In 1776 eight of the thirteen American colonies have decided to take on the English to protest King George's taxation without representation policy. South Carolina plantation owner Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), a hero in the French and Indian war, is now a pacifist and wants nothing to do with war. A widower, he is raising seven children and believes his duty is to take care of them. However, Gabriel (Health Ledger), the oldest, is a fierce believer in the colonial cause. He joins the Continental Army over his father's objections.
It is not long before Martin's prediction that this war would be fought in his and his neighbor's fields comes true. Lord General Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson), Supreme Commander of the English forces, conquers Charleston and a contingent of his troops engages the Continentals within sight of Martin's porch. Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs), the Englishman in charge, is a brutal man, and when he kills Martin's teenage son and takes Gabriel away to be hanged, the guerilla warrior in Martin comes out. Arming his two remaining sons, he seeks revenge, conducting a ruthless attack on the English convoy in the woods. Unable to remain neutral anymore, Martin places his children in the hands of their Aunt Charlotte (Joely Richardson) and reports with Gabriel to his old friend Colonel Harry Burwell (Chris Cooper) with the Continentals. He tells Martin to raise the South Carolina militia and puts him in command. They turn out to be a crackerjack unit, undermining the entire English campaign in the area and playing a decisive part in the final grand battle.
Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) directs this American Revolution epic. Screenplay writer Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) manages to convey the rough-and-tumble of American life during the Revolution, covering the reluctance of some settlers to fight, the actions of those loyal to the British, the service of blacks earning their freedom via the militia, the participation of the French on the side of the rebels, the heavy loss of civilian life, and the madness of eighteenth century fighting methods. Once the battles start, however, there is very little talk about the issues behind the colonial cause.
Perhaps the most fascinating dimension of The Patriot is the struggle going on in Martin's soul. Under the influence of his beloved wife, he has tried to give up his warring ways. Indeed, he carries a tremendous burden of guilt for what he did during the French and Indian War. Not only does he not want to be that kind of person any more, he doesn't want his family to suffer for his past deeds. At one point he notes, "I have long feared that my sins would return to visit me and the cost is more than I can bear."
Western religions have a term for what Martin is dealing with (and indeed, there is a lot of Christian imagery throughout the film). He is suffering for his sins, and so is the next generation. Eastern religions would explain what is going on as karma. Martin created a huge karmic load by his participation in massacres and atrocities during the French and Indian War. He and his family must face its consequences. His choices during the American Revolution can alter that karma or yield to it as his destiny. In one of the film's most poignant episodes, Martin humiliates Cornwallis during a negotiation; the Englishman responds by unleashing the evil Colonel Tavington on a church filled with family members of the militia. The wheel of violence cause yields effect just keeps turning.
Lama Surya Das, an American Buddhist teacher, has observed: "We improve our karma whenever we restrain our unwholesome or bad habits; we improve our karma . . . every time we cherish or preserve life." In the end, Martin is unable to free himself from his violent nature. When all else fails, he picks up his hatchet and lets loose all the rage inside his soul.