. I became interested in the Napoleonic period something that never would have happened had I not stumbled across the television mini-series.
History doesn’t have to be boring and should not be to those paying attention. Americans today need to understand their world history and their own history. As British author G.K. Chesteron once said “The disadvantage of men not knowing the past is that they do not know the present. History is a hill or high point of vantage, from which alone men see the town in which they live or the age in which they are living. We are already seeing the price of ignorance today as more and more Americans are embracing a carefully fabricated image of government looking out for the little guy. They forget that not that long ago Americans rejected the fiction that a single enlightened ruler and his ministers could somehow govern their lives better than they could themselves.
In today’s world where businesses are demanding schools provide them more graduates with science and technology skills, the danger becomes focusing only on these areas and skimping on history. While having more skilled scientists and technicians may provide for more competitiveness and more profitable economies, reading just the Cliff Notes of history makes for altogether a too malleable citizen. A population must be able to think for itself if it is to remain free. Americans need to understand the sacrifices made by men like Marion and others who pledged their lives, their fortunes and sacred honor in order to be free. This is something that should not be taken for granted or willingly surrendered for a false sense of security. Ignorance and apathy is being used against Americans today by those seeking to replace American exceptionalism and self-determination with a highly structured state controlled apparatus.
Schools provide one venue for education and news outlets another but there are dangers in getting information from only one or two sources. Americans need to read more preferably from the classics and original source documents. Many of these materials since the advent of the internet are only a click away.
Historical fiction can be a great gateway to getting started learning about past events and people and with that understanding ourselves.
“Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child. If no use is made of the labors of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge.” -Marcus T. Cicero c. 106-43 BC, Great Roman Orator, Politician